British Distance Runner Basil Heatley Passes Away: The Reluctant Marathoner Who Snatched Silver at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics

Basil-Heatley-Abebe-Bikila-Kokichi-Tsuburaya
Basil Heatley, Abebe Bikila, Kokichi-Tsuburaya

Basil Heatley, who streaked to silver in the marathon at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, passed away on Saturday, August 3, 2019. He was 85.

The gold medal in that marathon went to Abebe Bikila, who simply outclassed the field of 78 to become the first to win two straight Olympic championships in the marathon. At the halfway point, Heatley was 12th, laboring in the high humidity of the Tokyo air and with a cramp in his rib cage. He  thought his careful pace may have lost him the race, but he built up his speed and overtook his competition one by one, setting up a most dramatic Olympic marathon finish.

After Abebe finished in world record time in 2:12:12, the 70,000 spectators bubbled like water ready to boil over as Japanese Kokichi Tsuburaya entered the National Stadium. No Japanese had medaled in athletics and the crowd was anticipating a silver medal in this marquis event the day before the end of a very successful Olympics in Tokyo.

And yet, the unassuming Heatley entered the stadium and doused the flame, as I described in my book 1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan.

And yet, soon after Tsuburaya entered the stadium, so, too, did Heatley, only seconds behind. The Brit knew this was his chance. “Fifteen years of racing told me that, at that moment, an injection of pace was necessary, and possible, to overtake the runner in front of me,” he said. Just before the final curve of the stadium’s cinder track, Heatley turned on the jets and sprinted by his rival. For a battle that took over two hours and sixteen minutes, Tsuburaya lost his chance for silver by four seconds.

(Watch above video from 2 minute 12 second mark to see end of marathon.)

I never met Heatley face to face, nor talk with him, but I did have the honor to exchange emails with his wife Gill who transcribed Heatley’s answers for me. I learned that he was a reluctant marathoner, and the 1964 Olympics was only his sixth marathon ever. Heatley liked to run on the track, 1 milers to 6 milers, up to 10k, as well as 12k cross country races.

After winning the 1956 Midlands Marathon, his first ever marathon, he felt that marathons were not only punishing, they were cruel. “…when I looked round the dressing room and saw everyone in an awful state, I remember saying that if we were four-legged, the RSPCA (Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) would ban the Marathon.”

And yet, Heatley realized that he was not fast enough for the shorter distances if he wanted to compete at the Tokyo Olympics. He realized that he had the fortitude and discipline to excel at the marathon and focused his energy there. He told me that he would run to and from work, and compete in a race every Saturday, running some 100-120 miles per week, the equivalent of four to five marathons a week.

With qualification for the Tokyo Olympics on the line, Heatley entered the Polytechnic Marathon in June, 1964, and set the world record with a time of 2:13:55.

Despite his success, Heatley told me that he did not like the marathon. And yet, he felt his track experience was critical for his success in the 26-mile race.

I did not like the marathon.  Perhaps I was more than a little scared of it.  Especially after so many years of racing 1-6 miles.  I think that my regime of fast road running was in fact better marathon training than it was for 10km on the track for which I was doing it.  Looking back, I can see that Tsuburaya ran himself to a standstill.  Had the race ben 25 miles he would have been second.  Had it been 27 miles he maybe would not have finished, and for that I salute him.

Heatley was not one to boast or play to the crowd. He was famous for avoiding the press, and he told me that he got little satisfaction winning Olympic silver, and had no intent to run again in Mexico City as Tsuburaya famously promised.

Any feeling of elation was tempered by both my own tiredness and the knowledge that Bikila had beaten us all by over 4 minutes. On the medal stand I was confused.  How do you celebrate a second place if you are so far behind the winner? I never wanted to go to run a distance race in Mexico City.  Simply – altitude.

But he was proud to have represented Team GB in 1964, which he said was one of the best Olympic squads in his nation’s history.

“We had been a very successful team,” he said in the video interview below. “In 64, I still regard that we were the best British team to leave these shores.”

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