McDonald Bailey was certainly
among the most famous names in British sport when Britain last hosted the Olympics, in 1948. Yet today he has almost been forgotten. It’s not how it should have been. He should have been our Jesse
Look at a photo of the British Olympic team of 1948 and Bailey stands out as the only black face in a monochrome sea. He was, you see, from Trinidad. He could have run for them in the Games had
they decided earlier whether or not to send a team. But instead he took up the British offer, and became a crowd favourite and the face of British athletics at the time. This fame, however, had little to do with his race, but more because he
was among the fastest men on earth, jointly holding the 100m world record (of 10.2 seconds) with Owens himself.
Sadly, however, the London Olympics were not his finest hour. He finished a disappointing sixth in the 100 metres final, despite having been favourite the year before. After a difficult year with
injuries, he got laryngitis two days before the race. It capped a disappointing Olympic year for Britain, in which they won only three golds across the Games.
‘We were desperate for British medals. I was mortified when our great black hope McDonald Bailey did not win’, Malcolm Tappin, a schoolboy spectator in 1948, told author Janie Hampton,
for her book The Austerity Olympics.
But Bailey bounced back — and did make the Olympic podium four years later, taking the bronze in the 100 metres in Helsinki. He remains one of just six British men in Olympic history to win a
medal in that flagship event. The great sportswriter David Miller wrote that he regarded Bailey as ‘arguably Britain’s best sprinter’ — notwithstanding the Olympic victories
by Harold Abrahams, Alan Wells and Linford Christie — seeing him as ‘grace personified; supple as silk’. And you can still seem him run in Pathe newsreel footage on the web;
winning sprint trials and races to make the Olympic team, or demonstrating his speed for cinema audiences by racing a hare around the
greyhound track at White City.
After a row over allowing Lilywhites to use his name for marketing starting blocks, Bailey was suspended by the Amateur Athletics Association, and then embarrassed them by winning on appeal. Having
made a fuss, he was told he would never be awarded an MBE. And he never was. This oversight should be corrected by the British government in this Olympic year — and they should award MBEs to
the remaining living medallists from 1948 too. While suspended, he drew a record 15,000 in his sole Rugby League appearance for Leigh. He married a Cockney woman, Doris, and they had five children.
We sometimes regard Britain’s multi-ethnic diversity in sport — and its pride in the same — as a relatively recent phenomenon, perhaps starting when Viv Anderson first pulled on an
England football shirt in 1978. But there is a longer history too, going back through the public outcry that made the MCC relent and select Basil d’Oliveria for the South African tour in
1968; to the nearly all-white crowds that cheered Bailey on in 1948; and even to the 19th Century, when the press clamoured for Ranjitsinhji Vibhaji, that great Indian Maharajah, to be included in
England’s Ashes team for 1896. Olympic heroes have often been the British-born children of immigrants, from Daley Thompson and Kris Akabusi to Seb Coe, whose mother was Indian brought up in Delhi,
and Harold Abrahams, the 1924 hero immortalised in Chariots of Fire, whose father was a Jewish émigré from Russian Poland.
As for sport, so for society. The Olympic year of 1948 also saw the SS Empire Windrush dock in Tilbury, a moment that has come to symbolise the beginning of post-war immigration, which changed our
sense of who we are — up to a point.
The strange thing about post-war Britain was that we shared a history, but seemed to have forgotten it. So McDonald Bailey’s story has a good deal in common with the authentic fictional tale of
airman Gilbert Joseph in Andrea Levy’s Small Island, set
in the London of 1948. For Joseph, from Jamaica, England is ‘the mother country’, the land of Shakespeare and grammar, of Monarchy and history, the metropolitan centre of a global
network. He can reel off the name of England’s canals, but the England he encounters seems to know nothing of him, of Jamaica, of Empire or Commonwealth, leading him to call out sadly:
‘how come England did not know me?’
Britain has at different moments been both the most global and the most insular of nations — choosing in different eras which face we wish to present to the world, and to ourselves. The
anxiety of post-war Britain — could ‘they’ ever become ‘us’? — was rooted in a sense that the encounter with difference was new. Knowing our own history
might teach us that it wasn’t.
Which brings me back to McDonald Bailey. He may not have struck gold in London in 1948, but his British fans sang his name with pride neverthless. Let us, in 2012, celebrate this British sporting
great once again.
Sunder Katwala is director of British Future, which launches today.
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