On holiday last week I got a text from an old running friend, saying ‘A great man has died’. There could not have been a more appropriate way to describe the passing of Basil Heatley, on August 3.
Basil’s principal kudos in athletics terms were an Olympic silver medal in the marathon in Tokyo 1964, the world’s fastest ever marathon earlier that year; and in the four years prior to that three victories in the English national cross country championship and a win in the International Cross, precursor to the World Cross Country. Added to which, you could not have met a nicer, more down-to-earth character than Basil Heatley.
A member of the splendidly named Coventry Godiva Harriers, Basil spent all his life in the midlands of England. With his ancestors coming from a little further south-west, around Malvern and Hereford, it was as his wife Gill said this morning appropriate that he should have died, surrounded by his extended family in a room at the house of one of their daughters, looking out on the Malvern Hills.
Gill says that Basil had had ‘severe heart problems’ since 2011. He was fitted with a pacemaker and defibrillator, which had had to be replaced. He had also had a hip replacement, which had itself been replaced earlier this year; by which time his health had gone into serious decline.
‘He wasn’t really well since then, in and out of hospital,’ says Gill. ‘He also had fluid on the lung. Of course, as soon as he got out of hospital each time, he was up and about trying to do things. But he was having problems with his legs and mobility. He suddenly got it into his mind that he wanted to go back and see the Malverns and Hereford. We’ve got two daughters who live down there, and they’re both nurse-trained, so one of our sons-in-law came and picked us up, and took us. But he had a relapse, and had to go into hospital in Worcester’.
It soon became clear to Gill and the rest of the family that Basil wasn’t strong enough to go back home to Warwickshire; so the family mobilised, and a bed was set up at the home of one of his daughters and, according to Gill the whole extended family, children and grandchildren took it in turns to sit with him round the clock, until the end.
Following my last lengthy conversation with Basil three years ago, talking about his own devotion to another great man, Emil Zátopek, whose example prompted Basil’s international running career (he broke Zátopek’s world Ten Miles record, with 47min 47sec in 1961) here is an extract from the book that was published shortly afterwards.
(Basil) Heatley is described in most athletics reference books as a marathon runner, doubtless by dint of his Olympic silver in Tokyo 1964, and his marathon world record earlier in the year in the then celebrated Polytechnic Marathon, the original London marathon. But to us, Basil was a peerless cross country runner. We all ran in the Birmingham Cross Country League, then, I would venture the strongest competition in the world. What we admired about Basil was not only his self-effacing excellence – he won dozens of Division One races, in addition to national championship victories and the international title (prelude to the world championship) – but sometimes, in preparation for big races, he was happy to ‘jog’ around a league race in 10th or 12th place, ensuring team points. In short, Basil was a local hero, writ large.
Basil worked in local government and several years after retirement from elite racing, he got a job in Dudley and joined our local club. At a time when it was unusual to see anyone else running round the country lanes near my home, we were privileged to spot an Olympic hero gliding by.
He also gave back to the grass roots by serving for decades as an official and race marshal for the Midland Counties AAA. Although I left the midlands around that time, I did get to meet him properly and talk about his experiences – in the past, we wouldn’t have dared to approach such a celebrity – and the one thing he was adamant about was that he saw no merit whatsoever in an Olympic silver medal, awarded for finishing four minutes behind the winner, even if it was Abebe.
In mid-2015, after Colin Kirkham, an old sparring partner of mine, and a Coventry club-mate of Heatley’s heard my BBC radio programme on Zátopek, he got in touch to say I should talk to Basil, since he was a Zátopek devotee. When I had finished my latest round of research, I gave Heatley a call – he had since moved back to the east midlands – and he was just as accessible as he had been years before. But one thing had changed; he had finally come to terms with that Olympic defeat. “Truly, it took me over 40 years to turn it round. From being negative, thinking how on earth can I take acclaim when I’ve been whupped by four minutes? Then only in recent years have I stopped to think, well, all the rest of the world had the opportunity to close him down, and they couldn’t. Let’s just accept that he was an extraordinary distance runner”.
Heatley had finished no closer to Zátopek in his only encounter with one of the Olympic marathon champions prior to Abebe. That was in a cross country race in San Sebastian, in Spain’s Basque country in 1958. It was Zátopek’s last race. But, in common with Czech journalist Štĕpán Škorpil, who said he ‘met’ Zátopek in 1952 via the radio, Heatley said, “My first encounter with Emil? I’ve just gone to my bookshelf, and I’ve got a book entitled, Zátopek, The Marathon Victor, by František Kožík. That was bought for me in 1955, by a little man I met when I was in the army, stationed at Melton Mowbray, and in many ways I seemed to have known Emil Zátopek since then, because it was, for better or worse, my bible. Another book I’ve got on Zátopek is by Bob Phillips, written about 12 years ago, and it got me motivated again (he was 70 at the time). I got it when it first came out. I’d already had both Achilles’ tendons stripped years ago, and going out again just caused the problem to flare up again. So I put the book away, and haven’t looked at it again until now. The first book, I was reading it when I was 22, 23, 24, it gets you going…
“I first met up with him in San Sebastian in 1958, the end of January. A great bloke! He won the race, I was about 10th or 12th; and we ended up with exactly the same prize, because for first prize, they’d got a double-barrelled shotgun, and tried to give it to him, but he wouldn’t go anywhere near it. No, no, no, he said, I’ll have one of these, and reached down the line and picked up a wristwatch; and I chose exactly the same. But, wonderful bloke. His English was good. I remember, once upon a time, I might have heard it or read it, somebody described him as looking like an aged peasant; and I thought, yeah, that’ll do me. He was just an ordinary, relaxed character, who liked talking to people. I’ve got a story, I might have read it, I don’t know, but I’ve always believed that Zátopek told me this…… early in ’52, the Czech coaches went to him, remembering who Zátopek was and could virtually do as he liked. Anyway, they said, look Emil, you’ve been great, your training has stood you in good stead, but the world is catching you up, you’re not training fast enough. Oh yes, I am, he said, I’ve got to get fitter and stronger, strength will prevail in the end. No, you’ve got to do some faster work; otherwise they’ll stay with you and beat you on the run-in. No, he said, let me do it my way. He did it his way, and he went home with three gold medals…
“And I took that as my mantra. I’ve got to do 24 (six miles) or 25 laps (10,000m), to gain a little bit each lap, and then if I’m far enough away, it doesn’t matter how fast they run. In hindsight, because the Czech coaches were probably right, what I was doing, I was training very hard for 10k, but actually doing exactly what was right for a marathon. It came good at the end…. I used to do 20 times a quarter(-mile), around 60 (secs) with half laps in between; and I’d run two, three miles from my home up to Bedworth to do that, and I would have run home from work in Coventry before that. So it added up to a fair bit. Then I’d come home and look at Zatopek running through the snow in his boots…”
Basil’s funeral will be held on Monday, August 19, at 3pm, at St James’ Church, Bulkington, Bedworth CV12 9JB