Ann Packer stuns the world with her 800m triumph

In October 1964, Tokyo hosted their first Olympic Games. To celebrate, Tokyo 2020 will bring you some of the most incredible and historic moments that took place 56 years ago. In the latest part of the series, we take a look at the how the British athlete stormed to victory in world record time. 

5 min
(Picture by 2006 Getty Images)

The background

Ann Packer will always be remembered as a trailblazer in British athletics, whose achievements will be emulated by generations to come.

As the first British woman to win a track gold medal in the 800m at the Olympic Games, what she achieved in her relatively short athletics career will always remain one of the greatest achievements in sporting history.

Two years before Tokyo 1964, Packer made a name for herself when she reached the finals of the 200m at the European Championships and the 80m hurdles at the Commonwealth Games. A year later, she would turn her attention to the 400m, running a time of 53.6 seconds in only her fourth event in 1963.

She would officially be selected for the Tokyo 1964 Games in the 400m. But the British runner would also compete in the 800m, an event she barely had experience in - having run only five domestic races previously.

With no international pedigree at 800m, Packer - who only began running the distance to build her stamina while juggling a job as a PE teacher in Reading, England - stunned everybody at Tokyo 1964.

The moment

When Packer landed in Tokyo, she was the strong favourite to take the 400m crown, having run the fastest time the previous year. But Betty Cuthbert from Australia edged her out in the final seconds of the race.

Although she finished in a European record time of 52.20, earning a silver medal - her first medal at the Olympic Games - Packer was devastated and was ready to quit her next event - the 800m. However, her fiancé Robbie Brightwell - also in Tokyo 1964 to compete - convinced her to aim for the 800m, after he himself failed to medal in the 400m men’s race.

“We were both distraught after the 400m races but we had each other,” Packer said in the Olympic Channel video.

With both of their hopes pinned on the women's 800m as their last shot at Olympic glory, Packer was ready to take on the challenge. But in the first heat, she was the slowest qualifier, finishing fifth with a time of 2:12:6 – well behind Maryvonne Dupureur of France who was first.

In the semi-final heat, Packer ran 2:06:0 - two seconds slower than Dupureur. So when the British runner faced her French rival in the final, her chances at victory looked slim.

In the starting blocks, Packer not only lined up against Dupureur but other international athletes who had more experience than her at this distance.

And then the gun went off - with everyone finding their pace. Packer had a slow start. Halfway through, Dupureur had outrun everyone, with the cameras barely even showing Packer on screen as she was so far behind everyone else.

But suddenly the Brit found a way back into the race.

At the last bend, she switched gears and with in an incredible burst of speed, Packer surged ahead the French athlete, crossing the finish line in a world record time of 2:01.1, before running straight into the arms of her fiancé who was track side.

Meanwhile, Dupureur who ran faster than Packer in the first heats, came home in second place and was in a state of disbelief.

"I had no idea what to do tactically," Packer said. "I just knew I had a strong finish because I had come from the sprint distances."

Great Britain had won its first gold in the women's 800m race in world record time.


What happened next

When Packer left Tokyo, she never ran on the international stage again and faded back out of the spotlight. But she would always be the first British woman to make an indelible mark in the 800m at an Olympic Games – an achievement that was only matched 40 years later by Kelly Holmes in Athens 2004.

For Packer, her inexperience in the 800m proved to be her advantage.

“I knew nothing about the event but being so naive was probably to my advantage; it meant I did not have any limitations in my head regarding what I should or could do. Ignorance proved to be bliss,” Packer explained to the Guardian.

Ann PACKER (© 1964 / Comité International Olympique (CIO) / United Archives)

Packer's landmark victory is celebrated - not only because of her gold medal - but because she achieved it at a time when women in distance running was still not as accepted as they are today.

"Middle-distance running for women was still in its infancy and the 800m had only been run in Rome four years earlier for the first time,” she said.

As for her gold medal, Packer dedicated it to her fiancé Brightwell whom she wed after the Games.

“I wasn’t nervous because I was thinking about him during the race, not myself."

It was the first and only time that Packer made an appearance at an Olympics. After marrying Brightwell, she decided to raise her family of three kids and retired as an icon of British athletics.

GettyImages-50942166 (2004 Getty Images)

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