16 Oct 2020
Mary Rand, one of Great Britain’s finest ever female athletes, grew up fascinated with Japan. Then aged 24, she travelled to Tokyo, embraced every aspect and returned home weeks later with a complete medal haul, comprising one gold, one silver and one bronze. It is no wonder the mere mention of the Games makes her smile.
The Olympic Games Tokyo 1964 represented everything the precociously talented Mary Rand had dreamed of: diversity, glamour and world-class sport. It helps that, inspired by such a dizzying combination, she produced a succession of era-defining performances, but that is not the reason she prizes these Games above all others.
“I’d always loved the Japanese culture, so it was great to go over there and experience a different way of life,” the now 80-year-old Rand enthused, the warmth in her words clear. “They were so organised, so good at what they did. It was amazing, they did such a fabulous job. They were just so gracious. It was a fantastic experience, whoever you talk to who went will probably say the same thing. I remember Rome [the 1960 Olympic Games], that was great, but Tokyo was something else.
Tokyo in 1964 was probably one of the best Olympics ever.Mary Rand
All this despite the fact that the weather was far more typically British than the tropical Tokyo Rand had expected.
“Oh my gosh, I remember waking up on the first day of the Olympics and there were huge hailstones, I mean huge,” the south-west of England native revealed with an amused shriek. “I remember going in the bus with a few of the athletes and it was like, ‘Oh my God’.
“But you do what you have to do. Back then it was cinder, not the synthetic tracks they have today, but it kind of settled down a bit. Although, I must admit the long jump run-up was pretty heavy.”
Such conditions might have been expected to start the demons whirring around Rand’s head. Always blissfully talented, the young star had been expected to shine in Rome at the previous Olympic Games. But as she candidly admits, “everything went wrong”.
After leaping to a British long jump record of 6.33m in qualifying – a mark that would have won her silver had she reproduced it in the final – Rand recorded two no jumps and a meek effort when it really mattered. Devastated, she then finished a frustrating fourth in the 80m hurdles before she and her teammates trailed disconsolately off the track a few days later, having dropped the baton in the women’s 4x100m relay.
“The press were thinking, ‘Oh, is she going to do the same thing she did as in Rome?’ but to be very honest with you, I never thought that,” Rand revealed. “I was just very focused on what I was doing. I was fit, but I didn’t think, ‘Oh I’m really fit I should do really well’. I was just one of those athletes that did what they did on the day. I didn’t really analyse myself a lot.”
This freewheeling, carefree approach was backed by hard work and a fine coach, John Le Masurier. Plus the woman feted by the British press for her good looks and sense of stardom had one more trick up her sleeve.
“I’d got married and had a baby since Rome,” Rand said. “As Ann Packer [her British teammate who won silver in the 400m and gold in the 800m] said, ‘Mary had matured’.”
It all resulted in an athlete clearly performing at the very peak of her powers. First up, the long jump. Rand broke the Olympic record in qualifying and this time she never looked back. Dominating the final from the start, she landed great jump after great jump before, on her fifth effort, she soared out to 6.76m, a world record.
“I only found out a few years ago my world record was against the wind,” Rand laughed. “I didn’t even know that. I think when you are in the moment you don’t really think about it, you are just concentrating on getting a good run-up and making sure you make use of the board and don’t waste anything. Everything just went right.”
As it did for British athletics. Inspired by Rand’s opening-day gold – the first ever track and field gold won by a British female athlete – the squad grabbed 12 medals in total. Five came from Rand’s room alone.
“If you talk to Ann [Packer] she will say, ‘Mary came back and she’d won a gold and it inspired everybody’. They all thought, ‘If Mary can do it, we can do it’,” said Rand, who shared with Packer plus a young Mary Peters, who would go on to win pentathlon gold at the Munich 1972 Games, and hurdler Pat Pryce.
It was a room full of talent and indeed laughter.
“I used to sing to them. If you talk to them, they will tell you, I used to sing all these silly songs,” Rand said with a big smile. “We all had a good laugh. I think it helped. I think it took the pressure off to do silly things, not to think too much about what was coming. We were a good foursome, we got along well. It was a great time and a great camaraderie.”
One gold and one world record in the bag, Rand turned her attention to the pentathlon. A gruelling event for most, but a relative stroll for the almost comically gifted Rand, who was at one time the British record holder in the 80m hurdles, the long jump and the pentathlon, as well as the owner of the unofficial women’s triple jump world record – an event only introduced to the Olympic Games at Atlanta in 1996.
Rand won three of the five events in the pentathlon, but eventually had to settle for silver after dropping 384 points to the USSR’s Irina Press in the shot put. The by-now ever-smiling superstar completed the Olympic medal set by snatching bronze in the 4x100m relay.
Tokyo 1964 made Rand a genuine superstar. Meetings with The Beatles followed, and The Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger even famously declared Rand to be his “dream date”. For the athlete herself, Tokyo lived up to every expectation and she cannot wait for the Games to land once more in the Japanese capital in July 2021.“At this stage in my life I don’t know whether I could handle the journey back,” she laughed. “But I’ll be watching all of it.”