London Olympics 2012

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Packer's surprise gold paves the way for British women

ESPN staff
June 14, 2012
Ann Packer came with a run down the outside to take gold in the 800m © PA Photos
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Ann Packer's 800 metres win at the 1964 Olympics really is the stuff of legend. The British hopeful had been amongst the favourites to win the 400 metres title but was largely unfancied - and untried - at the longer distance. It wasn't merely the triumph, in only her eighth professional attempt at the event, nor even the stunning world-record time that impressed most. It was the stylish, graceful action of Packer as she ran down the leader and cruised to victory.

David Coleman, purring in the commentary box, simply seemed to utter 'fantastic' and 'magnificent' on several occasions to emphasise the manner of her success, spluttering out a list of superlatives as he watched with obvious admiration.

The other athletes were clearly toiling, physically exhausted while this elegant 22-year-old from Oxfordshire became the first British woman to win a gold medal in the Olympics. She looked as fresh as a daisy and barely had a hair out of place.

Once the 400m had seen her clock a European record time but only finish second behind Australian Betty Cuthbert, the hopes of a gold medal seemed lost. Having only competed in the 800m for the first time earlier that year, her performances at this level had been largely unspectacular and she was the slowest of the eight qualifiers for the final. Furthermore, her disappointment at losing out to Cuthbert had been palpable - how would she pick herself up for what was supposedly a much harder test?

Tokyo was about to witness something sensational and out of the blue. At the back of the field entering the final bend, Packer did not look like achieving legendary status in British women's athletics. Instead, moving up the gears, she accelerated through the tiring field. Leader Maryvonne Dupureur, the French favourite, was overhauled in the manner of a Rolls Royce overtaking a Renault 5.

"No pain at all, like running on air, running with wings."

"I had to take the long way round on the outside, didn't I?" she recalled. "Then, all of a sudden, oh I just can't really describe or even remember the feeling when, off the bend, I suddenly realised that everyone else seemed to be running backwards. It was such an incredible feeling of utter power.

"I'd never felt the same before or since - not a trace of churning lactic acid or any tiredness at all or any semblance of the headaches that would have hit me in similar stages of an all-out 400. In fact, no pain at all, like running on air, running with wings.

"There is a photograph showing the utter serenity of my smile as I crossed the line. Well, I had plenty to smile about, hadn't I? I was just enjoying and savouring the sublime moment, that's all."

So what was the secret behind the remarkable, unprecedented performance? It was simple. Packer's soon-to-be husband Robbie Brightwell had only finished fourth in his event, the men's 400m, and this increased her determination to strike gold. "I wasn't nervous," she insisted. "Because I was thinking about him, not myself." That she celebrated immediately with her fiance illustrated this personal ambition fuelling her run, powering her legs for the finishing kick of a seasoned sprinter.

Packer's victory was inspired by her fiance Robbie Brightwell missing out on a medal © Getty Images
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Not only that, but she was a versatile athlete. A 100-yard dasher, 80-metre hurdler and long-jumper in the past, her first major medal came in the 4 x 100 metre relay.

Mission accomplished, Parker retired - as did Brightwell - and concentrated on starting a family instead. Talk about going out at the top, the Japanese jamboree would be her final stage. "We said we would finish, win or lose," she would later reveal. Ann Packer bowed out a winner and nobody was prouder than her partner.

Speaking much later, Brightwell explained exactly what his wife's victory meant at the time. "She was a pioneer for women," he stressed. "There were young girls seeing Ann compete this event that was quite a hostile one for women and finish still looking graceful and feminine."

Watching the footage of the 800m final, this is the perfect description of the cool, calm and collected Briton. While her rivals toiled and ran out of gas, the champion strode to glory with such style and authority. Little wonder Coleman, and the rest of the country, were so excited and proud of this heroine.

What happened next?
The couple's sons Ian and David Brightwell both played football for Manchester City as Ann retired from sport to concentrate on raising her three sons. Gary was an accomplished runner, finishing second in the national 400m.

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