Joe McGhee was a true Falkirk sporting hero

Joe enters the stadium
Joe enters the stadium

Last week I attended an excellent awards ceremony organised by Falkirk Community Trust’s Active Schools team in the Town Hall.

It was a fantastic celebration of the achievements of hundreds of young people as well as their coaches, teachers, parents and volunteers from schools across the district.

Joe McGhee

Joe McGhee

The range of sports involved was amazing and the performance standards achieved by our young folk quite exceptional.

The theme for the night suited me as well since it focussed on the history of sport in Falkirk across the last 200 years from the foundation of Falkirk Curling Club in 1816 to the Falkirk Fury in 1992 with many other clubs between.

Famous individuals also came in for honourable mention with pride of place reserved for Joe McGhee whose heroics in the Empire Games Marathon on August 7, 1954, brought Falkirk’s first ever gold medal.

I was particularly pleased that Joe was featured because he lived round the corner from me in Windsor Road and was my English teacher for a while.

Joe was just 25 and an RAF national serviceman when he was chosen to run for Scotland in the punishing 26 mile plus race in Vancouver, Canada.

Although he was an experienced road racer he was not expected to do better than have a crack at the bronze medal. He was competing against two Englishmen, Stan Cox and the world record holder, Jim Peters, who were expected to finish in the top positions. On the day, however, mother nature took a hand. The temperature reached 82 degrees (28 c) as the 16 runners set off with Peters racing ahead at world record pace.

It was a big mistake as was his decision to run without a cap and decline regular offers of water. Meanwhile Joe was pacing himself according to the conditions and soon fell far behind the two Englishmen.

Cox was the first casualty at the 20 odd mile mark when he staggered off the road and hit a telegraph pole. Peters reached the stadium a full 17 minutes ahead of Joe who was over three miles behind.

The gold seemed a formality but there was still the matter of a full circuit of the track and in the blazing sun Peters began to falter. He staggered about the track and fell.

The officials left him to struggle to his feet because helping him would have meant disqualification. He ran on like a drunken man and fell once more. The 37,000 crowd was hushed as it watched him rise again before finally falling unconscious to the ground. He came round three hours later and was in hospital for four days.

The crowd waited in silence for the arrival of Falkirk’s Joe McGhee who had used his brain as well as his athletic skill to run the perfect race in the sweltering conditions. The crowd cheered him all the way to the tape and again as he stood on the podium to receive his well-earned gold.

He was the youngest ever winner of the Empire/ Commonwealth Games Marathon and as far as I know, still is. Although his achievement was somewhat over-shadowed by the newspaper coverage of Peter’s heroic efforts, in Scotland and especially Falkirk there was no doubt who the real hero was.

Joe passed away two years ago after a highly successful career in education but we can be sure that he would have been happy that his achievement was remembered by today’s sportsmen and delighted that so many young people in his home town are taking part in the sporting activities he did so much to promote.