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Graham Harcourt
an gymnast’s tale

Sport has always been so important to my family. My father was a fanatic about sport and encouraged me and my elder brother to take part whenever we could. Both of us did some athletics - my brother more than I - but I became reasonably good at rugby and played for a few years and thoroughly enjoyed the sport. In the middle of that period, I joined the Swansea YMCA Gymnastic Club and that really took over my life. My father on one occasion said, “You can’t really do two sports at a high level. They don’t mix, so think about it and make up your mind about whether you want to do rugby or gymnastics”, which I did. I thought about it and decided on gymnastics. There are occasions when I regretted that but I did enjoy a lot of the time in gymnastics. Yes, I had a lot of injuries but that was okay, par for the course.

early successes

It was quite early on in my career, really, minor Welsh Championships which I’d entered and had a modicum of success, and the, during the first year and then I think later on, I won the Junior Welsh Championships. In those days - maybe the same today - junior gymnasts didn’t work on the horizontal bar or pommel horse or rings, in fact, so it was limited to three apparatus disciplines for the youngsters, and I won that two years. It was an under 16 competition and I was 14 when I entered the first time. I won these competitions by a small margin, I suppose, and then I competed in a senior or open competition and my contemporaries, my juniors were in the same competition and I beat them all by a mile, so I thought, “I’m in the big time now. I’m competing against men now and not boys”, so during that period I began to realise that I could perhaps make something of the world of gymnastics.

a long learning curve

There were two coaches in Swansea. Walter Walsh was the gymnastics coach for the YMCA club and Arthur Whitford had a club in the Swansea Boys Club. Arthur, an old family friend, had been Olympic coach in 1948 and was reappointed for 1952. His career in gymnastics was enormous. He still holds the record, Guinness book and all that, ten years British Champion which is a remarkable score really, so we were lucky to have him in Swansea. I joined initially the YMCA club under Walter Walsh but then, as progress was made, I also joined Swansea Boys Club so I had the benefit of Arthur Whitford’s training as well. But it did mean that I was training five nights a week and I had some apparatus at home, so I trained on a Saturday and Sunday at home, too. The training was hard. We had the benefit of Arthur because he was National coach and he had done it all before, so we weren’t short for that time with competent coaches. We didn’t realise really that, compared to the continentals, we did not have good coaches. They didn’t know half the movements and tricks which the continentals were doing on the apparatus, so it was a long learning curve starting around the ’52 mark, I suppose, when we started to show that there could be gymnasts in Britain.

a professional athlete?

No, that didn’t enter my mind at all. I was doing gymnastics for the love of it. It was hard work but I did enjoy most of it. I was hoping to make some sort of name for myself, I suppose - maybe a Welsh International - but as time went on my standard grew along with many other people, of course, and when I was 17, I competed in the British National Championships and came fourth. I think I could have done better but the competition started on a Sunday morning and finished at midnight on the same day. I was 17. I thought I was a man but I had the strength of a boy, really, and by the end of the day, I was so tired I could hardly jump to reach the apparatus. I was very pleased about the result but there were some gymnasts in this country who had not entered or not competed at those British Championships, so I was not lulled into any sense that I could make the Games at that point. But it was the first trial for the ’52 Olympic Games, so it was good experience.

There were certainly a lot of sacrifices. I didn’t look on them as being sacrifices in those days. I was so enthusiastic about gymnastics and the more I could train the happier I was. I enjoyed training. I didn’t like training on my own. I had to do it sometimes but as much time as I could with coaches, much better as far as I was concerned because I had someone there to point out where I was going wrong, of course. Such a technical sport, I think you need someone to point these things out to you. You may be doing the tricks but not as well as you should.

welsh role models

A very good friend of mine - he was my barber, in fact - Percy May, he’s long since passed away. I knew him and I knew, of course, that he had been chosen for the ’48 Olympic team. So, I went to London and saw part of the gymnastic programme and that’s where I thought, “I’d like to have a go at that”, and it was after the ’48 Games that I started training at the YMCA.

But you’re really not correct in assuming that there were not many role models in Wales. We had an enormous number of gymnasts between Swansea and Cardiff. There must have been seven or eight gymnasts in the mens ’48 Olympic team out of the 12 that they had in those days. We’ve held British Gymnastic Championships since about 1924, I think. Stanley Lee of Swansea won it in those days. He turned professional later on and made a very good name for himself and then Arthur Whitford came along. He competed in the ’28 Olympics, not after that until he coached the ’48 Olympic team.

We did at ’48 time have the benefit of a German. His name was Helmut Banks and he was a prisoner of war in this country, found out where the gymnastics championships were held and went along and amazed everyone by his ability although he hadn’t touched the apparatus for four or five years. He was extraordinary, far better than any of our British gymnasts at that time. He went on to compete in ’52, and in 1956 he won a gold medal, so for a couple of years on and off, we had the benefit of his advice and coaching as well, which was absolutely superb, a brilliant man, a lovely man. He passed away about 18 months ago.

I don’t think we’ve ever celebrated the gymnastic achievements in Wales as we could. One of the Olympic competitors from Cardiff, Ken Buffin - he passed away at a very early age, unfortunately - but he was in the ’48, ’52 and ’56 Olympics, I think, and he became British Champion around about the late ’50s, I suppose. He was a delightful character, really was a lovely chap and it was very sad when he passed away but he and his main competitor when they were competing was Percy May from Swansea. They had many tussles which was tremendous for competition but there were so many others it could go on all day: Frank Edmonds was in the ’48 Olympic team. He became a member of the Federation International Gymnastique, so he was well renowned for his knowledge of gymnastics. Two other locals at that particular time, Ivor Vice who has passed away and a very good friend of mine, Glynn Hopkins. We meet up quite regularly. They were both in the ’48 team. Since then, of course, we’ve had Bobby Williams who was a great gymnast, a great character, sadly killed in a motor accident. Since then we’ve had Andrew Morris and Carl Beynon, both in the Olympics. I think Andrew has been in two or three Olympics but all very nice people who don’t get the prestige and the perks of being top in their sport.

eat what you can

What’s a diet? In fact, we have to remember that this was not long after the war. I think things were rationed for some years after the war so it was a case of eat what you can! I suppose diets were mentioned and talked about but certainly not in my world. I never even thought of a diet, probably would have been told not to eat so much chocolate which is a failing, but really, no, not a prescribed diet, we didn’t see a dietician or anything of that sort. In fact, we saw no one but our coach. That was the only trainer we had. We had the advice from them but no, diets didn’t enter into our world at all.

Talking to continentals - we had experience with Russians and some Japanese and other people - and they talked about it, what we eat and what we shouldn’t eat and that was the first time that any of us had thought about dieting, in my experience. It may have been that people from England had regimes of diet but it wasn’t anything that I was aware of, which is a great pity because when I went into the Air Force I put on so much weight that doing gymnastics was extremely difficult.


In gymnastics, you have to be fearless, I suppose. Not everyone is, but I was one of the lucky ones. I wasn’t afraid of hurting myself, probably just because I’m stupid, but it was not something that held me back as I know it did with other gymnasts afraid of doing things. In fact, I think they used to call me, I can’t remember the word, I was the guinea pig for trying new moves on the apparatus. We hadn’t seen anything because we didn’t compete with the continentals, really, so we were second, third hand when we heard about new moves and our coach would say, “Come on, Graham, try this. I’ll tell you what to do and you try it!” So, as a result, he couldn’t tell me the right way to do it and I fell off. I had a couple of nasty accidents. I broke a collar bone, on one occasion. I was off for a few weeks, I suppose, and when I came back I’d lost so much training time and I was trying to warm up and keep fit and the boys were saying, “Come on, it’s your turn on the high bar”, so I quickly wiped chalk onto my hands, jumped up and just a couple of circles so threw up the hands on the high bar and once round, and because I hadn’t put enough chalk on my hands they slipped off and I went up in the sky and hit the ceiling with my feet which stopped my rotation so I fell more than 20 feet, missed the mats that were underneath the high bar and landed on the wooden floor, broke my wrist but my back injury was quite serious. I didn’t know it at the time and it wasn’t treated seriously when I went to the hospital. They said, “Can you touch your toes?” “I’m a gymnast. I can touch my toes. I can put my elbows on the floor”, so I could do that and they said, “If you can do that, then there’s nothing much wrong with you!” But there was and it’s plagued me all my life really, that particular injury.

A lot of injuries! One which might be interesting: I was asked to do a programme on television in 1952 which was called Olympic Athletes In Training. Now we hadn’t been selected for the team at that time, but we had to go to London and did two days of rehearsal and then a live performance and it was all on the high bar. Now, I’ve always had sissy’s hands, you know, they burn easily. So, after two days of working on the horizontal bar, at the end before the show went out live, I realised that I had a blood blister on the palm of my hand about the size of a ten pence piece or a twenty pence piece and I showed the commentator this, Max Robinson who was a great compere and sports enthusiast in those days and he almost fell on the floor. He said, “Well, what are we going to do? The programme will have to be cancelled.” I said, “No, it’s alright, it’s okay.” During the course of the programme which we rehearsed, he said “What’s the stuff you put on your hands? Will you show the people at home?” So that went alright but when the show actually came to go out I’d been on the high bar, the blood blister had burst and there was blood dripping off my fingers and running up my arms. So, when Max said, “Show the viewers your hands”, it was a gory mess, I suppose, and the telephone was hot with people ringing up and saying how disgraceful it was that a youngster like that should be put through all that torment! There was an upside to that because when we went to Buckingham Palace in June / July time, the Queen invited all British athletes competing at the Games to go and have cocktails with them and I was speaking to the Duke of Edinburgh after the formal meeting and greeting and he said, “I know you. I’ve seen you on television”. I’m quite sure he didn’t remember me as a person but he remembered the hands.

helsinki ‘52

My greatest success was the Olympics. I had minor successes through Welsh competition. I didn’t enter a British competition until ’52 when I came fourth in the British Championships. That was a tremendous surprise to me. I wasn’t aware of all the major gymnasts in the country, but to come fourth in that was extremely good. Then, we had a series of trials held in different clubs in London and that was interesting and exciting and then, they eventually announced the team and I was selected. Then, it was training every weekend after that. The Olympics were the highlight of it all, of course. It was an amazing experience. The British team were certainly not successful but I think we had more appreciation from the continentals because our standard had risen since the previous four years ago, the ’48 Olympics, so that was encouraging too, and we did have some very good gymnasts: Jack Whitford from Swansea was British Champion four times and he was a great gymnast. He was Arthur Whitford’s brother, in fact.

The experience of marching around at the Opening Ceremony is always one which will be at the top of my memory list. When people talk about the Olympics, they don’t seem to think so much of the Opening Ceremony, not in those days. Today, it’s totally different. In Helsinki, we marched around and there were a couple of displays and that was that but it was still the highlight so far in my life, just marching on into the stadium.

In 1952, at the time of the Olympics, I was the youngest gymnast ever to be selected for the Olympics. At the time of the selection I was 17, but in order to compete at the Olympics in those days and in gymnastics you had to be 18. Fortunately, I was 18 before we competed in the July. I don’t know if that was a record. I think it was. In fact, I’m sure it was and I don’t know even today if it’s been broken.

After that, I didn’t do a lot, and then I did my National Service and by the time I came out I was starting to be under a lot of discomfort with arthritis which started in my spine and has gone to practically every part of my body now. I did compete in 1956, the British Championships, but I hadn’t been training for the biggest part of two years, so I was not successful there. Unfortunately, I didn’t go to the ’56 Olympics.

It is a much bigger event altogether, now, I suppose since the time that it started to become professional. That made a huge difference to everyone who was a competitor or a would be Olympian. It was after my time so it didn’t affect me at all but I feel that the lads and girls of today are so fortunate that they don’t have to work for a living and can still train as hard as they like at their chosen sport. I wish it had been like that in my day. It would have been great, but times move on and I’m glad of it. I think that it’s improved the quality of all Olympic sports, the fact that people have more time and don’t have to worry about making a living. It’s a huge weight off their minds, I’m sure.

It was a big transition but I don’t think there’s anything which is untoward as far as the amateurs were concerned. They embraced the chance of doing it professionally, getting paid for it or sponsorship whatever it is that they have, But as long as they didn’t have to work nine to five and then train in the evenings as we had to prior to ’52.

reflected glory

I was born in Swansea. I’ve lived pretty much all of my life in Swansea and I’m very proud of living in Swansea but probably especially Welsh. That’s very important to me. It shows itself, I suppose, when the rugby internationals are on, because I sit on front of the television with my scarf and my cap and a rattle, a complete idiot when it comes to rugby supporting. I love it. I’m proud to be Welsh and I get reflected glory from people who are competing in any sport, today. I feel it’s rubbing off a little bit on me, so I boast to my Scottish and English friends how good Welsh is, Wales and everyone in it.

I’m sure it has a very big effect on the nation, how we feel when a Welsh team in any sport at all or a Welsh individual if they have success in their sport. I’m sure that it lifts the whole nation. Thinking about people like Lynn Davies, Colin Jackson … when they have had success then the nation is lifted.

a wonderful catch

There have been some funny experiences, there have been some wonderful experiences. I don’t know, perhaps falling from 25 feet and hitting the wooden floor was maybe funny for someone else if they were watching. I don’t know.

Another experience I had which was rather funny, the Opening Ceremony of the Games and we didn’t know it but Paavo Nurmi, a great Finnish runner, was going to bring the torch into the arena and we were told as we marched in and formed up in lines in front of the main stand, “When the torch is carried in, please retain the positions that you are in now. Don’t go rushing into the trackside”. So, as soon as Paavo Nurmi came in recognised immediately by the Finnish spectators, there was a rush. All the athletes who were in the middle of the pitch just disappeared to the inside edge of the track and I went, “Oh, no one is taking any notice of the message we’ve had”, so I ran after them. But I was at the back and I couldn’t see a thing and I said, “Make way for a little one”, and a hand came over from the front, caught me by the scruff of the neck and lifted me over the top to stand on the line and that was our shot-put champion Jack Savage, and so I had a bird’s eye view and just as I landed on the floor Paavo Nurmi ran past, so that was a great experience, really enjoyable!

I thought in those days that I was a wonderful catch for some girl and it turned out to be correct, actually. In November 1952, I was doing a display in St Andrews Church Hall in Swansea and a young lady caught my eye. After the display, my colleague, my friend and myself changed back into civilian clothes and we were going down a winding staircase on the way out and this young lady was coming up the stairs and she said to my colleague who was in front, “You done extremely well, Colin. Thank you very much for the display”, and then she walked passed him and said, “You were good too, Graham!” I was the star of the show, you know, so it was a good put down, but we met this young lady and her friend in a cafe half an hour or so later on and five or six years later she became my wife and we’ve been married 50 odd years since then, very happily married. So, that was a happy story which was connected with sport, I suppose.

interview conducted by Phil Cope, Monday 13 December 2010

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