Sport remained a male-dominated culture in Britain for much of the century. In the 1960s, though, some signs of change appeared. Female athletics became more prominent. For the British, a number of outstanding female athletes appeared on the world stage. Amongst the first, and perhaps the finest, was a blonde-haired girl from Somerset, full of spirit and prodigious talent. That talent reached its peak on a wet, blustery October day in Tokyo in 1964. Mary Rand became the first British female athlete to win an Olympic gold medal.
Mary Rand (nee Bignal) fought off the challenge of the favourites from Eastern Europe and dominated the long jump event. In the fifth round, on a wet runway and facing a headwind, she broke the world record – leaping 6.76 metres (22’ 2 ¼ “) to take the gold. She radiated sparkle and zest. Journalist Peter Wilson wrote that, during that memorable day, the 24-year-old could sometimes be seen “lying on her back and just kicking up her legs at the grey skies with the abandon of a foal lying in summer pasture”.
She was multi-talented as an athlete. In the pentathlon, she won a silver medal finishing narrowly behind the USSR’s controversial Irena Press. Rand was then a key member of the British 4 x 100 metres relay team which won bronze. Three Olympic medals for Mary Rand and a rousing reception in her hometown of Wells.
Mary Rand helped to change the perception, of women athletics in Britain. In her birth-town of Wells, in the busy market place, paving stones are daily passed by local townsfolk and visitors to Somerset’s cathedral city. The stones commemorate and measure out the length of that gold-winning leap in Tokyo – a leap on a damp October afternoon in 1964 when Mary Rand jumped into the history books.