Interview with John Martin-Dye
|The founding father of the modern Olympic movement Pierre De Coubertin had a simple philosophy: "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part, just as the most important thing is life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered, but to have fought well." De Coubertin's words are not eared towards the top athletes or coaches, but the sportsmen and sportswomen around the globe who dream of one day making it to the biggest sporting event in the world, the Olympic Games.
Like everything else in life, the harder you have to work for something, the more you appreciate it. Sport is no different, "I always wanted to be at the Olympics, I wanted to be a champion," and, true to his words, John Martin-Dye was.
Six national championships, a European Silver medal and two Olympic Games appearances were the highlight of a sparkling swimming career, but looking back, Martin-Dye, 64, has no doubt as to what drove him to such heights. "Analysing it, I always felt that because perhaps I was a weaker boy, I tried to find a sport that I was good at, and then thought,, 'right, I'm going to show everybody'. I wasn't a runner, or great at football, but I could swim."
"It's an inferiority complex but it's good and that's what makes sport. You see it all the time. You fight at it and you do it, and that's the great thing about sport." he added. That mentality certainly paid off. By 1960, he had booked his place in the Great British Olympic team for the Rome Games. Again though, it was this inferiority complex which spurred him on.
"At the Commonwealth Games in trials in 1958 I came last and was really disappointed. But, that defeat was really a victory in disguise because it spurred me on and there's no doubt that helped me to become a much better swimmer."
However, Martin-Dye - who started swimming at the age of eight at a club in Shepherd's Bush - knew that to compete with the best, he had to totally change the way he looked at the sport. "Back then, it was all about pure ability, but I think I was one of the first to come along and think that if I trained harder than anyone else, then I could have more success." This of course, is common practise nowadays but, back the, it was a radical departure.
I started training with weights and swimming every morning and really putting the work in . Although it was not technically advised, the work paid off."
Going into the Rome Olympic trials, Martin-Dye was generally recognised as one-of-the-top British swimmers, certainly in his specialist event, the 400m freestyle, but, again, on the big stage, perhaps with memories of two years ago echoing around his head, he floundered. "As the trials grew nearer, I really started working so hard and increased my training levels. When it came to competition, I was just spent thought. That's the one big disappointment in my career; I felt I should have done well, and could have done well in the Games themselves."
Martin-Dye was selected for the 4x200m relay though, and, with the pressure off, he got faster and faster and proved a crucial member of a British team which reached the Final.
The Final itself was one of those great Olympic occasions, and one of Martin-Dye's most cherished moments. "It was a great day for the tea,. I will always remember, the pool was this kind of brilliant blue, and the lights danced on the surface. The stadium was absolutely packed out and the atmosphere was electric." "It's strange, but if you stand at the edge of a 50 metre pool indoors, it's suddenly this huge daunting object, and I remember just looking down lengthways, thinking about how daunting it looked. It's one of those memories that always stays with you."
The British team actually surpassed all expectations to finish fourth, breaking the European record in the process. His performances encouraged selectors to pick him for the European Championships individual 400m after Ian Black dropped out. This proved the catalyst for his most successful year ever. "The sport is very different now. Harder, but different," Martin-Dye reflected.
It took me a little by surprise to discover that in the 1960's, swimming was one of the most popular sports and, crucially, one of the most successfully televised sports. "There was the national championships in Blackpool every year and that was a very big deal," explained Martin-Dye. "There were no qualifying times and restrictions, so there were hordes of swimmers, and of course it was a holiday destination so it was a great trip. But the big thing was that the finals were on Friday and Saturday nights prime-time, on television, live on a Saturday. But they'd talk about swimming and the sport. "Now they tape a race and see it later. When do you ever see it on TV or read about it in the newspapers?" he added.
It was at the |National Championships in 1961 that Martin-Dye really made a name for himself. After winning the 400m on the Tuesday, and the 200m in a televised final on the Friday, Martin-Dye completed a remarkable treble by taking the 400m 24 hours later - a an achievement which remains unmatched to this day. "It had never been done before so there was a fantastic build-up. On the day though I felt relaxed and controlled, even though it was on the television." He added a silver in the 4x200 relay at the European Championships in Leipzig the following year but this though, proved to be the high point of his career.
Later that year, at the Commonwealth Games in Perth, Australia, despite high hopes, it "just didn't happen." One of the reasons, was perhaps the remarkable training conditions top British sportsmen had to endure. "I think we were backward when it came to training in doing it nationally. The likes of Holland have always done it properly. Where we've fallen down is facilities. The government just haven't ever done enough to build the facilities. "Training was a nightmare. One of the problems I found was that you had to train in public baths. Most of the competitions were in the summer when the baths were busy as well and you didn't have goggles to swim under water.
"You had to weave in and out the other swimmers and couldn't time yourself. It was a nonsense, but, if you say to yourself 'there's too many in, I'm not going to do it' you get nowhere. But today, it's far more organised."
"So, when you go abroad to the likes of Perth and see this big beautiful pool it's an incentive to train and we just pushed ourselves too hard and it takes the edge off." Nevertheless, Martin-Dye was still good enough to secure selection for the 1964 Games in Tokyo. "I didn't do well but I wasn't really expected to."
"The Olympic Village in Tokyo was an old army barracks. Everything was laid on and you were really treated well though, very much in the same way as today."
However, on his way back from the far East, the team were treated to a surprise visit: "The Tokyo team did especially well, so when we got back we were whisked off to a hotel at Heathrow before going to meet the Queen, which was very exciting."
Forty years on from his first Olympic appearance, Martin-Dye is the perfect judge on swimming then, compared to swimming now, not least because his youngest son Graham - now a water polo player in Australia - came very close to making the swimming team for Sydney. "There's no doubt about it, the sport is much harder now. They are just so focused.
Dedication is always a good thing though, but that was just becoming to come into play when I started competing. There's so much more control today. For example, your diet is strictly controlled, but, back the I'd come home and have a slap-up meal." he added.
"There are still difficulties though, like youngsters in Watford having to travel to Hatfield to train. Despite being born in West London, Martin-Dye moved to Watford 38 years ago and now coaches the successful Watford water polo team. In fact, he is the only man to have represented Great Britain at both swimming and water polo.
So what does he make of Britain's swimming chances at Athens? "To be honest, I'm Sceptical. Not because of what I've seen, because I don't follow it that closely, but because of past history, and that tells us we'll struggle."
Struggle though, is what the Olympic Games is all about. Without the struggle, those rare moments of triumph would not be nearly so sweet.
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