Now and again I worry that my reminiscences are often rooted in the 60s and 70s but hope that they are still worthy of mention. Thus it falls to me to report the death of John Webb, universally recognised as one of the great stylists of his generation. Ironically, at our AGM, Glyn Jones and I were reflecting on the disappearance of the notion of ‘style’ from the race-walking lexicon. Back then many races would include a style prize and indeed the AAA 7 miles/10,000 metres track championship featured the coveted Fowler- Dixon style prize. I remember Paul Nihill being over the moon at receiving this honour, especially as his style differed from such greats as Matthews and Vickers. I should check this but I’m sure our own Ron Wallwork was also awarded this honour.
On a personal level, my dearest memory of John is him congratulating me generously at the end of a race-long tussle in the 1970 National 10 miles championship held in Kirkby. I managed to hold him off to finish sixth in 74:07 to his 74:19. Ahead of us, Ron was second to Wilf Wesch, clocking 72:13.
I heard first of his passing on the Portuguese website, O Marchador.
The British Olympic marcher John Albert Webb passed away last November 9, a victim of a prolonged illness, he counted 85 years old.
Webb, born in Dagenham, England, moved as an adult to Essex, an eastern county, where he represented Basildon Athletics Club. He was the first athlete from this club to participate in an Olympic Games, 1968 in Mexico, in the exciting 20 km walk won by the Soviet / Ukrainian Vladimir Golubnichiy, a test in which he was ranked twenty-second out of 34 competitors.
Among the eight international appearances by Great Britain of this inspiring athlete in the period between 1966 and 1972, the participation in the European Athletics Championships, in Budapest-1966 (13th, 20 km) and in Athens,1969 (8th, 20 km), and also at the Walking World Cup in Bad Saarow (Germany), in 1967 (8th, 20 km).
The “O Marchador” team sends heartfelt condolences to family, friends and the British racewalking community.
Whilst the Basildon Echo under the banner headline, Tributes pour in for legendary south Essex Olympian who passed away aged 85, featured a number of tributes.
Bob Hughes, who competed with John in the high-altitude cauldron of Mexico in 1968 commented, “He was one of the best guys you could wish to meet, Johnny Webb came to my wedding along with one or two other notable walkers, way back in November 1969. I had a few battles with and also suffered in a few races with him, but we always went back for more, sometimes taking turns to be the victors.
Paul Warburton, a former member of Southend-on-Sea Athletic Club, recalled how he was inspired to take up race walking by Mr Webb. “ He was the first racewalker I saw in the flesh. He used to train past the house each night. His passing is so very sad.“
Sandra Brown, 73, a former international race walker who holds several world records, said: “John lived near the Bristol to Bath old railway path and said that he did all his training up and down that excellent recreational route.
Roger himself comments:
Lovely man, Essex boy and loyal club man in the true sense. Competed 100% in races, ultra fair, lovely technique and great company. He turned me over more than once! RIP JW
And Greg Smith, our very own club secretary remembers fondly:
John Webb got me into race walking around the same time as Oliver Caviglioli and, like him, I have many warm memories of those days. From the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, the peak of John’s success as an athlete, race walking flourished at Basildon AC. Basildon walkers enjoyed great success at both age group and senior levels.
John was at the centre of that development, driving it on with his enormous enthusiasm and energy. He was an inspirational figure. John was keen to encourage others to share his passion for race walking, athletics and the outdoor, active life. John was a sparky, good-humoured character: talking with him, you never quite knew where the conversation would go next. He had a generous outlook and a strong sense of fairness.
The Sunday morning group training sessions with John from Phil Everard’s bungalow in Crays Hill stand out in my memory. We timed our sessions by the garage clock at the top of the hill and afterwards drank tea in the Everards’ kitchen. The talk could range from training niggles and what was in this week’s Athletics Weekly to the bigger issues of the day. As John’s son Harry reminded us in his eulogy at the funeral last week, John was a man of firm principles. When invited to compete for Britain in apartheid-era South Africa, John very publicly refused.
I learned a lot from John, not just about race walking. For me, he lit a fire that still burns. He will be missed but not forgotten.
I’ll leave the last word to Oliver Caviglioli, who in the late 60s was well-known and admired in Lancashire circles, not least for the fluency of his action. His great rival in the Youth ranks was our very own Steve Crow. In 1967 Olly. as he was known, won the National Youth 3 miles championship at Worsley in 23:01 with Steve second in 23:35. Both passed through 1 mile in 7:10 before Olly pulled away.
John Webb was my hero. And remained so. As a 13-year-old, I was awestruck by the upright, athletic-looking man in a GB tracksuit. He was friendly and soon invited you into the world of international athletics, introducing the leading contenders here and in Europe. He named his dog, Abdon (Pamich). As you might guess from this, he was playful. During our runs in the woods, he used to play a game of submission. If I accepted a branch he offered me, I was defeated. To decline it would result in another 5 minutes of searing pace.
His technique was superb. When, later, I had the opportunity to witness the leading race walkers from Europe, I still thought none matched John’s upright, athletic and always safe mode of progression. His running style, by contrast, was a rangy, bouncy affair. On occasions he mixed both in a training session, switching from road walking to cross-country running — and all with no notice of the changes, as I struggled to keep up and understand quite what was happening.
He was his own man, starting his day at 6:00 am with 30 minutes of reading his beloved Charles Dickens before setting off to run to work at the centre for adults with learning difficulties. Years later when I learned that my firstborn had Down syndrome, John was one of the first people I telephoned. His was the perfect, yet totally unexpected, reply: “some of my best friends have Downs Syndrome!” I feel honoured to have known John, and during my daily walks through the self-same woods we used to run through, I think of him every time.
REST IN PEACE – JOHN WEBB