Mel Watman pays tribute to Jean Pickering

Everyone here knew, admired and loved Jean Pickering. I’ve been writing on the sport for some 55 years and in my opinion no one has made a more valuable contribution to British athletics than Jean. Ever since Ron died 22 years ago Jean’s mission in life was to help talented young athletes at a crucial stage of their careers, and through the Ron Pickering Memorial Fund she and her colleagues have helped hundreds of young athletes- many of them here today – and it’s no wonder that Jean was known as the fairy godmother of British athletics.

But I’m here to recall the very considerable achievements of Jean the athlete. Only those of my age or even older will have seen Jean Desforges, as she was then, in action. She was a star.

I got hooked on athletics in 1950, the year in which Jean – already a Women’s AAA 80m hurdles champion – won her first international medal as a member of the winning 4x100m relay team at the European Championships in Brussels.

Having narrowly missed selection for the London Olympics of 1948, Jean was picked for the hurdles and relay at the 1952 Games in Helsinki. Today there are 13 women’s running events on the Olympic programme but in 1952 there were only four, with ludicrously the 200m being the longest individual race. We’ve certainly come a long way since then.

Jean was desperately unlucky in the 80m hurdles at those Games. The world record then stood at 11.0 by the legendary Fanny Blankers-Koen and the British record was 11.2 … but Jean clocked a sensational 10.9 in her semi-final. Admittedly it was wind assisted but it marked her out as a genuine medal contender. Unfortunately in the final she was drawn next to Blankers-Koen, who was ill at the time and who failed to finish after smashing into the first two hurdles, hampering Jean who finished a disappointed fifth. However, there was some consolation for that lost opportunity when in the relay she along with Sylvia Cheeseman, June Foulds and Heather Armitage broke the pre-Games world record to take the bronze medals.

Little did she know it then but Jean was on her way to making history, for when Shaun competed in the shot 44 years later in Atlanta they became the first and only mother and son British Olympians.

It was in the winter of 1952/53 that Jean came more into my life. I had previously watched her from afar at the White City but then, as a 14 year-old quarter miler, I started working out every Sunday morning at Victoria Park in East London and, in awe at being so close to real life international athletes, I was able to observe Jean and her Essex Ladies clubmate Pam Seaborne going through their training.

Today’s elite athletes would find it difficult to imagine what it was like in those strictly amateur days. The tracks were cinder or grass, there were no indoor facilities and weight training was practically unheard of. Indeed Jean learned to hurdle in one of the corridors of her school, Stratford Grammar, as the school had no playing fields. The hurdles were constructed in the school’s woodwork department and a certain fellow pupil by the name of Ron Pickering was one of the boys who – willingly I’m sure – stood at the end of the corridor to stop Jean falling down the stairs!

The seasons of 1953 and 1954 were Jean’s most successful. She set a British record with a barrier breaking 20ft 1/4in (6.10m) long jump, and another in the pentathlon to emphasise her all-round ability, and in both years she won WAAA titles – in both those events and the hurdles.

What a year 1954 was for her. Following bronze medals in the hurdles and long jump at the British Empire Games in Vancouver, she became European long jump champion in Bern – and no British woman has won that title since – while in October she married Ron. If you Google Jean Desforges you can view the Pathe News coverage of the wedding at Forest Gate. What a crowd of well-wishers there were outside the church as Jean, the celebrated athlete, emerged the wife of a man who at the time was a nationally unknown PE teacher. Ron’s fame as a coach and TV commentator was still several years in the future. On their honeymoon in Jersey the couple could see from their hotel window the local cinema proclaiming the current attraction: Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront … plus Jean Desforges wedding pictures!

Under her married name Jean, the British team captain,  had one more season as an international athlete. Sixty years on we salute the memory of Britain’s female athlete of the year for 1953, a woman whose monumental services to athletics were justly recognised by the awarding of the MBE in 2010 and induction into the England Athletics Hall of Fame the following year.

May she rest in peace.