120 Years 120 Stories (Part 34) : The story of Ann Packer – An Unlikely Gold Medalist


In this Olympic series, we came across many champions who were born to reach the pinnacle of success. Now in this story for a change, let us introduce you to a champion who was quite unlikely to win the respective event but ended up doing so and that too with a historic significance and a world record time.

Ann Elizabeth Packer and her victory in the 800m finals at the Tokyo Games in 1964 was certainly one of the contrasting wins of all-times at the 120-year old event. The reason – Packer was basically a 400m winner and before the Games she had just run five races for 800m at the domestic arena. The chief reason for her to run those five races was just a ploy to perk up her endurance level and never to think of this event to pine for a medal.

Packer, who represented the Great Britain at the Games, had just a team bronze and a few other final appearances at the latest European Championships in her profile when she was picked up for the Olympics. Back in those days, she was a physical education teacher at a girls’ school in Surrey. In Tokyo, the 22-year old Englishwoman tried her best in her pet 400m event and even set up a European record time at the finals – but could only come second to Australia’s Betty Cuthbert who won three gold medals at the Melbourne Games eight summers back.

Packer was disappointed with her loss and did not even have an intention to take the field for the 800m. After her loss, she was more into shopping and sight-seeing cause to the Briton the Tokyo Games were more than just about a competition. Packer came into the games with her fiancé – the Great Britain’s athletic men team’s captain and defending European champion Robbie Brightwell. Brightwell, very much like Packer, was a 400m runner and to his dismay finished fourth in the finals thus missing out on a podium finish. He however took a silver in the team event later.

But Brightwell was hell bent that the couple must return home with a gold and it was a joint effort from the British captain and Packer’s roommate and long jump champion Mary Rand which made the Oxfordshire-born athlete run the 800m in an international event for the very first time. Coach Dennis Watts put in some tips for Packer in order to brighten the chances of her winning a medal. The ploy was to run the qualifiers with a lesser speed so as to keep the legs as fresh as possible for the finals.

Packer followed suit and came up fifth and third respectively in the two heats leading up to the finals where she has the slowest timing among all the eight participants in fray. As the finals commenced with Packer looking like an unlikely winner, she started the game at a languishing speed but kept on increasing her momentum towards the final laps.

The climax was picture-perfect. Not only did Packer lead the pack in the final 100m, but also she did end the race with a world-record time of 2:01:01 minutes. Packer later dedicated the gold to her fiancé Brightwell and said that she ran the race for him and to fulfill his desire of bringing home a gold medal. Soon after the Games, the pair married and Packer never again turned up at the Games.

For Ann Packer, the race which won her the 800m Olympic gold was only the eighth in her career. And for Great Britain, it would take another four decades to see another lady in Union Jack winning the 800m at the Olympics in the form of Kelly Holmes’ historic win at Athens. Packer now in her seventies, was awarded the Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) the year after her Olympic heroics along with her husband. In 2009, she was inducted into the England Athletics Hall of Fame.

Photo by udono