Having had several days of light-hearted debate by email and on Twitter with Mark Machado of Hayes FM radio about whether Ealing Central Library should be named after Peter Crouch (!), I looked up famous Ealing residents on Wikipedia. Dusty Springfield, Sid James, Nevil Shute, Spencer Perceval, Fred Perry. But one name leapt off the screen.
It’s hard now to express to anyone under 50 just how big a name Lillian was back in the late 1960s. The Nation’s Sweetheart. The Golden Girl. Tabloid clichés, yes, but Lillian was that. The hot favourite for 400m gold at the Mexico Olympiad of 1968 she was pipped at the tape (please watch this!) and only came away with silver, but I’d suggest she was embraced and beloved in the public imagination more than Kelly Holmes, Mary Peters, Sally Gunnell, Tessa Sanderson and Paula Radcliffe.
Lillian Board was born in South Africa, but when she was eight or nine, her family moved to Ealing. By her late teens she was excelling as an athlete at 200m, 400m and 800m. By 1968, aged just 20, she was the best in the world. In addition to her olympics silver, she won two golds at the European championships. She appeared on Question of Sport in its early days. She was awarded an MBE in the 1970 New Year’s honours. In the summer of that year, she was training hard at 800m with an eye to Munich 1972.
But six months later, she was dead, at the tragically young age of 22.
Diagnosed with incurable bowel cancer, Lillian declined rapidly, while the entire nation followed events in dumbfounded horror. Despite a last ditch desperate resort to a quack clinic in Germany, she died on Boxing Day.
As an athlete, she was still improving. She probably would have followed a golden path through several more olympics, potentially as far as Moscow 1980. Today she may well have been involved at the heart of affairs for London 2012.
Adored by the whole country, Lillian Board was smart, bubbly, talented, gorgeous and very, very fast. She has streets named after her in Ealing and Greenford. She is remembered too at Munich’s olympic stadium. I wonder if our London 2012 Committee has any plans to commemorate her? I think they should.