Full Name: Lillian Barbara Board
Date of Birth: 13 December 1948,
Died: 26 December 1970 Munich, Germany
Born: Durban, South Africa. .
Club: London Olympiades.
Coach: George Board (father).
The Tragic Heroine
It has been said that sporting heroes and heroines are not supposed to die, particularly when they are at the height of their success and fame. Lillian Board was one such person who had achieved so much so young, who had been part of so many classic races and who, 13 days after her 22 nd birthday, was lost to this world. In athletics terms, it was not so much what she had won, it was what she might have won in the years ahead.
A Jump Start
After World War II, her parents had emigrated to South Africa and she and her twin sister Irene were born in Durban, before the family returned to Britain in 1950.
In 1960, she became a member of the London Olympiads club where she was coached by her father George and her first event became the Long Jump and in 1963, she became English Schools champion.
The track beckoned and the following year she ran both sprints and over 880y, but by 1966, she had progressed to the 440y and here she made her first mark on the international stage when she was fifth at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Kingston in 54.7 in a race won by Judie Pollock, of Australia, in 53.0.
As so often, television can help make a star and in 1967, Board found herself a household name with one of the best runs of her career.
Hooray For LA
Los Angeles was the venue for a match between the USA and the Commonwealth and Board had been selected to run in the 440y event. It was an occasion which transformed her life, because beforehand she had the slowest time of all the field - 54.4. One of her great traits was her supreme speed in the finish and so the world discovered this ability when she burst along the home straight to win in 52.8, the second fastest time then by a European, and in the process beating Pollock, who was the world record holder. She was Britain’s new Golden Girl, a brilliant athlete, attractive, and with immense personality and a runner who the country immediately took to their hearts. The Olympic Games were a year away and now she was being tipped to win the 400m gold medal.
Even by the time of the Mexico Olympics in October 1968, Board was still only a teenager and she arrived for the Games having had a superb season, running personal bests of 23.7 for the 220y and 2:02.00 for the 800 and becoming a world record-holder aswell. On September 14, less than a month before the Games, Board ran the anchor leg in a 4 x 110y relay at Portsmouth when Briton beat the Rest Of The Word in 45.0 in the world’s quickest time. The quartet was made up of Anita Neil, Maureen Tranter and Janet Simpson and now Board was set up brilliantly for what was ahead. She adapted to the high altitude conditions well in Mexico and in the final, she ran what looked like a perfect race in terms of the time targets she had to reach. She was heading for glory along the home straight until Colette Besson, of France, came from fifth to first to beat her. Besson was a virtual unknown before this race, but her triumph in 52.03 was an Olympic and European record, with Board second in 52.12 and Natalya Pechenkina, of the USSR, third in 52.25. Besson, who died aged 59 in 2005, had won by a matter of a couple of feet, but Board did not have to wait too long to win a gold medal in a major championship - and with it, not only a classic race, but the chance to gain a semblance of revenge on Besson. At the time, few would have even comprehended that Board’s triumph in the 800m at the European Championships in Athens the following summer would be the only individual gold medal of her career. She won in style, having moved up to that distance because her season had been troubled by back problems which were instigated further by the more explosive she ran. The two-lap event at least gave her time to control speed, rather than the frenetic drama of a 400m. Ironically, though, the 800m in Athens was a quick race, Board winning in 2:01.4, ahead of Annelise Damm Olesen, of Denmark, who was second in 2:02.6 with Yugoslavia’s Vera Nikolic third in the same time. Board’s time was a Championship record, but what was to follow was breathtaking glory in the 400m. Earlier that year, Board had been part of the British team of Jenny Pawsey, Pauline Attwood and Simpson who had broken the 4x 400 world record at Crystal Palace with a time of 3:37.6 and the time was now taken to 3:30.8.
It was September 20 and Board, as usual, ran the last leg, after Rosemary Stirling, Pat Lowe and Simpson, yet she still had some catching up to…because of all people in the leg was Besson.This final leg was an absolute classic. It was Board at her brilliant best, driving towards her opponent with this magnificent finishing speed and she did enough to go past Besson. They could not be separated on times, and both countries shared the world record, but Board had edged it having run a split of 52.4. Later, the victory margin was rounded up to a British victory by 0.03 of a second. Board was awarded an MBE in the New Year’s Honours list, but she would not even see out 1970.
Munich. It Does Not Make Sense
Board exuded such life and such wonderful enthusiasm. After the disappointment of failing to win the 400m in Mexico, her 800m glory in Athens had showed what a champion she could be and the talk was about the Olympics in Munich in 1972.
She indeed made to the German city. Not as planned. It was there on December 26, 1970, that she died. Even though she had run in the summer of 1970, she had began to suffer with stomach pains during the winter season. She did become part of another British world record, though, when, on June 13, 1970, along with Stirling, Sheila Carey and Lowe, she ran the last leg of a 4 x 800m in Edinburgh in 8:27.0. But Board did not look herself, part of her sharpness had gone and her final race was the Women’s Amateur Athletics Associations’ 800m where, as European champion, she was third. She had set a mile best mile best of 4:44.6 earlier in the year but her illness became progressively worse and cancer was diagnosed. She died in Munich University Hospital and such was her status, her family were sent messages of sympathy from The Queen. Lillian Board had touched a nation.
1966: 5th 440y Commonwealth Games
1967: 1st 400m European Cup
1968: sf 200m, 2nd 400m, 7th 4x100m Olympics
1969: 1st 800m & 4x400m Europeans
UK Internationals: 10 (1966-9)
Won WAAA 440y 1967.
100y 10.9 (1968), 10.6w (1966); 100m 11.9 & 11.8w (1968), 200m 23.42 (1968), 300m 37.9 (1969), 400m 52.12 (1968), 800m 2:01.50 (1969), 1500m 4:26.5 (1970), 1M 4:44.6 (1970).
Indoors: 60y 7.1 (1966), 60m 7.7 (1967).