James Willstrop: Beryl Burton was a true sporting great

Beryl Burton.

Beryl Burton.

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Maxine Peake has written a play which premiered at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and plays until this Friday at the Courtyard Theatre.

The play is ‘Beryl’, a sprightly biopic of one of this country’s legendary athletes, Beryl Burton. Hardly a household name, I won’t even begin to tell you what she achieved; the list of titles doesn’t end, as the audience finds out. She smashed records all over the place, and during the Otley 12-hour race in 1967 she broke the record for the women and men, at one stage offering the best men’s rider, Mike McNamara, a liquorice all-sort. McNamara broke the men’s record that day, but Burton beat him. Her women’s record still stands.

Every man and his dog is cycling now, so there should be plenty of interest in this piece. It’s staged in Leeds of course and Burton was a member of the Morley Cycling Club; and it’s one of those stories that is true, surprising and fascinating. When you begin to realise what she accomplished and the way in which she did it, you feel guilt for being so unaware.

This is partly caused by media reticence with some sports, and especially in terms of women’s sport. In the 1960s a woman cyclist clearly didn’t fit the bill, however good she was.

The funniest line in the play came when the little known Burton was interviewed by the BBC for coming second in the Sports Personality of the Year show in 1967. A chirpy presenter asked: ‘Beryl, your thoughts?’ And without waiting for an answer declared: ‘Remarkable’, and moved on, probably to interview Henry Cooper.

Women’s sport is still grossly underexposed, and it’s hard to believe there are no female cyclists competing in the Tour de France. You can only imagine what it was like for Burton back then.

Until late on in her career Burton, not having a car, would actually ride her bike to London, to then compete in a race; for much of her life she did arduous work to pay her way.

This was alluded to by an audience member at the post show Q and A session on the night I went: ‘Today’s top athletes wouldn’t do what she did. They’re mollycoddled now!’ He was probably right.

If you haven’t been, and if there are tickets, now is the time to get to one of the country’s best theatres and seek out the story of a remarkable athlete, someone with immense drive and determination, who was ahead of her time, and not given a fraction of the recognition she deserved.

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We are headed for Glasgow this week for one of the events certainly of our season, probably of our lifetimes as squash players.

The Commonwealth Games Opening is set for tomorrow at Celtic Park. It’s always a dilemma with the Opening Ceremony. There is lots of waiting around and standing for lengthy periods of time and so many athletes opt out, deciding to rest instead of taking in the fleeting glamour and pomp of the stadium.

There is high anticipation though. Squash’s big events the year round are stand alone tournaments, so this multi-sport atmosphere is completely different. The village, where the athletes base themselves, is just that: a traditional/modern village with a shop, hairdresser and large scale food hall with all kinds of available foods, which is clearly going to cause one or two of us problems. What did Oscar Wilde say about temptation again?

Hope to see one or two of you there. If not, of course, the Games will be covered by the BBC.

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