Louise Parkes recently sat down to talk with veteran British journalist Alan Smith on his exceptional career.
Not too many people have been to 17 Olympic Games in their lifetime, but retired British journalist Alan Smith most certainly has. In a career that spanned 48 years he reported on no less than nine Summer and eight Winter Games along with all the major equestrian Championships between 1960 and 2008. “And I enjoyed every moment of it!”, he said when we spoke recently.
His decision to call it a day after the Beijing Games marked the end of an era. The classic newspaperman who was always dapper in his shirt and tie, and whose battered brown-leather briefcase heralded the presence of journalistic royalty in media centres around the world, is sorely missed. He played a significant role in the story of modern equestrian sport, not just as a writer but also as a Committee member in the early years of the FEI Jumping World Cup™ series, and holds the respect and admiration of athletes, luminaries and colleagues alike.
He’s looking forward to watching racing from Ascot on the afternoon I call, and that makes me smile. No matter what event he attended he always liked to “have a flutter on the ponies” on any given afternoon. He inherited that passion from his father, whose ill-health during Alan’s teenage years led to his son’s decision to set aside the offer of a place at Reading University and instead take on a job with Brenards Air Services News Agency at London Airport – now Heathrow and one of the largest travel hubs in the world but, according to Alan “just a collection of prefabricated shacks back then!”
He was only 18 years old at the time, “but quite frankly we needed the money, my father was too ill to work, and I have to say it was the best training I could possibly have had. You had to be fast and accurate, and the stories were immediately circulated to all the newspapers” he explains. A bout of the debilitating lung disease, Tuberculosis, brought this job to an end, however.
Following his recovery, he worked in the Pedigree Department of the British Bloodstock Agency and then moved on to the Racing staff of the Sheffield Telegraph newspaper. But he wanted to return to his home-town of London, “so I wrote to all sorts of different papers, including The Sporting Life and The Telegraph (The Daily Telegraph)”, he explains.
His first encounter with the latter was a boozy one, not an entirely uncommon feature of the newspaper world in those days. “The Sports Editor, Frank Coles, brought me straight into the King and Keys pub next door where we drank for a couple of hours and talked about the best way to get from Sheffield to London because the motorways hadn’t been built at that stage, and then I put him in a taxi to go home and I went back to Sheffield”, Alan recalls.
But when he got back, there was a letter from The Sporting Life offering him a job. So he phoned Frank the following day, told him about the job offer but said he’d rather work for The Telegraph and was asked ‘when would you like to start?’
“If that letter hadn’t arrived I wouldn’t have phoned him and I’m sure he would have forgotten all about me, so that was lucky!”, Alan says with a laugh.
A Bit Of Showjumping
Not long after he joined the Racing Department at The Telegraph, Deputy Sports Editor Kingsley Wright asked the new recruit if he’d like to ‘do a bit’ of showjumping coverage, and that request would begin the journey that would continue for almost a half-century.
In 1961 Alan covered the FEI Junior European Championships at Hickstead, and he was keen to do it again the following year so he cautiously approached his editor to get his approval. “He liked horses, he liked me, and he liked the things I’d done already. So his first question was “did we cover them last-year-old boy?”, and I said “of course Kingsley yes”, and he said, “well you better cover them this year then”. However, Alan didn’t explain that the 1962 Championships would be held in Berlin (GER). “So off I went and called into the Nations Cup show in Rotterdam on the way back, and from then on my international career was on its way!”, he says with another laugh.
By the end of that year he was just providing Kingsley with a list of all the events he intended to go to, “and until I stopped they never questioned where I was going, they felt I knew better than they did what ought to be covered and, needless to say, the places I travelled to were all the nicest ones!”
He arrived on the equestrian scene at a really good time. “I was very lucky because showjumping was regularly televised and incredibly popular with the public, so in the 60s, 70s and most of the 80s every newspaper had someone writing about it”, Alan explains.
In those days the horse show season ran from March to October, so to keep him busy over the winter months Alan was additionally allocated skiing coverage in 1965. It wasn’t a hardship.
“My first outing was to St Moritz (SUI), ostensibly to cover the British Army Ski Championships but it just so happened the same week the World Bob Championships were taking place. Britain’s Tony Nash and Robin Dickson, who won gold in Innsbruck (AUT) in ’84, were defending their title and it was brilliant because they won again. For 34 years I covered winter sports, and the first Olympics I went to were winter ones in Grenoble (FRA) in 1968. And again we were very lucky, we had the most brilliant women’s team that year. Gina Hawthorn missed a bronze medal by 300ths of a second and was fourth. Britain still hasn’t ever won an Olympic alpine skiing medal!”, he points out.
Alan recalls that one of the members of that women’s ski team was Di Tomkinson whose mother skied at the Munich Olympics and whose daughter, Emma Pitt, owned Supreme Rock – the superb Event horse that carried Great Britain’s Pippa Funnell to team silver at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney (AUS). “Three generations of Olympic connection there”, he points out.
Luck On His Side
He feels luck was onside in his early career with the launch of the showgrounds at Hickstead, the appointment of HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh as FEI President and the establishment of the International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists (IAEJ) by Max Ammann.
Prince Philip invited a representative of the IAEJ to attend the FEI General Assembly in Brussels (BEL) and Alan filled that role, building a lasting relationship with the Duke whose presidency spanned 24 years.
“He was a lovely man to deal with, straight and to the point. He wrote the rules for competitive Driving and he started the World Equestrian Games (WEG). The first edition of the WEG at Stockholm (SWE) was supposed to be a one-off, but it was so good they decided to do it again in The Hague (NED). However if The Hague had been the inaugural World Games there would never have been a second one!”, he says, reflecting on the event that ended in financial bankruptcy.
Things moved on rapidly after the FEI Jumping World Cup™ series was created in 1978. “For the first 20 years that Volvo was sponsoring it, I was on the World Cup Committee so I attended a lot of the shows. You couldn’t find a better sponsor’s representative than Ulf Bergqvist and he, Max (Ammann) and I became very close friends”, Alan explains.
The technological age hadn’t arrived, so reports were still filed to copy-takers from hotel telephones, and calls often took hours to be connected.
Arrival Of The Tandy
The arrival of the Tandy, one of the earliest PCs, revolutionised things. Alan’s first encounter with one was at the Seoul Olympic Games in 1988 when all he had to do was type in his stories because The Telegraph sent a technician to transmit the copy. Alan remembers those Games well. “They were pretty dramatic because the Canadian sprinter, Ben Johnson, was disqualified for doping so we all had to cover that too and I felt like a proper newspaperman for once!”, he says.
His first Olympic reporting gig in Munich in 1972 was even more memorable. “Britain claimed team gold in Eventing and Ann Moore and Psalm took showjumping individual silver”, he recalls. But the world was horrified by the terrorist attack that left 11 Israeli athletes dead, and four days before the end of the Games Alan received a distressing phone call from his wife, Maddie, who had given birth to their son, Alex, just four weeks earlier. “She told me he’d been taken ill and was in an incubator and not expected to survive. I couldn’t wait to get home, so I jumped on a plane the next morning and thankfully he did survive – and he thrived!”
I ask him about his favourite horses from his era, and he first names Merely a Monarch. “He was a top-level Event horse ridden by Anneli Drummond-Hay, and because women weren’t allowed to ride at the Olympics in Eventing the horse was diverted to showjumping and within months was a top-class jumper. He was wonderful. Fulke Walwyn, a very successful racehorse trainer at the time, said he could have trained him to win the Grand National as well!
“Cornishman was a great horse, he won (Eventing) team gold for Mary Gordon-Watson in Munich but she was injured before the previous Games in Mexico and Richard Meade rode him to team gold there. It’s a very rare horse that wins gold medals with two different riders at Olympic level. And he made nothing of the World Championship course in Punchestown in 1970 that caused havoc for so many others – he was probably as good a cross-country horse as I’ve ever seen.
“And Marion Coakes’ little Stroller who jumped his heart out in the individual at the Mexico Games to take silver. They were such a great partnership, very successful together all the way from Junior to Olympic level and a credit to the sport from beginning to end”, he says.
And what about his favourite riders? “There were so many……(Great Britain’s) John and Michael Whitaker, David Broome, Harvey Smith…Harvey is such a character and he provided us with so many great stories! When he gave the judges the V-sign after winning the Hickstead Derby (in 1971), that was some day to remember – the publicity it attracted to the sport was phenomenal!
“Bill Steinkraus (USA) was a really great rider and writer and he played the piano rather well too! And Bill Roycroft who broke his shoulder going cross-country at the Olympic Games in Rome but signed himself out of the hospital to ride the showjumping on the last day because otherwise, Australia wouldn’t have won team gold! And Mark Todd (NZL), such a supreme horseman…..Alwin and Paul Schockemohle and Ludger Beerbaum (GER) were really nice guys and spoke better English than some of our British riders! Janou Lefebvre and Pierre Durand (FRA) – there were so many I can’t stop!”, he says.
I ask him to recall any bizarre happenings down the years. “There was a show in Tripoli, Libya in Col Ghadaffi’s day and a few British riders, Raymond Brooks-Ward and I and a couple of others were invited out there. The Grand Prix was won by a Libyan rider and suddenly the arena was filled with people shooting off their guns into the air – that was an unusual occasion I have to say!!
And then there was Lucinda Greene wandering around Fontainebleau (FRA) on dressage day in a sort of daze saying ‘I can’t find my horse, I don’t know where my horse is!’ when she was due to go into the arena just a few minutes later! The big stand-off between Tina Cassan (GBR) and the judges at the World Cup Final in Del Mar (USA) in 1992 because she said the clock started before her round began…that was epic, but Bill Steinkraus sorted it all out with his usual diplomatic flair!”
I ask for a favourite memory and of course, I’m not surprised it’s a British one. “David Broome winning the World Championships at La Baule (FRA in 1970) – that was a fantastic competition. He was such a good rider. It was rare for any country to have two through to the Final four, and both David and Harvey qualified along with Graziano Mancinelli (ITA) and Alwin Schockemohle (GER). Mancinelli’s Fidux was a very difficult horse, but when David took his turn it was like he was riding on silk reins”.
And what about personal friendships made down the years? “Among journalists my great friend was Brian Giles of the Daily Mail who told me later that when we first met in La Baule he thought I was the most arrogant man he’d ever come across! Also Jenny MacArthur from The Times and Jenny Murphy from The Independent – I owe so much to Jenny Murphy because it was through her that I met Maddie”, he points out. In the course of his career Alan travelled the world with his lovely wife Maddie who sadly passed away in 2016. They were a beacon of togetherness on the circuit, and Maddie was always accompanied by the family dog when attending British fixtures.
Alan’s own equestrian exploits included “a bit of hunting” and the fun of competing in “The Scribbler’s Stakes”, a special jumping class for journalists at the world-famous Christmas Show at Olympia in London in 1973 and 1974 which were televised by the BBC. That was the heyday of equestrian sports coverage, when riders were household names, especially across Great Britain. Alan says it was the drive of people like Raymond Brooks-Ward and Bob Dean, creators of British Equestrian Promotions, that made the difference.
“They were so successful that in 1970 officials from the Football Association went to talk to them about how they could promote soccer, and look where that is today. Bob was prepared to do whatever was required to maximise publicity, even sending Ted Edgar out onto Kensington High Street riding a camel to promote Olympia!”
Although Alan no longer frequents the equestrian circuit, his legacy is still very much in place. Throughout his career he set an example of professionalism, and the creation of the IAEJ has helped promote contact between journalists around the globe while also providing a conduit between the working equestrian press and the FEI.
He has always been a prolific writer, with not only years of newspaper coverage filed away but with his name on 14 book-covers including the latest – “Hickstead, A Golden Celebration” – published in 2010. And he’s not finished yet. He admitted to diving into his memoirs during his retirement, and they should make some reading when they see the light of day.
Looking back, Alan says he couldn’t have had a better career and that he enjoyed every minute of it. “The late, great Ian Wooldridge – for my money one of the best, and certainly the wittiest of sports writers – once told me he thought I had the best job in Fleet Street. And I wouldn’t disagree…….!”