Mon | Apr 19, 2021

Patrick Robinson | Reflections on Les Laing’s life

Published:Sunday | February 21, 2021 | 12:12 AM
Patrick Robinson File
Patrick Robinson File

Les Laing
Les Laing

The Jamaican 4x400 metres gold medal team at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland (left to right) Arthur Wint, George Rhoden, Herb McKenley and Les Laing.
The Jamaican 4x400 metres gold medal team at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland (left to right) Arthur Wint, George Rhoden, Herb McKenley and Les Laing.
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By any measure, Les Laing, who passed away recently, was an outstanding Jamaican. He was a member of the historic and memorable Jamaican team – the other members being Arthur Wint, Herb McKenley, and George Rhoden - that defeated the USA in the 4x400m relay at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, breaking the world record in the process.

I had the privilege of interviewing Mr Laing at his Central Florida home in the USA about eight years ago for my documentary Jus Run. I was warmly received by the Laings. Theirs was an athletic family, since Mrs Laing, the former Carmen Phipps, represented Jamaica in the high jump at the 1948 Olympics.

Champs features so prominently in the minds of all Jamaicans today that many do not know that of the Magnificent Four, only two, Arthur Wint and Herb McKenley, attended a traditional secondary school and therefore participated in what, even then, was a great athletic spectacle. Although Kingston Technical High and Dinthill Agricultural, the schools attended by George Rhoden and Les Laing, were not at that time eligible to participate in Champs, these two warriors went on to achieve greatness for Jamaica and the Caribbean in athletics at the global level.

Unquestionably, traditional secondary schools, such as Calabar High and Excelsior High, the schools attended by Arthur Wint and Herb McKenley, would have had better facilities for the training of athletes than the technical and agricultural schools – they would certainly have had access to better coaches and playing fields. Against that background, Mr Laing’s local, regional, and international achievements are the more remarkable. He represented Jamaica in the 100m and 200m in many regional meets and reached the final of the 200m at the 1948 Olympics. He ran valiantly on the second leg in the 4x400m Relay at the 1952 Olympics.

In my letter of June 23, 2020, to The Observer, I indicated that it would be fitting for an invitation to be extended to Mr Rhoden and Mr Laing, neither of whom had the Champs’ experience, to attend Champs 2021 so that we could honour them appropriately. Now Mr Laing is no longer with us, and Champs is tentatively set for April 2021. I suggest that the Government extend an invitation to Mr Rhoden, now 94 and not in the best health, to attend that event.

When I spoke with Mrs Laing on February 11, 2021, she confirmed what I had suspected: the media had made a mistake in reporting his age as 95. In fact, he would have been 98 years old on the day of our conversation.

GOODBYE GREAT AND VALUED JAMAICAN

Goodbye to a great and valued Jamaican, the third of the golden quartet to have left us.

All four should be honoured as a group by being named National Heroes for that historic victory by colonial Jamaica in 1952 and for the significant contribution their many athletic achievements made to our nascent identity as a people. All four, a symbol of black pride and unity, represented Jamaica so well that in a period of about six years after 1947, colonial Jamaica was pre-eminent at the global level in the 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m, and the 4x400m relay. In the 1948 London Olympics and the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, the quartet won three gold and five silver medals for Jamaica, a truly superlative achievement. Indeed, in the 1952 Olympics, the colony of Jamaica placed higher in the overall medal table than its colonial master, the United Kingdom. All four were persons of great integrity, who lived full, productive lives as professionals in their chosen fields: Arthur Wint in medicine, Herb McKenley in insurance and athletic coaching, George Rhoden in podiatry, and Les Laing in agriculture.

These four men, who contributed so much to national life and our self-confidence as a people, demonstrated that achievement in sports can, and should, coexist with achievement in the classroom. They also showed what can be attained by Jamaicans when we are united and working towards the same objective. Mr Laing can be heard in Jus Run saying that after the disappointment of the relay team in the 1948 Olympics when Arthur Wint was injured, the four huddled together and vowed that they would return four years later to “get the job done”. So said! So done!

The impact of National Hero Marcus Garvey apart, the 1952 record-breaking victory over the USA in the 4x400m relay marked the first occasion that Jamaica left its imprint indelibly on the world stage in the post-emancipation period prior to Independence. It also served as the inspiration for generations of Jamaican athletes and is properly seen as the foundation for our recent global dominance in athletics. It stirred the pride and self-image of all Jamaicans at a time when Jamaica was still a British colony preparing for independence. Certainly, the United Kingdom should never forget the achievements of Jamaica in the 1952 Olympics as the exploits of Wint, McKenley, Rhoden, and Laing accounted for the only occasions when the British national anthem was played at the Olympics for a gold medal in track and field athletics. The UK owes us big time for that favour. That can be added to the Jamaican claim for reparations!

Judge Patrick Robinson is is a Jamaican member of the International Court of Justice. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.