As our Olympians prepare for another assault on the medals, the thoughts of one East End hero will be racing back 44 years to another Australian Olym-piad, and the winning of a precious gold medal.
Terry Spinks was the babyfaced boxing hero of the 1956 Games in Melbourne. Just 18-years-old when he boarded the plane for the Olympics he looked ten years younger, but the unrumpled boyish features belied the courage and skill of a lion.
Gold medals are always hard to come by, but in ‘56, the British fight game was on a starvation diet. Thirty-two long years had passed since a UK fighter had come out on top in an Olympiad, and Terry nearly didn’t make the cut.
It was a late call-up to the team – just days before, Terry had been emptying bins in Albert Docks. But he’d kept himself fit and ready, and he got the call he’d been praying for while he was training in his West Ham gym.
The flyweight had to win four fights before he made the final, against the Romanian champ Mircea Dobrescu. A mix of speed, skill and all the power his eight-stone frame could summon up saw Terry lift the gold, as fellow Olympic champions Gillian Sheen, Judy Grinham and Chris Brasher looked on.
Back home, Canning Town was awash in Union Jacks, and the Spinks family were the surprised and delighted recipients of a case of Champagne, sent by Prince Philip. The rarity of the moment made it all the more precious.
Terry was joined by Dick McTaggart, as Olympic lightweight champion, but it was another 12 years before Britain tasted victory again, when Chris Finnegan lifted Gold at the 1968 Games in Mexico. Mixed fortunes followed for Terry. He was the toast of the East End and was photographed with the Kray Twins – ex-boxers themselves and huge fans of the fight game. Spinks played down the gangland association. “I was popular, they were popular and they wanted to be seen with me, there was nothing more than that to it,” he said.
But though Terry’s link with crime amounted to no more than a handshake and a photo, many feel that the publicity did him no favours. His cousin Rosemary has been running a campaign to win an MBE for the ex-boxer – but while Finnegan and McTaggart were honoured, Terry was left aside.
“Family and friends have racked their brains trying to come up with an explanation,” says Rosemary. “I once thought the fact Terry had been photographed with the Kray twins may have gone against him.
“Terry has never been in trouble in his life and I think it is disgraceful how he’s been treated.”
Fellow hero Finnegan has added his weight to the campaign, saying: “I was awarded the MBE only a few months after I’d won my gold – and the day I went to the Palace to collect it is one of the highlights of my life.
“It is diabolical that Terry has been left out and I would do anything to help right this wrong. I can’t understand why the authorities have insulted a great champion like this.
“After 44 years it is about time this matter was sorted out and Terry gets what he deserves.”
Terry never became bitter, though he took some hard punches. Two marriages collapsed as the boxer turned publican developed drink problems, and in 1994 he was taken to hospital. Alcohol was killing him, and cousin Rosemary decided to take care of him.
Terry still has his medal, but is still waiting for that call from the Palace. So as you enjoy the action from Sydney, think about a great East End Olympian who hasn’t received his due. And if you want to do something about it, write a letter to your MP, or Sports Minister Kate Hoey.