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George Phillips
Trail blazing Olympic role for runner

George Phillipps  George Phillips

Sprightly octogenarian George Phillips is looking forward to greeting an old flame when the Olympic torch arrives in Plymouth next year – because he carried it way back in 1948. Mr Phillips was one of a team of athletes who relayed the torch from London's Wembley stadium to Torquay when the Olympics last came to Britain. The 87-year-old former Royal Navy Lieutenant Commander, was personally invited by Olympic Organising Committee chairman Lord Burghley to run one of the three-mile stages because he was at the time Devon's 1,500 metres champ.

The flame had to be carried 180 miles from London, site of the main events, to Torquay where the yachting races were being held. It meant a precisely timed operation had to be carried out to get the flame to the English Riviera for the exact moment it was needed in an opening ceremony. Athletes were stationed at points along the A38 with Mr Phillips positioned at the top of the punishing Haldon Hill, where he received the flame from a runner who was "absolutely exhausted". Mr Phillips had been given a torch and lit it from his predecessor's flame. He said: "It went off like an incendiary bomb. Quite alarming." Mr Phillips, who lived in Lipson in 1948 but now resides in Tamerton Foliot, carried the blazing torch to Chudleigh, where he passed the flame on to a successor, and put his torch out in a bucket of water. "The torch got heavy after a mile or so," he said. "It meant I had to change hands. I'd been warned to do this above my head – or my hair would be severely singed." As he ran an AA officer on a motorcycle with side-car acted as a pace-maker, because the flame had to be in Torquay at a specific time and the athletes couldn't run too fast or slow. Mr Phillips's run took about 20 minutes. He then completed the journey to Torquay in a bus, full of "spent" runners and their "seconds", reserves in case someone fell or collapsed. Meanwhile a Rolls Royce containing three Olympic committee members was in the convoy too, with a spare flame in case the original was extinguished. "We got the flame to Torquay in time," Mr Phillips said. "But not before one man fell down on wet cobbles in Newton Abbot and broke a bone in his foot." Mr Phillips was allowed to keep his torch and had friends in Devonport dockyard turn it into a bed-side lamp. He said: "It was my proud possession for life." Mr Phillips didn't compete in the Olympics but did watch the 1948 games at Wembley, and saw Dutch quadruple gold medallist Fanny Blankers-Koen in action. He later became a chartered shipping broker, at Millbay, and was South West honorary consul for Belgium, France and Spain, being honoured by each country. The Olympic flame is due in Plymouth again on May 19 next year on its way from Athens to London. Mr Phillips' grandson Charles Fulford, from Helston, in Cornwall, has applied to carry it.

Source: This Is Plymouth Friday, June 24, 2011

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