Helsinki hero Doug says the Olympics is still an inspiration to many

Doug Welsh
Doug Welsh
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IT may have been the same year the Queen ascended the throne, but the passage of 60 years has failed to dim Douglas Welsh’s memories of swimming for his country in the Helsinki Olympics of 1952.

A native of Galashiels, Doug has lived in South Africa since 1965. But he has not been forgotten in his homeland.

Doug Welsh olympic swimmer.

Doug Welsh olympic swimmer.

In 2007, he was inducted into the Scottish Borders Sporting Hall of Fame and is one of the stars of a new guide produced for local schools on Borderers who have competed at the Olympics or Paralympics.

Doug excelled in many sports, but it was as a swimmer that he really made his mark, representing Scotland and Great Britain in swimming and water polo from 1948 to 1958. He was also UK freestyle champion over 55, 110, 220 and 440yds, between 1948 and 1958. And he won the individual European combined armed services championship in the 110 and 220yds freestyle from 1950-1952.

There are still many people in Galashiels who remember the incredible welcome given to Doug and his Gala club team-mate, Betty Turner, on their return to the town after winning the British national 100m freestyle titles on the same weekend in 1949.

They and coach, Vic McFarlane, the Galashiels baths master, were greeted by a 3,000-strong crowd and carried shoulder high along Channel Street and Bank Street to the Burgh Chambers.

From the balcony, the provost congratulated them on their achievements and the honour they had brought to the town.

McFarlane was reckoned to be way ahead of his time in terms of his coaching methods and is regarded as one of Britain’s greatest-ever swimming coaches.

Soon after the 1952 games, he too emigrated to South Africa, where he became a leading coach.

The pinnacle of Doug’s career came in 1948 when he represented Britain in the 110 and 220yds freestyle events in Helsinki. He made the 110yds semi-final and took sixth place in the 220yds final.

The talented Borderer went on to win selection for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, but because of college commitments and the costs of competing at that level – many British athletes at that time had to pay a significant contribution of their own costs – he was unable to compete.

Doug moved to South Africa after being transferred by the Glaxo Group to run its local operations, and spent the rest of his working life as CEO of multinational and local companies in the pharmaceutical and allied industries, before retiring in 1998.

In 1995 he was elected as South Africa’s representative on the British Olympic Association.

Doug, now 79, took time from his life in the South African sunshine to share his Olympic memories with readers of TheSouthern.

“As a 19-year-old, I was overwhelmed by being chosen as a member of the British Olympic team and humbled by being part of such a momentous occasion as it was, by far, the biggest modern Olympic Games since they were first held in Athens in 1896,” Doug told us from his home in Johannesburg.

“It was such an honour to be in a team with so many famous athletes representing all recognised sports at that time.

“Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee year has vividly reminded me of being invited to a tea party at Buckingham Palace, when all members of the team were introduced to the Queen and other members of the royal family. That experience was certainly instrumental in raising the team’s spirit and one that I have never forgotten.”

Doug told how, before travelling by plane to the Finnish capital, the British team took part in final training sessions in Brighton and Hove.

“Flying to Finland was also something of an adventure as the aircraft were not as sophisticated as they are today,” said Doug.

“After the official opening ceremony, everyone became totally focused on their events and there is no doubt that they all did their best for our country, and no-one could ask for anything more.

“One of the biggest surprises I had was when my father, Walter Reid Welsh – of Torwoodlee Golf Club fame – arrived at the Olympic Village at the start of the Games just to be there to support me.

“It was the moment that I realised how proud my father was of my achievements, although like a true Scot, he could never really tell me in words how he felt, or give me a hug and say ‘well done son’.

“It is my hope that Team GB in 2012 will inspire today’s youth to take up sport and spread the values of the Olympic dream.

“It has certainly played an important part in my own life, both in business and family.”

It would be a further 50 years before the Borders produced another Olympic swimmer, when Euan Dale from Duns followed in Doug’s strokes by competing in the 2008 Beijing games.

Doug says he has been humbled by the number of people who remember him in the Borderland.

He said: “In 2007, at an age where few people knew of my existence, I was inducted into the Scottish Borders Hall of Fame for swimming, an honour which to me is quite unbelievable.

“I am also a proud lifetime member of ‘The Olympians’ – whose patron is the Princess Royal – which the British Olympic Association uses to inform all past and present Olympic participants of current events and other news.

“It’s great to be part of such a large family which keeps in touch with each other over a lifetime.”

z Doug’s story features in the new booklet for schools, entitled Border Olympians and Paralympians: A Learning Resource, which has been compiled from original research by Henry Gray, with design work by the Heritage Hub