If versatility is a virtue for sportsmen and women, Ann Packer must be ranked among Britain’s best athletes of the era. She had won the 100 yards (91.4m) title as a schoolgirl in 1959, and the women’s national title in long jump the following year. She made her international debut as a long jumper in 1960 but was shortly to make the European Championship final in the 200m in 1962, as well as the final of the Commonwealth Games 80m hurdles. The following year, still unsure of where her best talent lay, she tried out the 400m and ran a high-class time of 53.6secs in just her fourth race.
So for her, the choice of event for Tokyo was rather complicated. She decided to concentrate her efforts on the 400m and then, almost as an after-thought, entered the 800m, another event in which she had little experience but lots of potential.
Packer set a European record in the 400m final, but had to be content with a silver medal behind the Australian Betty Cuthbert, who had sprinted clear and held on, despite Packer closing in the final stages. The British athlete turned now to the longer distance, but was not confident of matching that medal-winning performance.
She could finish only fifth in the opening heat, scraping into the next round, and was then third in her semi-final. Feeling tired, and lacking confidence, Packer considered missing the final entirely to go shopping. But she was inspired by her fiancé, athlete Robbie Brightwell, who had finished a disappointing fourth in the men’s 400m final and was despondent on missing out on a medal.
And so, to cheer him up, Packer decided to race anyway. The race was led from the start by the French athlete Maryvonne Dupureur, who broke away from the pack and held first place for most of its distance. Behind her, though, Packer moved up from eighth, to sixth, to third and then overtook Dupureur with 70 metres to go, holding on to win in a new world record time. “It was so easy, I could not believe I had won,” said Packer afterwards. “I knew nothing about the event and that probably helped.”
It was a triumph that appeared to set up this exceptional athlete for a glittering sporting future. Instead, Packer retired from competition at the age of just 22. She married Robbie – who had won his own medal with a silver in the 4x400m relay - and they had three sons – one became a 400m runner, the other two became professional footballers.