LEO EASON HITS THE FRONT IN THE 1956 5000 METRES WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS IN BARCELONA - BEFORE HE HITS THE DECK JUST YARDS FROM THE FINISHING LINE
Leo Allen Herman Eason (# 17 in the list of men to represent Great Britain) was born in Gravesend, Kent, in 1933. His mother being a devout Catholic named her son after Pope Leo. This was rather fortunate as Leo's father wanted his son to be called Herman Eason after Herman Goering. Little did the family know what this name would come to symbolise just a few years later.
When war broke out in 1939, Leo's father was stationed to Birmingham where he worked at Elmdon Airport repairing aircraft for the war effort. The family also moved and aged six Leo had found himself a new home.
The family lived just a stones throw away from the Birmingham Embassy Rollerdrome in Walford Road and throughout his teens Leo made the rink his second home. He joined the Birmingham Roller Speed Club and in 1951 aged 18 joined the NSA. Very soon he was getting himself noticed and just a few years later was knocking on the door of international selection.
LEO (FAR RIGHT, LOOKING TO HIS LEFT) c.1947 AT HIS BELOVED BIRMINGHAM EMBASSY
It was a golden era for British speed skating, with the likes of World medallists Geoff Wright, Denis Hill and Don Brown all competing. Eason had some stiff competition as well as some great names within his own club that could only serve to improve his strength and speed. In the 1952/53 season the Northern Counties Championship and Midland Counties Championship were combined for the very first time. At Granby Halls, Leicester, on 29th November 1952, Eason won his first major gold medal by winning these two "combined" events just ahead of another 'wannabe' international, Graham Stead. Despite this victory, another major individual medal of any colour would not materialise until 1956.
1956 was a major year in Eason's life for whole number of reasons. On 18th February in front of his home crowd at the Birmingham Embassy he won his first British title, the One Mile British Championship, again just ahead of Stead and another emerging star, Les Woodley. Eason had also been courting British women's international, Pat Harris, also of the Birmingham club, for some time, and shortly after Eason's victory the couple got married. Later that year Eason got his first call up for Britain at the World Championships in Barcelona in the October. With his new wife also in the team it was effectively a "honeymoon" for the newly weds. Unfortunately, there was to be no fairly tale ending. Eason would return home from those Championships as the only British skater to have not won a medal. Skating in only two distances he would finish 11th in the 1000 metres and then in the 5000 metres would kick a track marker exiting the last bend and fall just metres from the finish line which would have secured him a silver medal. Team mate Woodley capitalised on Eason's misfortune by taking the silver, with Stead the bronze.
BARCELONA 1956 - EASON IS CONSOLLED BY LORIANO LORI, LES WOODLEY AND GRAHAM STEAD AFTER HIS FALL IN THE 5000 METRES
Also in those Championships the German connection once more made an appearance. In the relay, one of the German teams (a country could enter more than one time in those days), short of a skater through injury, asked Eason if he would make up the second man. Eason duly obliged and became the first (and the last) British skater to wear the shirt of two nations at the same major Championships. His team would finish fourth, again just missing out an a medal.
EASON (FAR LEFT) WEARING HIS GERMAN RACE SHIRT - BARCELONA 1956
In 1957 Britain did not send a team to the World Championships in Palermo, Italy, citing "lack of suitable training facilities, short notice and expense" as reasons for not attending. Back home, though, Eason was now the man on the move. By the time the British Championships came round in February, Eason had already won the Midland Counties Championship. Then in the February he would finish third in both the Half Mile and One Mile Championships before securing his second title in the Five Mile Championship again at the Birmingham Embassy.
The 1958 British Championships had been a relatively lean year for him with only a silver medal in the Half Mile, however, he was once more called upon to wear a British jersey in a World Championships. This time it was the road circuit in Finale Ligure, Italy. Alongside him was 18 year old Danny Kelly. Eason skated in three out of four events, being dropped from the 5000 metres in favour of another newcomer, Dennis Stafford. Whilst Eason would finish 4th in the 1000 metres, these Championships belonged to Kelly who managed two silvers and a bronze. Again Eason came away empty handed.
Undeterred, he returned home and set about his training in readiness for his next crack at a World title. A year later, and Eason had once more found his form, winning two out of three British titles. Unfortunately, once more there failed to be a major international Championships and not for the first time would Eason find himself in the disappointing situation where he was truly "on song" but without a platform to show it.
1960 proved to be another landmark year for Eason. He was now 27 and well established amongst the British elite and had earned himself the nickname "The Fox", a name given to him by Henry Crystall who suggested that you never knew when and where Eason would strike in a race. It was an appropriate name that he would be recognised by for many years afterwards. Late in 1959 Eason had been asked by the New Zealand skating federation if he would go to New Zealand and take part in a series of exhibition races over a number of weeks. Unfortunately for Eason, work commitments did not allow this and Danny Kelly took his place. Shortly afterwards, Eason was again approached by the New Zealand skating federation who this time wanted to send over two skaters to train and race in Britain for a lengthy duration and who would subsequently skate for New Zealand at the forthcoming World Championships in Wetteren, Belgium in September. Arrangements were made and Mervyn Wybrott and Ian Hughes came to Britain and started to learn the ropes, as it were. Training with the Birmingham club, Eason took them both under his wing and effectively coached them and passed on his knowledge. Eason's input was to prove invaluable and have a profound effect on the duo. On 16th April, Wybrott finished third in the One Mile Championship on Brixton, becoming the first and only non-British skater (that did not have dual nationality) to be awarded a national Championship medal.
By the time the World Championships came around in September, the New Zealand boys were looking for someone to act as their Team Manager. Whilst Eason would have been the obvious choice, his own selection for the British team obviously made this impossible. Subsequently, Cliff Stafford (later the father of multi-British Champion Chris Stafford and older brother to 1958 international Dennis Stafford) took on the role. The first day proved relatively successful for Britain. Danny Kelly managed a silver in the men's 10000 metres and Barbara Woodley a bronze in the women's 10000 metres. However, an incident in the men's 5000 metres would happen that would continue to be talked about even now, decades later.
Coming into the last bend Eason had the inside line. Outside of him was Faggioli (Italy) and Lachambre (France). As Lachambre was making his move, Faggioli moved across to block the Frenchman where the resulting collision pushed Faggioli into the side of Eason who put a foot inside the dotted track line. Out of the ensuing melee Eason exited the bend first and raced up the finishing straight, crossing the line first and firmly believing that he was the new 5000 metres World Champion. Unfortunately, the Referee did not see it that way and Eason was declassified to last place for his "infringement". Despite understandable protestations and appeals by both Bert Lamb (British Team Manager) and Henry Crystall (British Official) the decision to declassify Eason stood. Lachambre was proclaimed the winner, Faggioli second and an unexpected bronze medal went to Wybrott, capitalising on his friends unfortunate circumstance.
WETTEREN 1960 - EASON PUTS A FOOT INSIDE THE WHITE LINE AND GETS DECLASSIFIED TO LAST PLACE FOR THE "INFRINGEMENT"
Still with a bitter taste in the mouth Britain entered the second and final day of racing where in the women's knock-outs Barbara Woodley drew and beat a German skater to go through to the next round. However, officials decided that there had been an error in the distance skated and told the athletes that the heat would be re-run. Obviously the German skater was more than pleased to do so, whilst understandably Barbara Woodley was not. She, and the British Team management felt that the error, if any, was not of her doing and that the situation had been the same for both skaters. Furthermore, another "effort" would put her at a disadvantage in further rounds. Once again the British Team Managment were at loggerheads with the officials. The result was that Bert Lamb and Henry Crystall withdrew the British team in it's entirety by way of protest. The following is the statement made by Henry Crystall in the Roller Speed Committee Annual Report of 1960:
"The occasion was a most unsatisfactory one for the British party of competitors and Officials, and in several instances there were deficiencies in organisation and which, when brought to notice, were not rectified.... Added to the many incidences of mismanagement and wrong decisions to which attention was drawn, Mr. Lamb felt obliged to withdraw the British team from its engagement, action which had the approval of the British skaters and several other experienced speed skaters from this country."