The sport is mourning the loss of one of the best-loved figures in the history of British athletics, Jean Pickering
Jean Pickering MBE, the 1954 European long jump champion, Olympic sprint relay medallist and widow of the legendary athletics coach and commentator Ron, has died aged 83.
Often described as the fairy godmother of British athletics, Jean had been involved with track and field for more than 60 years, first as a long jumper, hurdler and sprinter, and later as a fund-raiser who was made an MBE in 2010 for services to athletics and her charity work.
After the death of her husband in 1991, Jean founded the Ron Pickering Memorial Fund, dedicated to assisting aspiring young athletes. It is because of this that Athletics Weekly fondly referred to her as the “fairy godmother”, with annual grants from the Fund supporting a huge percentage of British Olympians such as Jessica Ennis, Christine Ohuruogu, Greg Rutherford and Robbie Grabarz.
It was only right really that an athlete as successful as Jean, who won the European long jump title in 1954 under her maiden name of Desforges, would go on support and inspire the next generation of athletes.
From the late 1940s through until the present day, few people in the sport have created such a positive and on-going impact on British athletics. Having competed from 1947-55, Jean was fifth in the 80m hurdles final in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics and won European long jump gold in Berne two years later. Such was her achievement that it would be 48 years before another British woman – Ashia Hansen – would win a European jumps title.
Jean’s 4x100m relay exploits were also successful, as she won European gold in 1950 and Olympic bronze in l952, and she followed those medals with double bronze in the 80m hurdles and long jump at the Empire Games of 1954 .
Jean held the British record in the long jump and, such was her all-round ability, she also held the national record in the pentathlon too. All this was achieved despite a heart problem that was not spotted by doctors until she was 50.
The foundation to Jean’s success in athletics was built far away from her home in the East End of London after she was evacuated to Helston in Cornwall from the age of 11-13 during World War II. Back in London, she established herself as the quickest runner in her school and aged 17, shortly before leaving school, she was introduced to a coach, Sid Rose.
Whilst at school Jean also made another important acquaintance, this time with the man who would later become her husband. Jean married Ron Pickering, who went on to become a national coach and BBC sports commentator, in 1954 and they had two children, a daughter Kim and son Shaun, a retired Olympic shot putter who also won bronze for Wales at the 1998 Commonwealth Games.
AW was launched in 1945 and Jean’s life in athletics has taken place in synchrony with the history of the magazine. Ron had a complete collection, which Jean had maintained to this day, often using the statistics and results to choose worthy recipients for the Ron Pickering Memorial Fund. In one of the kindest tributes the magazine has ever received, Ron once said of AW: “You have been my life-line, my dictionary, Thesaurus and bible.”
For many athletes, Jean has been their life-line – giving aspiring youngsters the opportunity to fulfil their sporting potential, something that might not have been possible without the Ron Pickering Memorial Fund.
Since Jean founded the Memorial Fund 22 years ago it has supported thousands of talented young athletes, some of their coaches, athletics clubs and associations at grassroots. It has given out over £1.3 million in grants so far and the athletes supported make up over 75% of GB’s track and field teams.
Daley Thompson was one of the first of many athletes to pay tribute when he tweeted on Monday night: “A very dear friend passed today. Jean helped everyone that needed it and always thought the best about everyone. She made me part of the family.”
Indeed, Thompson was one of many athletes who were close to Jean and Ron Pickering. Jean was good friends with Olympic champion Mary Rand, while Ron coached Olympic champion Lynn Davies – and Jean kept a guest book in her house which was signed by a who’s who that included athletics giants such as Alberto Juantorena.
Her son Shaun said: “Mum was due to have a heart valve replacement surgery in two weeks from now, but unfortunately it was not soon enough. She had been struggling with her health for the past few years, but had set herself a goal of staying around long enough to be there at the London 2012 Olympic Games in her home town of Stratford.
“She was there to witness “Super Saturday” and to watch so many of the athletes that we had supported through the Ron Pickering Memorial Fund over the previous 21 years since Ron’s passing. She had worked tirelessly to keep Ron’s ideals and name alive through the Fund and what it stood for and was so proud of all the athletes that it had helped.
“The Fund shall continue now in honour of both Ron and Jean, and the huge contribution that they had both made to the Sport of Athletics throughout their lives.”
Elsewhere, athletes continued to pay their tributes. Goldie Sayers said: “So sad to hear about the passing of Jean Pickering. An inspiration in the greatest sense of the word.”
Greg Rutherford said: “Incredibly sad news that Jean Pickering has passed away. A wonderful woman who did so much for track and field. She will be greatly missed.” While Christian Malcolm added: “She did so much for the youth in our sport!!”
» The Funeral service is likely to take place the week of April 8, in Welwyn.