Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Alan David Butler

What was the greatest individual feat ever achieved by a Rhodesian sportsman? Was it any of Ray Amm's, Gary Hocking's or Jim Redman's thrilling motor cycle victories against the world's best? Terry Sullivan's four-minute mile? Mike Procter's world record six first-class centuries in succession? Many other outstanding achievements readily come to mind, but one that must rank in equal stature with any of those mentioned is all too readily forgotten.

It came in 1960 at Naples, Italy, when Salisbury yachtsman David Butler crewed by Chris Bevan gave Rhodesia her finest hour in any Olympic Games, the world's greatest sports spectacular. Against an awe-inspiring fleet of the world's elite yachtsmen, Butler was first across the finishing line in one of the series of seven races making up the overall Olympic Flying Dutchman class. That was a great moment to savour not only for Butler but for Rhodesian sport made more startling by the fact that he came from a land-locked country and was competing against the champions from the world's maritime nations.

In another of the races Butler finished second, and his next best place was a fourth to finish overall fourth and just miss the honour of winning Rhodesia's first Olympic medal. The hockey women achieved this for Zimbabwe with the Gold Medal at Moscow in 1980.

Opening the Rhodesian boat show at Salisbury in 1963 the Prime Minister of the then Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, Sir Roy Welensky, appealed for funds to send more yachtsmen to the 1964 Olympics at Tokyo.

"For Butler and Bevan to finish fourth at Naples was an achievement more meritorious than most of us realised," he said. "So much prestige is attached nowadays to winning international sporting contests that some of the more powerful countries seem to treat them almost as an adjunct of their foreign policies.

"Equipment is provided from government funds and amateurism is a dead letter in everything but name. Our Rhodesian Olympic Committee relies entirely on voluntary donations and our competitors are neither carried on the strength of the Army nor are they holders of athletic scholarships.

"I might be prepared to speak to Mr. Field (the Southern Rhodesia Prime Minister) about making our yachtsmen 'Heroes of Rhodesia' if they bring back a medal next year."

After Butler's near miss at Naples, hopes were high for Tokyo. This time the suave, highly determined Butler prepared avidly with Mike Green as crew, but two weeks before leaving, Green injured his knee and withdrew, Tony Crossley coming in as a last-minute replacement. Although Tony was an experienced crewman, this last minute change was a major setback because it left little time for the men to get to know each other as they would have done in an extensive preparation.

Another disadvantage was that Butler had not undertaken a European 'tuneup' tour prior to the Games, as he had done prior to competing at Naples.

In the first race of the yachting events at Enoshima, Butler and Crossley finished third of the twenty-one nations in the Flying Dutchman class after being fourth last over the start line and having to work through the fleet with all the skill at their command. It was an encouraging beginning and expectations soared.

With two races left, the Rhodesians were sixth overall and still had an outside chance of squeezing in for a medal. But a snapped rudder in one race and a lowly fifteenth place in the final race saw them relegated to eleventh place overall.

Butler was again chosen for the 1968 Olympics at Mexico City, but the team did not participate because of political problems and he had to wait until 1972 for the hope of competing in the 1972 Games at Munich, with the yachting events being held at Kiel.

Those blood-stained Games, marred by the massacre of the Israeli sportsmen, were also to end in sorrow for Rhodesia, whose representatives travelled to
West Germany in high spirits but were excluded as a result of political action at the last minure

David Butler, however, was never to know of the sorrow of those hypocritical Games — while in Europe in July, preparing for the Games, he was killed in a
motor accident on his way to a regatta. It was a tragedy that robbed Rhodesia of a magnificent sportsman and the nation's brightest medal hope for the Games.

Butler had learnt from his lack of preparation for Tokyo, and had launched a comprehensive build-up. He looked to Kiel with obvious relish and took delivery of his new Soling boat at Easter 1972 from Paul Elvstrom, the Swede acclaimed to be the best boat builder in the world and also the leading yachtsman with four Olympic Gold Medals in the single-handed Finn class to his credit.

The wealthy Rhodesian — many times Rhodesian and South African champion in different classes — first sailed his new boat at Copenhagen a few days after he bought it. In water of 4 °C he finished two-thirds down a fleet of sixty and knew that if he was to be competitive in this brand-new Olympic class he would have to put in a great deal of preparation.

So he gathered his full sailing crew (James Brereton and Guy Grossmith) in Europe and they competed together in May in international regattas at Copen-
hagen, Oslo, Kiel and Marstrand in Sweden.

Butler then returned home for a few weeks and set out again in early July for the final tune-up, which was to include the Danish and European championships leading up to Kiel. But tragedy stepped in when Butler lost his life on a motorway with his fervent dream of an Olympic medal for Rhodesia unfulfilled.

Rhodesia's experienced yachting manager, Frank Lincoln, had spoken about Butler's chances only days before his death. "To me he has reached the highest degree in sport," said Lincoln. "He has a fantastic will once he decides to do something. He'll definitely be in the first ten at Kiel and I think he will be higher. With luck he'll finish in the first five."

Butler himself told me as he left on his fateful journey: "In yachting it is not impossible for Rhodesia to win a medal at the Olympics, but we must concede that for us to do so is a long shot."

Alan David Butler was born at London on 23 October 1927, and was short listed to ski in the British Winter Olympics team when he was in his early twenties. His late mother had been a Canadian Olympic ski champion, but young David was not to follow suit for he broke both his ankles and didn't make the team.

Arriving in this country in 1949 he entered politics and was elected Member of Parliament in 1962. A highly articulate and intelligent man he was also a director of companies with many varied interests, including aviation and ranching.

Another sailing feat of outstanding merit was when he finished fifth in the gruelling Cape-to-Rio ocean race, skippering Golden City in January 1971. For his brilliant Olympic feat of 1960 he was named among the finalists that year for the John Hopley Trophy, supreme accolade as the country's Sportsman of the Year. But Terry Sullivan had just become the first man from Africa to crack the four-minute mile on the track and he gained the vote ahead of the luckless Butler, who in many another year would have been a unanimous choice.

But there was no doubting his achievement and emergence as a world-class yachtsman who brought great credit to his adopted country.

Some statistics on Butler's career:

Selected as Rhodesian Olympic representative in the Flying Dutchman class 1960, 1964 and 1968 and Soling class in 1972.

Rhodesian national Flying Dutchman champion 1959, 1962, 1963, 1966 and 1970.

South African national Flying Dutchman champion 1964 (winter), 1966, 1967 and 1969.

Rhodesian national 505 champion 1961.

All Africa 505 champion 1960, 1962.

Fifth in Golden City in the Cape-to-Rio race in 1971.

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