Marathon champion

Born: July 9, 1929;

Died: April 17, 2015.

JOE McGhee, who has died aged 85, won Empire Games marathon gold on a baking August day in Vancouver in 1954, an unheralded Scottish winner whose triumph was overshadowed by the collapse of England's three-times world record-breaker, Jim Peters, within yards of the finish.

In 80-degree heat and high humidity less than half the field finished, but McGhee tailored his effort to the conditions, and mindful of promising his coach, Allan Scally, that he would run his own race, he was some 18 minutes behind when Peters entered the stadium. Yet the Shettleston Harrier reached the arena looking fresh and in control, with both feet clear of the ground as he sprinted home. By then Peters had been tended by Dr Roger Bannister, winner earlier that afternoon of the Miracle Mile over Australian world record-holder John Landy, and was already on his way to hospital. He had collapsed several times within the last 380 yards. England masseur Mick Mayes finally caught him - an act of mercy which brought disqualification.

Myth and fabrication surrounded the race, and McGhee's reluctance to discuss details meant journalists resorted to cuttings, thus perpetuating the nonsense. I was privileged to help broker a reunion between McGhee and Peters in 1996, a private dinner hosted by the London Marathon.

The pair embraced emotionally, swapping stories with evident mutual respect. It emerged that McGhee had offered his gold medal to Peters, but he had flatly declined. "You're the champion," he told Joe. "You won the race."

The fiction "originated in the romantic fantasy of a local reporter," McGhee explained. "He described how I was lying in a ditch until an old Scots lady revived me with the exhortation that the honour of Scotland was at stake. Norris McWhirter wrote: 'Joe McGhee, an RAF officer, having fallen five times, signalled for the ambulance. While waiting for it he heard that Peters and Cox were out of the race, so up got the bold Scot and finished the course to win.' The only true items in that statement are that I was an RAF officer and that I won."

The centenary history of the Amateur Athletics Association also got the facts wrong. "I was so disgusted by the ballyhoo that I always resolutely avoided entering into controversy,'' explained McGhee.

He was battling over the final four miles for what he believed was third place. "At no time did I collapse," he said. "I never knew that I was first until I was near the stadium and, indeed, at that time I was absolutely delighted to be finishing second."

A photo of the victory ceremony shows him helping Johann Barnard on to the rostrum. Only six of the 16 starters completed the course, and in the macho culture of the era, McGhee drank no fluids, yet he "danced until the early hours of the next morning in the Closing Ball, and was up again at 6am for a visit to Seattle.''

In many respects Vancouver 1954 was history repeating itself. The 1908 Olympic marathon in London resulted in Italian Dorando Pietri weaving drunkenly around the track before being helped, and consequently disqualified. The winner, American Johnny Hayes, was likewise largely overlooked.

McGhee gained an MA at the University of Glasgow in 1950, then a B Ed in 1951. He joined the RAF and was stationed at Turnhouse when he won in Canada. He was Scottish marathon champion for three consecutive years from 1954, a feat not matched for 40 years. He set a Scottish native record of 2hrs 25min 50sec in 1955, the fastest by any British athlete that year, yet never gained a GB vest. "The treatment of Scottish athletes by British selectors in this period is another story," he said.

He taught English at St Modans in Stirling where he met his wife, fellow-teacher Margaret Law, and became head of English at St David's, Dalkeith, then head of linguistics at Aberdeen College of Education. He took early retirement at 55 and subsequently did part time teaching.

He began in sport with his father William, running alongside his bike. Joseph introduced his son, also Joseph, to athletics. "He never stopped talking, all these stories. I don't know how he had the breath, and I was peching along beside him. I ran a marathon just once, and never got within an hour of his best time."

He had both knees replaced 12 years ago - penalty of training wearing 2/6d (12.5 pence) Woolworth plimsolls. "He became a very active walker," recounts his son, "like a clockwork toy around the house, with his pedometer, logging it every day."

Joseph's training diaries were discovered in the attic of his Fairmilehead home, with an unpublished story of his life and two books written for his grandchildren.

Joseph McGhee reached his personal finish line last Friday, dying suddenly after a very short illness with his family around him. A Requiem Mass will be held at St Peters, in Edinburgh's Morningside at 11am on Friday, April 24, with subsequent interment at Craigmillar Cemetery around 12.30.

He is survived by his wife, four daughters: Louise, Gillian, Pauline, Clare, and son Joseph, plus six grandchildren.