Olympics | OLYMPIC NOTEBOOK

Clarke’s legendary records still resonate 50 years later

by Ed Odeven

Nearly three weeks after American sprinter Henry Carr’s passing, another iconic runner from the 1964 Tokyo Games has passed away.

Australian legend Ron Clarke died at age 78 on Wednesday in his homeland.

Tributes poured in from all around the globe.

• “He was an outstanding athlete, not only in the sense of when he made records, but he really did show to the word what was possible in endurance running,” Australian John Landy, one of his rivals, told Australian media, adding, “He set a standard not only for Australian athletes but for world athletes.

“He held every world record from the two miles to the one-hour run and no athlete in history has ever matched this feat,” added Landy, in an IAAF article chronicling Clarke’s life.

• Herb Elliott, 1960 Rome Olympics gold medalist in the 1,500 meters, summed up his compatriot’s impact on the sport this way, according to published reports: “His contribution to athletics was enormous. He was also a wonderful contributor to public health through lifestyle programs and gymnasiums and the communities in which he lived.”

• American Billy Mills, winner of the 10,000 at the 1964 Tokyo Games, posted this message on Facebook: “He was a true friend and competitor. We met on and off the track for many years. RIP Ron Clarke. I will never forget you. Creator bless your journey.”

• American Frank Shorter, 1972 Munich Games marathon winner, called Clarke “my idol.” He added: “I grew up seeing Ron Clarke in the dark blue singlet with the V on it — to me that was the symbol of running,” the IAAF reported.

• Athletics Australia president David Grace said in a statement, “Ron will forever be a legend of our sport and we are grateful for his extensive contribution to the sport of athletics, as well as to public service during a life that should be celebrated.”

Clarke, the Melbourne-born, clear-cut favorite, claimed the bronze medal in the 10,000 meters in Tokyo, finishing behind Mills, the surprise winner, in a race that still ranks among the greatest upsets in sports history. Tunisia’s Mohamed Gammoudi nabbed the silver.

In a 1981 interview with The New York Times, Mills’ vivid recollections about the closing minutes of the race increased its dramatic place in the annals of track and field.

“With two laps to go, Clarke looked back,” Mills was quoted as saying. “He said later that when he did this he thought the race was his. But I thought, ‘My God, he’s worried. I can beat him.’ It was like self-hypnosis.

“Seventy-five thousand people . . . are screaming and you hear nothing, nothing but the throbbing of your heart. Stay on his shoulder. A guy from Kenya was lapped. I passed him.

“Then Clarke bumped me and picked up the pace. I stayed with him. He panicked and pushed me. Gammoudi ran between us. I almost decided to take third place. But I thought: ‘If you run harder than you have ever run, you can win.’ Fifteen yards behind with 150 to go. Ten yards with 100 to go.

With 30 yards to go you can see the tape stretched across the finish line. I passed Gammoudi. I won. I won. I won. I won.”

Looking back on that race 50 years later, Mills has been quoted as saying, during a lengthy phone interview with garycohenrunning.com, that Clarke told him that “Billy ran as if he had wings on his feet.”

In an Associated Press vote featuring 250 sports writers and broadcasters, that epic 10,000-meter race was selected as 1964’s top upset in sports.

Before leaving Tokyo, Clarke placed ninth in the 5,000 and finished ninth in the marathon.

He also participated in the 1968 Mexico City Summer Games, taking sixth in the 10,000 and ending up fifth overall in the 5,000. In the 10,000-meter race, he stumbled to the finish line and passed out for 10 minutes due to a lack of oxygen at high altitude. This caused long-term health issues, and years later, Clarke would need to undergo open heart surgery.

Despite some disappointing results, Clarke relished his experiences in the sport.

“I enjoyed it enormously and if I didn’t win gold medals then so be it,” he told The Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter FitzSimmons in 1996. “I had a go, I did my best. I loved running, as I’ve loved the rest of my life with my family and my work.”

He added: “My style as a runner was to be a gambler. I had an attitude to keep pushing to the limits, to race from the front as fast as I possibly could. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.”

While Clarke didn’t amass a slew of Olympic medals as evidence of his greatness as a middle- and long-distance runner, what he accomplished during a whirlwind tour of Europe in 1965 still stands the test of time.

In one 44-day stretch, Clarke shattered 12 of his recognized 17 world records. He competed in 18 races in eight countries during that span. This included eclipsing the record in the 10,000 by an unimaginable 38.8 seconds in Oslo, where he was clocked in 27 minutes, 39.4 seconds.

Among those races, The New York Times’ Frank Litzky noted in his Clarke obituary, was “the first three miles under 13 minutes and the first 10 km under 28 minutes.” He added: “At the time, Athletics Weekly, a British track and field magazine, called his three-mile record (12 minutes, 52.4 seconds, at White City Stadium), ‘the most prodigious in the long history of track running.’ “

In 1965, he was the BBC International Sportsman of the Year. What’s more, Track & Field News named Clarke its Male Athlete of the Year, and the magazine, widely recognized for its extensive coverage of the sport, turned to then-managing editor Dick Drake to expertly spell out why.

Drake wrote: “No athlete in a single year . . . has destroyed so exhaustively and so repeatedly so many world records. The Australian became history’s greatest all-around runner from two miles through (to) the one-hour run.

“(He) improved world records 11 times in eight events and bettered ratified or best-pending marks on 21 occasions.”

Clarke, an inaugural class inductee into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1985, ran an astounding 56 races in 1965, and his prolific schedule and jaw-dropping accomplishments resonate with contemporary experts, too.

In a moving tribute this week, RunBlogRun’s Larry Eder wrote, “Ron Clarke, in my mind, was the greatest distance runner of the 20th century. . . . Ron Clarke was not a runner possessed of great speed. What Ron Clarke did was train himself to a level that he could run a very fast 800 meters mid race, break the field, and then, run away, taking the fans with him and the race to another level.

“His ability to push the pace and break other runners was legendary. . .”

In summing up what attracted him to running, Clarke once said, “I reveled in the feeling that running gave me. It was a fantastic feeling, an alive feeling.”

Clarke was in the public spotlight for more than 60 years.

At age 19, he was the final torchbearer lit the cauldron during the Opening Ceremony at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. It became one of his famous mishaps before a large crowd, and perhaps that endeared him more to the public as well. He suffered burns on his arm and wrist and his T-shirt had holes rip open in it due to the flame particles.

“It was terrific being out there,” Clarke was quoted as saying by the Morning Herald that November. “I did not feel the burns at all until afterwards.”

In a remarkable gesture that illustrated how much he meant to foes and to the sport, Czech legend Emil Zatopek, who captured the 10,000 gold in Helsinki in 1952, hand delivered that shiny medallion to Clarke in July 1966 during the Aussie’s visit to Prague for a meet.

As the story goes, Zatopek put the medal in a box and told Clarke, “Look after this, you deserve it,” the Australian Associated Press wrote. According to published accounts, Clarke didn’t open the box until his plane was flying over the English channel.

From 2004-12, Clarke served as mayor of Gold Coast, Australia.

In a wide-ranging interview with Athletics Illustrated, an Australia-based publication last year, commented on the impact that the Mexico City Olympics had on the rest of his life.

He said: “. . .The 10K in the Mexican Olympics in 1968 was also one in which the ‘flow’ was there, but unfortunately the altitude made a good result impossible. It certainly had an enduring effect on my heart as I am still suffering as a result of those IOC idiots selecting Mexico City as a venue for long-distance competition. The run will certainly shorten my life by 5-10 years. . .”

Australian sports commentator Peter Meares told the Herald Sun of Melbourne, “He could win everything from a mile up to 10,000 meters, or even longer, and he was just a machine. He used to run against the clock. That was the thing about Ron Clarke as opposed to some athletes who just run against their rivals to beat them.”

Distinguished running coach Jack Daniels, who represented the United States in the modern pentathlon in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and again four years later in Rome and took home a silver and bronze, respectively, considered it a blessing to cross paths with Clarke.

“Along with Jim Ryun, who ran under 4 minutes for the mile at age 17, after only training for less than 2 years in his entire life, I consider Ron Clarke one of the greatest distance runners ever,” Daniels, now, 82, told The Japan Times.

Daniels has been called the world’s “best coach” by Runner’s World Magazine. Indeed, he has gravitas in the sport.

“In 1968, during the year all were preparing for the Mexico City Olympics, I was collecting physiological data on 26 top American distance runners, who were subjects for my PhD dissertation,” the legendary running mentor said. “I tested all at sea level and again at altitude and when I was on the UCLA track in Los Angeles, doing some sea-level testing, I saw Ron Clarke jogging around the track.

“I couldn’t believe who it was, but went to him and asked if he had ever been tested for his VO2 max (the maximum oxygen uptake capacity), to which he answered, ‘No.’ So I asked if he would be willing to let me do that test, right there on the UCLA track. He said ‘sure,’ so I told him what the test would be — run five laps, wearing a head gear with a low-resistance breathing valve and his nose clamped shut so I could collect all his expired air for oxygen consumption analysis.

“I will never forget how smoothly he ran that 3:04 3/4 mile. An unbelievable effort. His VO2 max turned out to be 86 ml per kg body weight per minute, the highest I have ever tested to this day.

“Now, what are the chances of going up to a complete stranger, who happens to be the greatest distance runner alive and having him say ‘OK’ to being tested by someone he has never met before?”