Tuesday 30 December 2014

What it takes to win

Just before Christmas, I met Ronnie Delany, Irish Olympian.  Luckily, I'm not very fleet-of-thought because my l'esprit d'escalier question was "Was Zatopek really as big hearted and kind as we have been led to believe?" which would have implied that Delany was less interesting (and kind) than the great Czech runner.  Anyway watching youtube videos from when I was a child acquired its own momentum.  Delany beat local favorite John Landy for Gold in the 1500m in Melbourne 1956, so it was natural to go back a couple of years to the Summer of 1954, when I was struggling past my twin sister to be born first.

On 6th May 1954 Roger Bannister, after a fairly crap season running mile and 1500m races, turned up at Iffley Road in Oxford after a half day's work at his London day-job (medical doctor), with his pals Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway.  They paced him round the track until he set off for the tape on his own, clocking 3min 59.4sec (huzzah!).  It was (just) the first sub-4-minute mile and, by definition a new world record which stood for . . . six and a half weeks.  On the 21st June John Landy (him again) ran a 3:58 mile in Finland.  On the 7th August 1954, these two champions were head-to-head at the Commonwealth Games in Vancouver and Landy looked back at the wrong moment and was passed out by the Bannister.  This "Miracle Mile" event was commemorated in a life-size bronze sculpture.  Landy shrugged off his loss with a quip "While Lot's wife was turned into a pillar of salt for looking back, I am probably the only one ever turned into bronze for looking back." If you watch the video (crap production values with cropped heads and poor panning) to the end you can hear Bannister's plummy accent complementing his antipodean rival and vice-versa. What really sticks in the mind, however, is Bannister's persistent cough.  I can find no evidence that Bannister was a smoker but it is well known that Chris Chataway was - he only lived to the age of 83!

Landy achieved immortal sporting fame in 1956, and another sculpture [L] for being sporting.  At the Australian National Championships, which preceded the Melbourne Olympic Games, Ron Clarke and John Landy and a handful of other great runners lined up to race in the 1500m. Just over halfway through the race, Ron Clarke had his heel clipped by another runner and sprawled to the ground immediately in front of Landy, who had to jump over the body or fall himself.  His spikes gashed Clarke's arm and Landy stopped to see if his rival was alright. He stopped for half a second, apologised and then hared off after the pack. Amazingly, despite the deficit and lost time, he went on to win the race! Or as an eyewitness put it "Landy then did the most incredible, stupid, beautiful, foolish, gentlemanly act I have ever seen. He stopped, ran back to the fallen Ron Clarke and helped him to his feet, brushed cinders from knees and, checking his injured shoulder, said 'Sorry'." That should remind you of a parallel Blob story from the NYC women's marathon when Derarta Tulu hung back to help an injured Paula Radcliffe and then cruised off to win the race.  If you watch the movie of Landy's act of courtesy, you'll see that he takes a short-cut off the track immediately after leaving Clarke.  Surely that would result in a disqualification in any world where the letter of the rules over-rides their spirit. Landy didn't have the killer instinct, but we like him all the more for it.

Delany, Bannister, Landy and Clarke are all still alive and kicking; although Bannister, a consultant neurologist, has been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease.
Another piece in the sport-from-the-sofa series.

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