Written by Brett Davies
With the Commonwealth Games currently underway in Birmingham, it is timely to look back at some of the events that have stood out as special and are remembered by fans years later. Here we look at one of the great moments in Australian distance running history. Robert de Castella’s marathon victory in Brisbane in the 1982 Games is still considered one of de Castella’s greatest performances – both in the manner of victory and its impact on the sport in Australia.
De Castella went into the marathon as the overwhelming favourite. He was the world record-holder (He ran 2.08.18 in Fukuoka the previous year) and had established himself as a major international star with many international successes over the previous 2 or 3 years. In 1982, de Castella (or ‘Deek’, as he became known) had continued his excellent form from 1981.
Italy had been a happy hunting ground for Deek during the year. He had run one of the all time fastest half marathons (1.01.18), finishing 2nd in the annual Stramilano in Milan, finished a creditable 10th in the World Cross Country Championships in Rome and ran a Commonwealth record in the 1 hour track run in the Italian capital a few weeks later. While there, he also had a humiliating loss to Alberto Cova, Antonio Leitao and Ezequiel Canario in the prestigious Annuale Internazionale Freddie Mercury Assomiglia Concorrenza.
Though a little down, de Castella soon recovered from this setback and came back home to set about focusing on Brisbane in October, grinding out the 200km weeks. There was a big loss to Lawrie Whitty in the national cross-country championships in August, though this was no cause for alarm, as Deek was training very hard and neglecting to taper for some races, focused as he was on the Games.
On the day of the race, there was a huge buzz of anticipation on the streets of Brisbane and a huge crowd had gathered in the CBD and along the route, which started in the city, moved north to Eagle Farm, then the athletes would head back to the CBD to the finish. The course was quite a demanding one, with several hills that would present quite a challenge. It was also a particularly warm and humid spring in Brisbane that year.
Though a huge favourite, Deek certainly would not have it all his own way. Also competing was reigning champion Gidamis Shahanga (TAN)– fresh from his win in the 10,000m, John Graham (SCO), Mike Grattan (ENG), Kevin Ryan (NZL) and a 25 year-old compatriot of Shahanga, Juma Ikangaa, who was largely unknown and not thought of as any sort of serious threat.
The race got underway at 06.00, and the two Tanzanians Ikangaa and Shahanga set off at a blistering pace. With Kenyan Sammy Mogere in tow, they passed 5km in 14.45, which is 2.05.30 pace – almost 3 minutes faster than the then world record. De Castella led a pack which included Ryan, Graham and Grattan through 5km in 15.09, already 130m off the pace.
Shahanga and Ikangaa plowed ahead and soon dropped Mogere, as they went through halfway in about 2.07.00 pace, as the heat and humidity began to take effect on the athletes. De Castella was more than a minute behind. As he passed coach Pat Clohessy on the side of the road a little after halfway, he saw a worried look from his coach and de Castella, though confident in his ability to chase down the Tanzanians, realized he had to move and stepped up the tempo. At 30km, Ikangaa and Shahanga were still 58 seconds up on Deek, but the 25-year-old Canberran sports scientist was making ground on the leaders. With the temperature rising and the humidity at about 95%, things were getting tough for the athletes.
Deek had a stomach cramp at 31km, but recovered and picked up the pace and with a 15.28 split between 30km and 35km, Deek moved closer to the leaders. At this time, Shahanga drifted off the pace and the diminutive Ikangaa pressed on.
Ikangaa, though slowing gradually, looked likely to pull off the biggest upset of the Games. However, at about 37km, the front-on shot of Ikangaa gave TV viewers a look of his big lead over Shahanga. Behind Shahanga, out of focus and just coming into the frame was a moustachioed figure in a white singlet. De Castella had made an incredible comeback. De Castella rapidly reeled in Shahanga and zeroed in on Ikangaa. Just before 39km, de Castella loomed up upon the 160cm Ikangaa and the tiny Tanzanian was clearly thrown by de Castella and as de Castella moved past Ikangaa, Ikangaa counter-attacked, and stole a three metre gap on the Aussie. This battle on Coronation Drive had a sports loving nation on the edge of their seats. Deek came back again and gained a small lead. Ikangaa would not go away and sprinted by de Castella. De Castella launched another big surge and at 40km, he finally began to move away.
Deek, spurred on by the parochial crowds lining the route to the finish, continued to build his lead over the next 2 kilometres. The crowd soon began to encroach on the course on Stanley Street, approaching the finish. De Castella likened it to Moses parting the Red Sea, as the crowd moved out of his way as he ran towards hthem. Deek crossed the line in what would be a long standing all-comers record of 2.09.18, which was just outside Englishman Ian Thompson’s Games record (2.09.12). It was incredible given the oppressive conditions and tough, hilly course. The brave Ikangaa was about 60 metres adrift of the Australian, winning the silver in 2.09.30. Mike Grattan (ENG) worked his way through the field and won the bronze medal in 2.12.06.
The race was the highlight of the Games and though Deek was internationally well known, he was not quite a household name in his own country. This race indelibly etched de Castella the public consciousness. It was the moment which, arguably, was the major catalyst for the fun run boom that developed in Australia in the early to mid ‘80s.
It was also a run that inspired a generation of kids and young adult athletes, many of whom were running late for school as they sat watching Deek’s heroics on a warm spring morning. Former NSW Premier Nathan Rees, who was a NSW schools middle distance champion at the time, has spoken of Deek’s run as a major inspiration. Another keen viewer was a 20 year-old uni student from Ballarat – also a pretty enthusiastic runner – who sat absolutely transfixed watching the race that day and talks about how it was a major influence on his own running.
Deek would do battle with Ikangaa over the years and the two men became friends, their friendship and mutual respect forged through shared experience of this brutal, unforgiving race.
There would be many more triumphs for de Castella in the following years. He won a specially arranged marathon in Rotterdam in 1983 against an elite field (Lopes, Salazar, Parmentier, Gomez). The same year, he had a dominant win in the inaugural World Championship marathon. He was a disappointing 5th in the LA Olympic marathon in 1984, but bounced back with some great performances and had a spectacular win in Boston 1986, with the then third fastest marathon ever – 2.07.51 – which is still a national record. He had many other big wins: the Cinque Mulini cross country, the Great North Run and another win in Rotterdam, as well as other road race wins in the US and Australia.
De Castella became the director of the Australian Institute of Sport and was also a much sought-after commentator for major athletics championships. He has enjoyed a rich and diverse career in business and sports administration and is currently the director of the Indigenous Marathon Project, which has seen many young, aspiring indigenous athletes achieve their goal of completing a marathon.
Nowadays, de Castella is settled in Canberra with his new young family, yet still looks back fondly at Brisbane as a pivotal moment in his athletics career. It is also – almost four decades later – still remembered as a major moment in Australian distance running history.