Note: The Landy Era, by Len Johnson, is available for purchase from the Runner’s Tribe bookstore. Help support Len Johnson and Runner’s Tribe, providing running content on this platform since 2008.
By Ron Clarke
There is no doubt the catalyst for the turnaround in Australian distance running was John Landy and his feats at Olympic Park in the summer of 1952–53. At that time I, for one, was a keen footballer and cricketer who only ran in the school cross-country one Wednesday afternoon in July each year, and the school sports every October.
I must have had some distance talent from the start as I was never beaten in my age group in cross-country and managed to win all age groups, including the open, from the time I was twelve years old in year two of secondary school (1949). Yet, typical of the time, I never thought of joining an athletic club or doing anything else but playing football all winter and cricket all summer.
The London (1948) and Helsinki (1952) Olympic Games came and went with not much of a passing thought except to marvel at the feats of Emil Zatopek and Marjorie Jackson in the athletics, Russell Mockridge and Lionel Cox in the cycling, and feel sorry for John Marshall, who failed to win the swimming Gold medals we all expected. Judy Joy Davies and Marjorie Quade (together with Quade’s boyfriend, water polo competitor Peter Bennett, also a St Kilda footballer) were others from that era whose feats made us all proud of being Australian and taking on the world. The names of athletes John Landy, Don Macmillan, Les Perry and coach Percy Cerutty were known but no one in our circles really knew what they looked like … they were just names in the newspaper.
However, John Landy’s 4:02.1 recorded at Olympic Park on an ordinary interclub race one summer day in December 1952 — a time within one second of the world record — changed all that. Suddenly, the sports fans in Melbourne became interested in athletics. Landy’s continued assault of Gunder Hägg’s supposedly invincible world record, combined with the debate as to whether the human body could ever run so fast for so long as to break four minutes for the one mile distance, aroused the interest of us all.
By then, I was 15 and had just finished my Leaving Certificate at Essendon High School. As Essendon had dropped their matriculation classes three years earlier due to lack of numbers, those of us who wanted to continue with our education had the choice of Melbourne or University High. Up until then, every Australian Olympic distance runner (from 800 metres upwards) from Ted Flack in 1896 to Don Macmillan and John Landy in 1952 had emerged out of the private school system, with the exception of Les Perry, who discovered his talent for running while participating in army competitions at the end of World War II.
In 1953 at Melbourne High I, too, was taking much more of an interest in “track and field”, as I had learned to refer to athletics. For the first time in my life, all my races on the track were timed. I easily won the school and interschool cross-country, then I won the 220, 440, 880 and the mile on the same afternoon at the school athletic sports, the last two in school record times. I became a bit of a king, receiving the type of attention usually only devoted to the captain of the senior football team at Essendon.
I’m certain others around the same age, all over the country, also started to acknowledge that competing in track and field had some distinct challenges and attractions. I began to break some state, and then Australian, junior records, culminating in world best times for the one, two and three mile events (there was no such thing as world records for juniors back then). I transferred my devotion from cricket to track although nothing I, or Landy, ever did could get me away from playing football during the winter months rather than competing in cross-country.
I met some of the top runners, including John Landy. I’ll always remember first meeting John in a dressing room at Olympic Park when he introduced himself with the words going something like: “Well done Ron. I’m John Landy and, although he will probably not remember me, I raced your brother Jack in the Australian Junior Championships in January 1948 at the St Kilda football ground when we were both kids and he beat me.” Actually, John was Associated Public Schools (APS) champion in 1947, at 18 years of age, whereas Jack was just 14 and more interested in the triple jump and the sprints. John went on to be a world champion whereas Jack never ran another 880 again until after he retired from football and competed at the Stawell Gift meeting as a 36-year-old.
Neil Robbins, a Les Perry protégé at Williamstown athletic club and one of Landy’s fellow competitors in the 1954 Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, took me under his wing and introduced me to Austrian coach Franz Stampfl, whose group Neil also joined in preparation for the 1956 Olympics 3000 metres steeplechase. Landy was out there doing his heroics, and Dave Stephens broke the Australian six miles record on the grass track at the Junction Oval in St Kilda (better known to me then as the St Kilda football ground) running in bare feet — an event I actually witnessed.
Stephens’s performances, and the selection of Melbourne as the Olympic venue for the 1956 Olympics, convinced the legendary Hungarian distance stars Tabori, Rozsavolgyi and Iharos, together with their esteemed coach, Mihaly Igloi, to tour Melbourne in 1955 and take on Dave Stephens, who was equal to the task. The Victorian Amateur Athletic Association (VAAA) was flush with funds at the time and so was able to finance their visit. It was great athletics and to see it in the flesh was exhilarating for a teenager now completely involved in the challenge of seeing just how fast he could run.
I have to admit I never thought I would ever be competing internationally on a level equal to the Hungarians. Frankly, I just didn’t think about it; my sporting ambitions were solely focused on joining my brother Jack in playing football with Essendon. But it was fun pushing the barriers. In fact, up until I joined Stampfl’s squad, I never trained for track but for the odd session with Neil Robbins and his friends. The first thing Franz did when he saw me was put me on a diet: no sweets, ice cream, potatoes or bread — all foods I loved to eat. Whether it was the regular daily training or the diet, or a bit of both, I quickly dropped more than a stone (just over six kilograms) and started to challenge the world junior records.
I remember interclub during those days as being most exciting. Everybody competed at the same venue so we could all compete with, if not against, Australia’s top athletes; we could see how fit they were, how much they enjoyed their sport and how approachable they were. When Olympic Park was closed in preparation for the Olympics we moved to Collingwood with the funniest shaped track I ever did see. The 440 hurdles stretched in a straight line parallel to the road, with the hurdles seemingly going on forever. The circular events started on the same track but then went around a tiny circle, about 220 yards around, so the computations for the various distances were quite complex. Of course, the field was all grass. It wasn’t until after the Olympics that some suburban tracks started to emerge.
There was much excitement and urgency about the place. Franz gathered quite a collection of high jumpers, throwers, sprinters and distance runners about him, all of whom trained at the new track Professor Rawlinson (an ex-javelin thrower) had persuaded the university authorities to build. Merv Lincoln, another ex-Melbourne High student, was developed by the mercurial Austrian from an ordinary runner into a world champion. Yet another who improved greatly under Stampfl’s tutelage was Ron Blackney, who flourished into an Australian steeplechase champion after languishing for many years as an average interclub athlete. Then there was Hec Hogan, already an Australian champion sprinter but taken to new heights under Stampfl (he placed third in the Olympic 100 metres in 1956 and remains our only ever male Olympic medalist in the 100). I remember that everyone, after they finished their own training, had to race Hec over 30–40 yards a few times before they showered. In all Hec would have 50 to 60 starts each night, giving his opponents anything up to 20 yards start, with lots of banter and bets being won and lost.
The influence of Landy breaking the world record and the four minute mile was momentous (even if he lost the race to do it first to Roger Bannister, helped by none other then Franz Stampfl, in an artificial time trial rather than a race). Of course, the interest created by Landy was heightened by the coming Olympics. Soon, a young West Australian, inspired by the Olympics and egged on by Percy Cerutty, broke all my junior world times and quickly went on to become our greatest ever Olympic miler. His name was Herb Elliott.
It was the spirit that prevailed at the time that was so inspiring. Les Perry, one of our greatest Olympians, organised track meetings at his club’s track in Williamstown where he was the chief attraction, the promoter, and sold most of the tickets at the gate. His enthusiasm was infectious, as was that of his clubmates, Neil Robbins, Geoff Warren, Dave Stephens and many more.
Percy Cerutty also contributed. Even his bitter rivalry with the “Austrian import” Franz Stampfl was good press, with the distance athletes dividing into opposing groups. Herb Elliott’s phenomenal success boosted Cerutty’s stocks enormously but the renegade coach’s own erratic behaviour discouraged many potential athletes from visiting Portsea where he had established his training headquarters.
I remember persuading my father and brother to take me across the city to a Cerutty lecture at Caulfield Racecourse one Sunday morning in January 1954. At one point, Cerutty took me to one side, knowing I had broken a few school distance records the previous year, to give me a personal demonstration. He took me some 400 metres away up the track because, he said, he was always “being spied upon by professional coaches”, pointing to my father and brother. When I told him who his “spies” were he was pretty unimpressed; in fact I don’t think he believed me. I determined I would wait until I met a coach I could believe before committing to any sort of a training program.
Another principle I had at an early age was to look to compete against older athletes in open races rather than be satisfied with winning in restricted competition. My father had always preached that competition was always more important than results. “Always keep stretched if you really want to improve” he used to tell both Jack and me. So I have never been that impressed with junior champions; it’s what they do with their talent that matters. In 1957, Herb Elliott showed just how true that philosophy was when he took on the world as a teenager and won. Later, Gerry Lindgren, Bruce Kidd and Jim Ryun all went on to prove it, too.
Interestingly, 16-year-old Herb Elliott (I was almost exactly eleven months older) thrashed me in the 1955 Australian Junior Championships in Adelaide. Then he dropped a piano on his foot at the beginning of the next season (1955–56) and so was out of the scene until his father, worried his talented son was lapsing into a surfing lifestyle, paid for Herb to come to Melbourne, stay with Cerutty, and watch the Olympics. According to his biography, Herb looked at the heroics being displayed before him by the likes of Ronnie Delany and Vladimir Kuts and said “I can do that,” and set out to do so. I watched the same great runners and said “I could never do that,” and focused on football yet again.
But I believe I was the exception. Hundreds of youngsters were inspired by the challenge of track and field. Schools became better organised, cinder and all-weather tracks were built, interclub became better organised, and the competitions in all events improved in standards. By the time I returned to the sport seriously, again led into it by Les Perry, its popularity was at its peak.
I found it much more enjoyable the second time around. I joined Glenhuntly, where the club dressing rooms were located at the same Caulfield Racecourse where Percy Cerutty so disillusioned me. Now running became a pleasure more than a challenge. It was an exciting era and I have wondered ever since why I ever did prefer football when I was so much more talented as a runner. What would have happened had I tried cross-country running when I was 18 instead of waiting until I was 25? Who can tell?
I do know that when I did get more involved in 1961, even though I was losing most of my events in the beginning, the satisfaction of establishing new personal bests, the joys of competition and in simply running through the countryside or along the beach — joys that others must have been encountering for all those years — had me regretting my earlier short-sightedness.