Tuesday, 15 August 2006

Gentleman John

Posted by speedygeoff on Tuesday, August 15, 2006 with 2 comments
In the 1950s, the greatest Australian athlete was John Landy. Every second week during the summer of 1952 and 1953 he attempted to break the four minute mile. He became the world champion miler in 1954, None was faster week after week in the world over the mile and three miles than John Landy. Ron Clarke already held the Australian and World Junior Mile record. As we came close to the Olympic Games everybody was looking to John Landy to set a new world record.

At the 1956 National Championships in Melbourne, 22,000 people watched the entrants line up for the start of the 1956 National Mile Championship. Everyone knew that if John Landy got a fast start in the early part of the race he would set a new world record. Everyone wanting Landy to run and win.

When the gun went off the young men each representing their states sped to the first turn and at the end of the first lap Robbie Morgan-Morris had completed the first quarter mile in 59 seconds, followed by Ron Clarke, Alec Henderson, John Plummer and then John Landy. The time was right on target for a world record. At the half mile Robbie Morgan-Morris was still leading and the time was two minutes two seconds. At the start of the third lap young Ron Clarke and Landy moved forward at a speedy pace. The world record was on!

Landy had only to go with the pace and a new world record would be in his grasp. Then occurred an event which is still etched on the minds of all those who witnessed it. Clarke was moving to the lead as they came into the corner on the third lap. John Landy was on his shoulder. Alec Henderson tried to squeeze between the two runners and the inside edge of the curb. In doing so Clarke, with his spikes, clipped his heel. Clarke sprawled forward onto the cinder track while Henderson was knocked onto the inside arena. Landy leaped over the falling body of Clarke in front of him and as he did his sharp spikes tore into the flesh of Clarke's shoulder. The whole field either jumped over Clarke or ran round him. The crowd which had been chanting "Landy, Landy, Landy, Landy" with every stride suddenly responded with an enormous gasp.

Landy then did the most incredibly stupid, foolish, gentlemanly act. He stopped, ran back to the fallen young Ron Clarke and helped him up to his feet, brushed cinders from knees and checking his bloodied shoulder said "Sorry". Clarke was all right. He said to Landy "Keep going, I'm all right. Run! Run!". Landy had forgotten everything. The Australian mile title, his bid for a world record, even the approaching Olympic Games in a spontaneous gesture of sportsmanship.

Clarke got to his feet and together Landy and Clarke set off after the other runners. They were 60 yards behind the rest of the field which had kept on running and the crowd did not expect them to continue. John Plummer, Merv Lincoln and Alec Henderson were leading the pack. Clarke and Landy sprinted off on that last half mile.

The crowd was shouting as with every stride Landy hauled in the front runners. He quickly ran round the rest of the field, came into the home straight leaving Clarke behind with the most powerful finish sprint. He stormed down the track and in the last ten yards passed Henderson and Lincoln to win the Australian Championship in four minutes, four seconds.

I doubt if there has ever been a reception given an athlete in all of history as those 22,000 people gave Gentlemen John Landy that day. The cheers and the applause would not die down. It continued minute after minute as Landy completed a victory lap. There was no question he could have set a new world record that day. Stopping and going back, picking up Clarke and then running back over his tracks had cost him eight or ten seconds. But it also unleashed in him a finish that was beyond anything that we had ever seen before. We had seen the greatest mile race in history. Landy was to go on and set new world records and become a hero at the 1956 Olympic Games but nothing compares with the race that summer night in the Melbourne Olympic Park in 1956 when he stopped, picked up young Ron Clarke and got himself into athletic immortality.


  1. I wonder what inspired this post? Thanks Geoff, I never knew it happened, but now I know just how awesome Landy is!

  2. If only the young runners of today could have the chance to be in a crowd of 22,000 at a national championships and see such a selfless gesture.