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Athletics Australia Hall of Fame
John Landy (1930-) AC MBEJohn Landy

To John Landy it was an unfortunate accident, a diversion really --- and certainly not an important event in his running career. He was never allowed to forget it, though, and reckons that it came to haunt the rest of his life. “A lot of people seemed to think it was the most significant thing I ever did in running,” he has said. “It wasn’t --- but the press grabbed it and made it look that way.”

The incident in question occurred at Olympic Park, Melbourne, on March 11 1956, during the Australian mile championship. Diversion or not, it was named at the end of 1999 by the Sport Australia Hall of Fame as the nation’s finest sporting moment of the 20th century. And it has been commemorated by a larger-than-life sculpture called Sportsmanship, erected directly across the road from Olympic Park.  

John Landy, now Governor of Victoria, and I have been good friends since the days in 1952 when he used to run around Central Park, East Malvern, very close to his home, trying to translate lessons he had absorbed in Helsinki that year from Emil Zatopek into his own style. Even so, he has never really forgiven me for my reaction to his behaviour in that race at Olympic Park. When he mentions it, he always sounds a bit rueful.  

So what actually happened? It all began when Ron Clarke, the youngster who would one day hold every world record from two miles to 20 kilometres, came a cropper. As Clarke crashed down after clipping another competitor’s heel, Landy, who was very close behind, leaped desperately to clear his body. He didn’t quite manage that, his spikes landing on the inside of Clarke’s arm.

Landy pulled up, and with other runners streaming past him, took the time to trot back to Clarke --- who was still on the ground --- and check how badly hurt he was. And yes, he also apologised.

Assured that the injury wasn’t too serious, Landy looked up, then did something that astonished most of the 22,000 spectators. With Clarke on his feet now, and urging him on, he began to chase a field of runners that had gone a long way past him.

He had about a lap and a half to go. At the bell lap he was fairly hurtling. And amazingly, he won the race. His act of chivalry had cost him perhaps up to seven seconds, and there is no doubt he sacrificed the chance of a world record. His time was 4 min. 4.2 sec.

John Landy did not just win a championship that day. He took a footrace into folklore. I was a privileged witness, and I have to say that after more than half a century of watching and writing about sport all over the world, I have never seen a finer example of undiluted sportsmanship.   

Next day I reacted the only way I knew how. In my newspaper, The Sun News-Pictorial, I wrote an open letter to John Landy about his actions. The entire letter, fashioned in bronze, now sits at the base of the sculpture created by Mitch Mitchell. A couple of paragraphs are worth quoting here:

“Yours was a classic sporting gesture. It was a senseless piece of chivalry --- but it will be remembered as one of the finest actions in the history of sport. In a nutshell, you sacrificed your chance of a world record to go to the aid of a fallen rival. And in pulling up, trotting back to Ron Clarke, muttering ‘Sorry’ and deciding to chase the field, you achieved much more than any world record …”

And again: “A lot of people are wondering why you pulled up. The truth is, of course, that you didn’t think about it. It was the instinctive action of a man whose mate is in trouble. In the record books it will look a very ordinary run for these days. 

“But, for my money, the fantastic gesture and the valiant recovery make it overshadow you magnificent miles in Turku and Vancouver. It was your greatest triumph. And it is fitting that it took place in your home town.”

So long afterwards, I wouldn’t change a word. It’s my belief that some of the proudest history of our nation had had a lot to do with people reacting generously, selflessly, courageously --- and, yes, instinctively --- when their mates have been in trouble. In so many places: in bushfires, in floods, in battlefields, in the surf.

John Landy originally saw running as a means of getting fit for football (he played with Melbourne’s under-19 side), but after he made the state athletics team in 1951 decided to take the sport more seriously. He went on to a superb track career, one that took him to two world records (for the mile and 1500 metres) in Turku, Finland, in the same race, to two Olympic Games (with a bronze medal in 1956), to a “Mile of the Century” at the Vancouver Commonwealth Games (in which he went down to Roger Bannister) and to four national championships (three for one mile, one for three miles).

Two men who influenced his progress were Emil Zatopek and Percy Cerutty. While he was never a disciple of the latter, he accepted his dictum that there was no gain unless there was pain. At a time when athletes were not pushing themselves in training --- for fear of staleness or burn-out --- Cerutty was advocating that the body should be subjected to stress, as long as there was enough rest between the bouts of stress. His conditioning example had much to do with the success of Australian athletes in the 1950s and 1960s.       

Landy came under the spell of Zatopek at the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games, where the Czech won the 5000 metres, 10,000 metres and marathon. Landy did not progress behind his heats of the 1500 and 5000 metres at those Games, but accepted invitations to run with Zatopek and took careful note of his methods, including his punishing repetition training. He changed his style, even his running shoes, and galloped each night around Central Park (which now bears his name). 

Within three months of returning from Helsinki, Landy had cut his times massively --- to a degree where he became the fastest miler in the world. Suddenly he was caught up in the almost mythical battle to break the four-minute mile, an aspiration that had long consumed runners like the Swedes Gundar Haegg, Arne Anderson, the American Wes Santee and the Englishman Roger Bannister.

Although Landy had nudged close, mainly on poor tracks in Australia, the breakthrough came from Bannister --- with 3:59.4 at Oxford on May 6 1954, with the aid of blatant pacing from Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway. Six weeks later, in Turku, Finland, Landy broke that record unaided. He recorded 3:41.8 for the 1500 metres on his way to 3:57.9 for the mile (rounded up under the rules of the day to 3:58.00).    

Bannister and Landy met at the 1954 Vancouver Commonwealth Games in what was billed as the “Mile of the Century”. Landy, traditionally a front runner, went out very hard for the first three laps, and led by 10 metres at the bell. Thinking he had shaken Bannister off, he looked on the last bend across his left shoulder. Suddenly the Englishman was sweeping past him on the right to win gold. Such was the impact of that moment that a life-sized sculpture of it was erected outside the stadium. 

Landy would never make excuses for not being at his best for the last race of his career in the Melbourne Olympics --- but the truth was that he suffered tendon damage in his legs while running on hard American tracks in the previous year to promote the Games. He did very well to win bronze in the 1500 behind Ireland’s Ron Delany and West Germany’s Klaus Richtzenhan.

When the Victorian government made the sensible decision to appoint Landy Governor of the state, the Premier, Steve Bracks, paid tribute to his humility. It is a trait that has often asserted itself --- but maybe never more so than in his attitude to that memorable day at Olympic Park in March 1956.

He still believes that what he did in that race didn’t warrant a fuss. That’s what makes him special.

© Harry Gordon, 2004. Provided courtesy of the author and strictly not to be used without permission.

1956 Olympics, Melbourne
Bronze medal 1500m
1954 Commonwealth Games, Vancouver
Silver medal 1 mile
World records
1500m - 3.41.8 (1954)
1 mile - 3.58.0 (1954)

John Landy was Governor of Victoria from January 1, 2001 to April 7, 2006. Complementing his sporting achievements, Landy is an agricultural scientist, has written two books on natural history and is an avid naturalist, photographer, author and environmentalist.

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