(Francois) Robert de Castella MBE (1957 – )
Rob de Castella, ‘Deek’ as he is affectionately known, put marathon running on the map during his athletics career. His amazing runs in the 1980’s encouraged many people to watch or participate in marathon races. He was rightly internationally acclaimed as the number one marathon runner in the World in the 1980’s.
Rob began running at age eleven and was an outstanding schoolboy athlete at Melbourne’s Xavier College where he was fortunate to have as a teacher, 1962 Commonwealth Games representative Pat Clohessy. Pat and Rob became a close knit and successful unit as coach and athlete, a partnership that endured throughout his career.
As a junior, Rob ran on the track and cross-country. The track events at national championships were a bit short for him but he finished second in the National Junior Cross-Country over 10km.
Although still a junior, he took on the seniors at the 1975 Nationals in Adelaide and finished sixth in the 5,000m in 14.14.6 and later that year won the National Junior Cross-Country title. In 1976 he improved his 5,000m placing at the Nationals to fifth in 14.03.5 as the top men battled for a place in the Olympic team. He finished third in the National senior cross-country that year and in mid-December he was fourth in the Zatopek Classic 10,000m in 28.50.4.
Rob did not contest the 1977 Nationals on the track or cross-country but still justified selection for two national teams - the World Cross-Country and the Pacific Conference Games. The 1977 World Cross-Country Championships were held in Dusseldorf, West Germany and Rob finished thirty seventh in a field of 176 runners, helping Australia to finish sixth overall. He then easily won the Pacific Conference Games 10,000m in 29.23.66 in Canberra in December.
The 1978 Australian Cross-Country title secured, he won selection for the next year’s World Cross-Country championships in Limerick, Ireland, in which he finished 62nd. A few months later, in his first race at the distance, he won the Victorian marathon championships at Point Cook in 2:14.44. Two months later in August he won the national title at Herne Hill, WA in 2:13.23 and in December he won, for the only time in his long career, the much prized Zatopek 10,000m in 28.23.6.
Deek set his sights on the 1980 Moscow Olympics. A selection trial for the games was held in Adelaide in April in which Rob finished second in 2:12.24 behind Gerard Barrett’s 2:11.43 and ahead of Chris Wardlaw who ran 2:12.47, all three gaining selection. Before the Games, Rob successfully defended his national cross-country title and then set off to Moscow where he finished tenth in 2:14.31.
He completed his third marathon for the year when he finished eighth in the famous Fukuoka marathon in Japan in a personal best time of 2:10.44.
Returning to the track Rob finished second in the 1981 national 5,000m title in Adelaide in 13.54.8 behind Steve Austin and nine days later he took sixth in the World Cross-Country championships in Madrid, Spain which saw the Ethiopian team stop a lap short by mistake when in the lead. They recovered to win the team title. Australia was fifth.
Rob won the 25km national road title mid year, then in November he ran his fastest ever 5,000m - 13.34.2 in Melbourne. The following month he won Fukuoka in 2:08.18 just missing Alberto Salazar’s 2:08.13 world best set two months earlier but bettering Derek Clayton’s then Australian best of 2:08.34. Later Salazar’s New York time was found to be based on a course almost 500 metres short which made Rob the then fastest marathon runner of all time. At that time Fukuoka and Boston were the number one marathon races in the world.
Rob was tenth in the World Cross-Country championships in Rome in 1982 and whilst in Italy he was able to run his fastest ever half marathon - 1:01.18 in Milan. Back home he retained his national 25km title and was second in the cross-country.
The 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane was the venue for one of Rob’s most memorable moments. An early morning start saw two Tanzanians Gidamis Shahanga, the defending title holder, and Juma Ikangaa go to the lead in the marathon. They appeared to build an insurmountable lead before Deek slowly reeled them in. He passed Shahanga and eventually caught up to Ikangaa but the latter refused to be headed and regained the lead. A tremendous battle was fought out between the two over the race’s closing stages before Rob prevailed, to win gold in 2:09.18.
In 1983 Rob was joined by his brother Nick, also an accomplished distance runner, in the World Cross-Country in Gateshead, UK. Rob finished 6th once again whilst Nick was 109th, Australia finishing fourth in the teams’ competition.
Speculation was rife throughout the World as to who was its best marathon runner. Was it Deek or Salazar? Both invited to contest the Rotterdam marathon in Holland in April. Televised live throughout the globe as marathon running had reached new heights in popularity, the question was answered as Rob came out on top, winning in 2:08.37 from Portugal’s Carlos Lopes 2:08.39 and Mexico’s Rodolfo Gomez 2:09.25. Salazar finished fifth in 2:10.08.
In August there was another special victory in 2:10.03 – in the marathon at the first IAAF World Championships in Helsinki. To finish possibly his best year ever, Rob was second in the Zatopek, but in a personal best of 28.02.73 behind Kenyan Gabriel Kamau’s 27.59.15.
Olympic year 1984 saw Rob finish 21st in the World Cross-Country in New York won by Lopes. He retained his 25km road title, before tackling the Olympic marathon in Los Angeles. The race was run in warm and very sunny conditions. Rob was with the leaders past 30km but he missed a break going for a drink and was never able to close the gap, eventually finishing fifth in 2:11.09, a second ahead of Ikangaa - both behind Lopes’ winning time 2:09.21. The year finished with a third in the Chicago marathon in 2:09.09 behind Britain’s Steve Jones 2:08.05 and Lopes’ 2:09.06. leaving Rob ranked third for the year.
The 1985 World Cross-Country was in Lisbon, Portugal and Rob finished 20th. His only marathon for the year was in Chicago where he finished third in 2:08.48 behind Jones (2:07.13) and Djibouti’s Djama Robleh (2:08.08).
The following year, he finished second in the 1986 National 10,000m in Canberra in 28.37.98 behind Sweden’s Lars Nilsson and then headed to Neuchatel, Switzerland where he was 14th in the World Cross-Country. He then won the famous Boston marathon in a fast 2:07.51.
The Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, Scotland was hit by a major boycott by many countries. The marathon field of 20 did include Olympic bronze medallist Charlie Spedding of England, but there were no Kenyans or Tanzanians. Rob still had to work hard to retain his title in 2:10.15 over Canada’s Dave Edge (2:11.08) and a young Steve Moneghetti (2:11.18). He continued his good form finishing third in the New York marathon in 2:11.43 won by Italy’s Gianni Poli in 2:11.06.
Rob started 1987 in promising fashion, finishing sixth in the Boston marathon in 2:14.24 but failed to finish in hot conditions in the Rome World Championships.
He started the year of his third Olympics in great form, taking fourth in Tokyo in a quick 2:08.49 but did not recover well and failed to finish the World Cross-Country in Auckland a month later. He came back to win both national cross-country and 15km road races.
Once again the Olympic marathon was run in heat and high humidity in Seoul, Korea but Rob finished a fighting eighth in 2:13.07 behind Italian winner Gelindo Bordin (2:10.32).
After a quiet 1989 he came back for the 1990 Auckland Commonwealth Games but finished only 13th in 2:18.50, before a fifth placing in Boston in 2:11.28.
On the track in 1991, he was third in the national 10,000m championships in Sydney before returning to the road and Rotterdam to win in 2:09.42, demonstrating that he was back at his best.
The 1992 Olympics were in Barcelona, Spain and in 27 degree heat the marathon started. The finish of this marathon was uphill from the 35km mark, making it even harder for the runners. Rob once again ran his heart out to finish very distressed in twenty sixth place in 2:17.44.
He ran one more marathon, finishing 33rd in the 1993 London marathon in 2:19.44 before his great competitive running career came to an end.
Rob became Director of the Australian Institute of Sport in 1990, a position he held until 1995. As of 2008, he continues to live and work in Canberra and remains a passionate advocate for athletics and marathon running in particular.
David Martin & Roger Gynn. The Olympic Marathon
Mark Butler, The Toughest Race in the World, 30 Years of the IAAF World Cross-Country
Gerald Lawson, The World Record Breakers in Track and Field Athletics
Peter Matthews, ATFS Athletics Annual 1988 to 1993
Ottavio Castellini, Carlos Fernandez Canet, Isao Sugawara, Marathon Handbook 1997
Paul Jenes, Peter Hamilton, Australian Athletic Results
Paul Jenes, Fields of Green, Lanes of Gold
Richard Hymans, IAAF World Records
Mark Butler, Olympic Athletics Statistics