It was an inspired decision to invite a 19-year-old who had missed selection for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics to light the Games Cauldron. But even those responsible for such a famous call could not surely have envisaged the stunning career waiting to unfold.
By the time Ron Clarke’s contribution to the world of athletics on the track was over, his name was synonymous with success – 17 official world records, an Olympic bronze medal and four Commonwealth silvers. Both at home and in Europe he was the great entertainer of his time – drawing huge crowds in his own right and inspiring great improvements in performance in his disciplines across the board.
Ron was unquestionably one of the all-time greats of world distance running but when he began his athletic career in the 1950s it was initially combined with Australian football. Ron’s older brother Jack, himself a good junior mile runner, was the captain of the Essendon VFL (now AFL) football team and Ron was to play in their reserves.
Ron went to Melbourne High and ran for the School Old Boys at interclub in his early years. He won the Victorian sub-junior one mile championship in 1954 in 4.33.6 and the 1955 junior championship in 4.19.6. He was second on both occasions in the 880 yards.
At the Victorian Championships in January 1956 he ran a personal best of 4.07.6 to finish third in the mile behind John Landy and Merv Lincoln, providing an ideal preparation for a meet in Sydney three days later at which he set a world junior record of 4.06.8 for the distance.
That year’s Australian Championships were held in Melbourne in March and a crowd of 20,000 people were anticipating a possible world mile record from Landy. It is now part of Australian sporting folklore that on the third lap Ron fell and John who was immediately behind tried to leap over him but in doing so cut the younger man’s right arm with his spikes.
John stopped and ran back to see if Ron was okay. Ron urged John to keep going which he did, amazingly still winning the race. No world record but a great act of sportsmanship now immortalised in a sculpture featuring both men in Melbourne’s Olympic Park precinct.
It was a time of great depth in Australian middle distance running. Ron did not make the 1956 Olympic team as Landy, Lincoln and Jim Bailey were simply superior at the time. But the invitation to bring the Games flame into the Melbourne Cricket Ground for the Opening Ceremony and to light the cauldron ensured he was part of the occasion.
The following year, Ron finished fourth at the Nationals in both the one and three miles but then spent the next four years focusing on his studies.
By 1961 he was running well again and finished second to Tony Cook in the Victorian 3 mile title. At the end of that year Ron won the first Zatopek 10,000m in Melbourne. Improvement was steady and at the 1962 state titles he was third in the one, three and six miles and was second, behind Trevor Vincent, over 5000m. He was fourth at the Nationals at 3 miles.
The 1962 Commonwealth Games provided Ron with his first international experience. In the blazing heat of a Perth November, he failed to finish the six miles but came back strongly two days later to take silver in the three miles behind New Zealand’s Olympic gold medallist Murray Halberg in 13.35.92. On his return from Perth there was another Zatopek 10,000m victory in a respectable 29.53.0.
In early 1963 there were silver and bronze medals at the Nationals in Adelaide and later that year a gold in the National 10km cross-country. But the year’s best was yet to come for when he returned to familiar territory at the Zatopek in December, Ron broke the world records for both 6 miles (27.17.8) and 10,000m (28.15.6).
Ron had transferred clubs to Glenhuntly and made its boomerang insignia famous around the globe. At the 1964 Australian championships in Melbourne he was the second Australian home in the three miles. Selection for his first Olympic Games followed.
With few opportunities to compete around the globe at the time, simply as world record holder Ron was favoured to win gold in Tokyo. He led for most of the race, his powerful surges dropping most of the field. Just two runners stayed with him - Billy Mills (USA) and Mohamed Gammoudi (Tunisia). In the final lap Gammoudi sprinted into the lead down the back straight. Ron caught him on the final bend and the two sprinted for the tape only for both to be overtaken by Mills.
Ron took bronze in 28.24.4. On a rain-soaked track Ron was ninth over 5000m and as many of the top men of his day did, also ran the marathon again finishing ninth - in 2:20.27.
In December 1964 Ron set the third of his world records – 13.07.6 for three miles in Melbourne. The juggernaut was in train.
Ron began 1965 with a flurry of activity - two world records at 5000m in 16 days – first of all in Hobart in mid-January in 13.34.8 and then across the Tasman in Auckland (13.33.6). He returned to Hobart in February to finally win his first national senior track title, the 3 miles in 13.25.4 - as it happens the last occasion on which Australian championships were conducted over imperial distances.
Ron went overseas and had his most prolific record period - setting new world times for 5000m in Los Angeles (13.25.8) which included a three mile mark of 13.00.4; three miles again in London (12.52.4); 10,000m (27.39.4) and 6 miles (26.47.0) in Oslo. He had earlier bettered the 10,000m record in Turku, Finland with 28.14.0 but it was never ratified as it was said that permission to run was requested too late.
Ron’s impact was appropriately summed up by Arne Kvalheim, President of the Bislett Alliance at the celebrations for the 50th edition of the Bislett Games in June 2015.
“There is, however, one athlete I want to pay tribute to right away, an athlete we had hoped to introduce here today. That is Ron Clarke of Australia. His fantastic world 10,000 metres record set the standard for our meets to come.
“Ron ran in the first Bislett Games meet on 12 July 1966 and in five consecutive meets after that. He ran ten great races at Bislett and won all but one. Moreover, and even more important to the organising group, he sold an enormous amount of tickets. Ron Clarke was by far the most popular foreign athlete in this country 50 years ago.
“Ron’s excellent running and great charisma combined with (Arne) Haukvik’s promotional skills and salesmanship got us off to a fantastic start.”
Later in the year Ron set world records for 10 miles of 47.12.8 at the Mentone track in Melbourne and for 20,000m in Geelong (59.22.8) during his successful attempt on the one hour mark, in which he achieved 20,232 metres.
Ron celebrated Australia turning metric by winning the 5000 and 10,000m national titles in Perth in 1966. In July there were more world records - for 3 miles (12.50.4) and 5000m (13.16.6) in Stockholm.
In August Ron went to his second Commonwealth Games this time in Kingston, Jamaica to face the new men of the sport - the emerging Kenyan distance runners. He collected two more Commonwealth silvers behind Kipchoge Keino (in 12.59.2) and Naftali Temu (in 27.39.42) in the three and six miles respectively. They were super races and marked the beginning of a changing of the guard in world athletics.
Back home around that time, Ron had drawn to the attention of the then Amateur Athletic Union of Australia (now Athletics Australia) that meeting organisers were so keen to have him at their events that they were offering him stipends which he feared could endanger his amateur status. Long-serving Honorary Secretary, Arthur Hodson, proposed that any funds so received by the federation be placed in a trust fund to provide assistance for other athletes needing assistance to travel to competitions and for other purposes.
Ron thought it was a terrific idea and agreed to lend his name to the project. The Ron Clarke Foundation was born and in ensuing years provided support to hundreds of aspiring athletes to pursue their dreams in the sport.
In 1967 Ron retained his national 5000m title and later that year set his first world two mile record of 8.19.8 in Vasteras, Sweden.
Another national 5000m title a year later delivered selection for the Mexico Olympics. Ron was in great form going into the Games after running 13.27.8 and 27.49.4 in London and setting another world two miles record of 8.19.6 also in the British capital.
However the rarefied atmosphere of Mexico City’s altitude destroyed the ambitions of many of the world’s best distance runners who came from sea level. The now far more prominent Africans from the highlands of Kenya and Ethiopia easily won all the distance races.
Ron finished a gallant sixth in the 10,000m in 29.44.8 and fifth in the 5000m in 14.12.45. It nearly cost Ron’s life as he lay on the track being resuscitated with oxygen equipment - moments captured in some of the most memorable photos in Australian sporting history. Heart problems later in life were attributed to the rare air of Mexico.
Ron returned to home base, recovering to win the 1968 Zatopek 10,000m in Melbourne and then the 1969 edition. He won three more national titles winning the distance double in 1969 and the 10,000m in 1970. But there was still hope for a Games gold medal.
The 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh provided the platform and in one of the last races of his career, Ron tried his hardest in the 10,000m but was outsprinted by local hero Lachie Stewart and again had to settle for silver, his fourth, in 28.13.45. He faded to fifth in the 5000m in 13.32.4.
Those Games were not without controversy off the track. Athletics section manager, Graeme Briggs agreed that it would be a good idea for Ron as an experienced athlete to spend some nights away from the village with wife Helen. The decision saw both men incur the wrath of ACGA officials who demanded Ron return to the village immediately or both would be thrown off the team.
Whilst Ron never won Olympic or Commonwealth gold he without doubt revolutionised distance running with his 17 official world records. He showed generations of distance runners what could be achieved with hard work and courageous running.
In later life Ron again proved himself a champion as a successful businessman, politician as Lord Mayor of the Gold Coast, media commentator and author. He retained a strong interest in his sport, serving in various administrative capacities including as a member of AA’s Distance Commission.
He was among the inaugural inductees to both the Sport Australia and Athletics Australia Halls of Fame in 1985 and 2000 respectively. Recognition for his achievements as an athlete through national honours came with an MBE in 1966 and the Australian Sports Medal in 2000.
The Centenary Medal in 2001 acknowledged his distinguished service to eco-tourism – acknowledging, amongst other projects, his unique development of the Runaway Bay Training Centre which became a focal point for Australian and visiting team camps and competitions before and after the 2000 Olympics Games.
Ron was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2013, recognising his broader contributions to national life – in local government and philanthropy but also acknowledging a lifetime devoted to promoting the sport of athletics in any way that he could.
His life time of achievement and contribution to sport and to Australian society will be celebrated at a public commemoration at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on 14 July 2015 - the fiftieth anniversary of his famous 10,000 metres world record in Oslo.
Prepared by Athletics Australia Historian Paul Jenes OAM with the assistance of Brian Roe