Australian athlete who broke world records with ease, becoming the first man to run three miles in under 13 minutes
Thursday 18 June 2015
Ron Clarke, who has died aged 78, defined an era of distance running. He was at his most imperious when, in a flurry of races in 1965, he broke world records with metronomic regularity. Two performances stand out: on 10 July 1965, at the White City stadium in west London, he became the first man to run three miles in under 13 minutes; four days later, in Oslo, he took 36.2 seconds off the world 10,000m record. “We knew the landscape was changing,” said Bruce Tulloh, the then European 5,000m champion, and one of the athletes blown away by Clarke on the White City cinder track.
Breaking records, for the Australian, seemed to come easily. His career tally would grow to 17, to match the Finn Paavo Nurmi, and sit one behind the Czech Emil Zatopek. Winning titles was another matter. When the Olympics came around in 1968, Clarke, aged 31, was still at his peak. His world record times in both the 5,000m and 10,000m were so far superior to the times everybody else was running that, in any other Olympic year, both titles in both events would have been almost a shoo-in.
Clarke had lit the flame at the 1956 Games in his native Melbourne, but success had eluded him, a solitary bronze medal from the 10,000m in 1964 at Tokyo being the sum of his Olympic achievements. By 1968, though, the die had been cast. The International Olympic Committee, “those IOC idiots,” as Clarke would later call them, had ignored the overtures of Buenos Aires, Detroit and Lyon, all sea-level cities, and awarded the Games to Mexico City.
Mexico City is more than 2,200m above sea level. The air is thin. Sprinters love it; distance runners, who rely on oxygen transport to produce energy, do not. The athletes from lowland regions knew what was coming and, even though some tried using high-altitude preparation camps, come it did. All four distance events were won by African runners.
The first athletics final of the Games was the 10,000m and Clarke stayed on the pace until the last 400m, when his exertions, in the oxygen-thin air, took their toll. “It looks as if he’ll never do it now,” said the BBC commentator David Coleman, when Clarke slipped from contention. As he crossed the line in sixth place, 17 seconds behind the winner, Naftali Temu, everything Clarke had achieved in his career to that point was surpassed by the single thing he had not.
Over the line, Clarke collapsed. His doctor, Brian Corrigan, was already on his way. “He saw me go from normal Mexican fainting grey colour to green, which he thought was pretty dangerous. He wasn’t on the field, so to get there he had to jump over a moat and fight off a few policemen. It was lucky I took so long on the last lap, otherwise he wouldn’t have made it,” said Clarke.
Oxygen was administered and he rapidly recovered, competing in the 5,000m heats two day later (he would come fifth in the final), but the damage to a heart valve had been done and he would have heart issues for the rest of his life. Corrigan later owned that, in the moment, he thought that Clarke might die.
Clarke’s sporting career might have gone in another direction. His father, Tom, played Australian rules football for Essendon and Ron’s elder brother, Jack, would acquire near legendary status with the same club. Ron, too, played for the reserves, but when he broke a finger on his left hand in 1962 and the bone was set at a right angle (rather than amputate it), he turned to athletics.
Although he had set three world junior records at 18, Clarke’s career had to that point followed a stop-start pattern. National service interrupted his training for the 1956 Olympics (being chosen to light the flame, he said, was a “consolation”), studying for accountancy exams meant running took a back seat for the next Olympiad, and only from 1960 did he take it seriously again. His first world record came in Melbourne in December 1963, when he broke the six-mile and 10,000m records in the same race. (“That’s nice,” said his wife, Helen, when he told her about his achievement at a family party later that day. “Now would you help me hand out the sandwiches?”)
His career tally of 17 world records, is slightly skewed in Clarke’s favour because both metric and imperial records still stood and 10 of his world records came in just five races. But that is offset by the chasm he put between himself and history. Between December 1963 and July 1965, Clarke took 18.6 seconds off the world 5,000m record and an awe-inspiring and 38.8 seconds off the world 10,000m record.
Clarke eventually retired from the sport in 1970, never having dispelled the idea that he was more runner than racer. He did get an Olympic gold medal, though. After Mexico, Clarke was invited to Czechoslovakia by the four-time Olympic champion Zatopek. At the airport when he was leaving, he thrust a package in Clarke’s hand. He opened it on the plane. It was Zatopek’s 10,000m gold medal from the 1952 Games, re-engraved to Clarke.
He was later a successful businessman and from 2004 until 2012 was mayor of the Gold Coast. He was appointed MBE in 1966 and AO in 2013.
He is survived by Helen (whom he married in 1959) and their two sons, Marcus and Nicolas. His daughter, Monique, died in 2009.
• Ronald William Clarke, athlete, born 21 February 1937; died 17 June 2015