There are many faces to Ron Clarke. There’s the young man who held aloft a torch (whose unruly sparks gave him a hard time) and became a symbol of the 1956 Olympics. There’s the runner who tripped in a big race, and was tended by his rival John Landy. There’s the athlete who nearly died proving a point: that it’s just impossible for a sea-level runner to match it at high altitude over long distances with mountain men from Kenya, Ethiopia and Mexico.
Then there is the peerless distance runner who received credit for 17 official world records --- as many as Paavo Nurmi, considered by many the best of all time --- but in fact set at least one more that the bureaucrats of stats weren’t prepared to recognise. And there’s the man who committed the awful sin of being the best, but not winning Olympic or Commonwealth gold.
As a nation, we are a demanding, unforgiving lot. We burden people like Clarke and Steve Holland and Raelene Boyle with expectation, and when they buckle for whatever reason we act as if they’ve let us down. It is a fact of his life that the few races Clarke didn’t win during the peak stream of a long and bountiful career happened to coincide with Olympic and Commonwealth Games. So he was naturally branded a loser. It’s the Australian way.
There is another Ron Clarke: the successful businessman, author, philosopher and occasional initiator of controversy. Clarke’s two most recent books, his sixth and seventh, are Enjoying Life and Fixing the Olympics. The first embraces theories of lifestyle as well as some revealing passages of autobiography. The second makes clear his disillusionment with the IOC, opening ceremonies, victory presentations, over-long programs and Australia’s preoccupation with gold medals.
Many of his Olympic recommendations come from somewhere way beyond left field --- like the scrapping of drug testing and the elimination of 200, 800 and 10,000 metres track events --- but they are all well argued. As a reformer, as in most roles, the man is uncompromising.
Ron Clarke came from a sporting family --- his brother Jack is a member of the AFL Hall of Fame --- and he claims he took to running because he wasn’t a good enough footballer. He plays down his role in lighting the flame that began the Melbourne Olympic Games, calling it a consolation prize for not having made the Olympic team. At the time he was world junior mile record holder, and there is no doubt that a period of national army service in 1956 harmed his chances of selection.
What the 103,000 people who watched that opening ceremony could not possibly discern, as they saw Clarke being drenched by torch sparks, is that they were watching a novice legend. He certainly wasn’t treated like one. He rehearsed that morning with a balaclava mask as disguise, and afterwards wasn’t even given a ticket to watch. He took a train and bus to an uncle’s house in Balwyn, and watched the rest of the ceremony on television.
Clarke went on (after a four-year lay-off in which he consolidated his accountancy career) to establish himself as the finest distance runner of his time. At one stage he held every world record from two miles to 20 kilometres. His record in that distance band even surpasses that of Nurmi, who set four of his world times between 1500 and 2000 metres.
In 1965, at the peak of his career, he competed 18 times in eight countries during a 44-day tour of Europe --- and set 12 world records. Nine of those records were established inside 21 days. He lowered the world 5000 metres mark four times (by a total of 18 seconds) and the 10,000 metres record three times (clipping it by an overall 39 seconds).
Why did Clarke’s magnificence on the track not translate to Olympic gold? Largely self-coached, he won bronze in the Tokyo 1964 Olympics, and was placed ninth in both the 5000 and the marathon. His own candid assessment is that he ran bad tactical races, and that with the guidance of a good coach would have won the 10,000 and placed second in the 5000.
In Mexico City in 1968, when the high altitude gave a distinct, disgraceful advantage to distance runners who lived and trained in mountain country, he ran out of oxygen late in the 10,000 metres. He staggered on bravely, virtually unconscious, to finish sixth. He collapsed on the line and suffered heart damage which even now causes him to take daily medication.
Olympics aside, Clarke could hardly have had more successful careers in athletics and business. He now runs a resort on South Stradbroke Island that has set new marks for design and environmental management. And one of his greatest prizes is, yes, an Olympic gold medal. The athlete he admires most, Emil Zatopek, slipped it to him in a package once at Prague airport with the words: “Look after this. You deserve it.”
Zatopek owned four gold medals. This one was for the 1952 10,000 metres. The admiration was mutual.
© Harry Gordon, 2000. Provided courtesy of the author and not to be used elsewhere without permission.
2 mile world record
1967 Vasteras 8:19.8
1968 London 8:19.6
3 mile world record
1964 Melbourne 13:07.06
1965 Los Angeles 13:00.4
1965 London 12:52.4
1966 Stockholm 12:50.4
5000m world record
1965 Hobart 13:34.8
1965 Auckland 13:33.6
1965 Los Angeles 13:25.8
1966 Stockholm 13:16.6
6 mile world record
1963 Melbourne 27:17.8
1965 Oslo 26:47.0
10,000m world record
1963 Melbourne 28:15.6
1965 Oslo 27:39.4
10 mile world record
1965 Melbourne 47:12.8
20km world record
1965 Geelong 59:22.8
1 hour world record
1965 Geelong 20,232m
10,000m unofficial world record
1965 Turku 28:14.0
1964 Olympic Games, Tokyo
Bronze medal 10,000m
Clarke was born in Melbourne in 1937 and was educated at Melbourne High School. He became one of Australia’s most prolific world record breakers and in the process revolutionised long distance running in the world. Ron set an amazing 17 world records between 2 miles and 20 kilometres.
As a junior Ron had set world junior records between 1500 metres and 2 miles and was selected to carry and light the Olympic flame in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. However, it was a number of years before he reached his peak as a distance runner. He had been concentrating on his studies and also played reserves football with Essendon in the VFL (now AFL).
Ron was selected for the 1962 Commonwealth Games where he finished second in the 3 miles. He began setting world records in 1963 at the Zatopek meeting in Melbourne where he smashed the world 6 miles and 10,000 metres record. Ron went to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics as one of the favorites but was outsprinted by American Billy Mills and finished third in the 10,000 metres. Ron had a great European season in 1965 and 1966, setting further world records and also picked up two silver medals at the 1966 Kingston Commonwealth Games over 3 and 6 miles.
Ron’s medal ambitions were shattered in Mexico’s rarified atmosphere yet still managed a fifth in the 5000 metres and sixth in the 10,000 metres behind African athletes from altitude. The effort Ron made was to cost him in the long term with heart problems.
Ron’s international career closed at the 1970 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games where he finished second in the 10,000 metres and fifth in the 5000 metres.
In his career he won nine national titles. His best for 5000 metres was 13:16.6 and for 10,000 metres was 27:39.89, national records until 1998 and 1996 respectively.
Ron’s versatility over the distances saw him ninth in the 1964 Olympic marathon. Ron later became a successful businessman, media commentator and Mayor of the Gold Coast (from March 25, 2004).