Ever since he was head prefect at Aquinas College in Perth, through an athletic career notable for its almost casual brilliance, a master’s course at Cambridge and a series of increasingly responsible business posts, success has been Herb Elliott’s close and constant companion.
It is comforting, then, for lesser mortals like the rest of us to be aware that somewhere in that lustrous past there’s been a tiny smudge of failure. Herb once plunged briefly into the area of political activism, with unimpressive results.
In happened during a period of national moral outrage that began in the mid-1970s following French atomic testing at Mururoa and other atolls in the Pacific. After 40-odd atmospheric blasts, the tests went underground. Later came the destruction of the Rainbow Warrior, more tests under lagoons, more outrage.
The more Herb Elliott read about radioactivity in the air, and its potential to penetrate cows’ milk, the more he became convinced that children’s lives were at risk. And the more he kept staring angrily at a clock that had been given to him by the French government for athletic achievements in 1958.
He had been acclaimed as France’s sportsman of the year. The clock was the most beautiful timepiece he had ever seen: an ornate affair with a frosted glass face, hands of gold, each numeral figure depicting a running image of himself, an elaborate inscription, all mounted on a polished timber stand.
Finally he could gaze at it no longer. As he explained: “I was just repulsed by the notion that the French could give me such sumptuous recognition as a person, but that it wouldn’t recognise the lives of my children and other Australian kids.”
He took down the clock, deposited it in its great red velvet box, wrapped it in brown paper, and made his way to the office of the French consulate in St Kilda Road, Melbourne. He went to the counter, dinged the bell to summon attention, and waited to deliver his prepared speech of protest.
A clerk arrived at the counter, took one look at the brown paper bag containing something that was ticking loudly, and bolted. There were sounds of confusion in the office, and nobody ventured outside again. The consul-general stayed put. Elliott abandoned his speech, left the consulate, and wandered off lamely. As protests go, it was frankly a flop.
And years later, the clock came back --- delivered from Canberra by an apologetic French Embassy which was utterly unaware of his protest and seemed to blame itself for a late delivery. Elliott, a naturally amiable man, accepted it with grace. He was no longer angry anyway.
It was during Herb Elliott’s first visit to that same city, Melbourne, that events occurred which changed his life forever. They also changed the history of Australian sport. During a family holiday visit from Perth for the 1956 Olympic Games, he made a clandestine visit to the Olympic Village, via a back fence.
Wearing a nondescript tracksuit, he met a few heroes, including Ron Delaney, winner of the 1500 metres gold medal. Later, after he was evicted by a security guard, he vowed that the next time he entered an Olympic Village, it would not be across a fence.
The characters who affected the running career of Elliott so dramatically during that visit were a Russian sailor called Vladimir Kuts and a visionary coach, Percy Cerutty, who also happened to be quite eccentric. Kuts won the 5000 and 10,000 metres, running the best distance athletes off their feet as he varied the pace tantalisingly. Elliott watched from the grandstand, and Kuts’ performances --- particularly in the 5000 --- aroused in him an awe, a desire, and ultimately a commitment.
Cerutty, a man of charm as well as passion, persuaded Elliott’s parents to return to Perth without Herb. He took him to his training camp in the sandhills of Portsea, where he worked on the bodies and minds of his charges. He introduced Herb to the works of the great philosophers, fed him raw oats (which the runner had always regarded as chook food) and sent him on punishing runs through tea-tree scrub. Elliott was entranced, and the greatest athlete-coach relationship in Australian athletics began.
Elliott went on to run 17 sub-four-minute miles, at a time when that feat was a rarity. I was at Dublin’s Santry stadium in August 1958 when he won the best of them, taking a massive 2.7 seconds off the world record in a race in which five runners finished well inside four minutes.
Two years later broke his own world record in winning the 1500 metres gold medal at the Rome Olympics by a record margin of 20 metres. Such was the quality of his performance that his time --- recorded 40 years ago! --- would have won seven of the nine Olympic championships run since, including those at Seoul (1988), Barcelona (1992) and Atlanta (1996).
One simple sentence sums up the eloquent sweep of his career. He was never beaten over a mile or 1500 metres.
© Harry Gordon, 2000. Provided courtesy of the author and not to be used elsewhere without permission.
Sub 4-minute miles
January 25, 1958 Melbourne 3.59.9
January 30, 1958 Melbourne 3.58.7
February 15, 1958 Perth 3.59.6
May 16, 1958 Los Angeles 3.57.8
June 6, 1958 Compton, California 3.58.1
June 21, 1958 Bakersfield, California 3.57.9
July 26, 1958 Cardiff, Wales 3.59.0
August 6, 1958 Dublin, Ireland 3.54.5
August 29, 1958 Malmo, Sweden 3.58.0
September 3, 1958 London 3.55.4
March 14, 1959 Brisbane 3.58.9
February 6, 1960 Bendigo 3.59.8
June 4, 1960 Compton, California 3.59.2
September 14, 1960 London 3.58.6
September 20, 1960 Malmo, Sweden 3.58.6
September 23, 1960 Dublin, Ireland 3.57.0
September 26, 1960 London 3.59.8
1500m world records
August 28, 1958 Gothenburg, Sweden 3.36.0
September 6, 1960 Rome 3.35.6 (Olympic gold medal)
Elliott was born in Subiaco in 1938 and educated at Aquinas College Perth, Melbourne and Cambridge Universities. Herb had a short but brilliant career during which time he was never defeated over 1500 metres or 1 mile. A feat unequalled amongst international athletes past or present.
Herb was a brilliant junior athlete but injury prevented him from trying out for the Melbourne Olympics though he was inspired whilst spectating.
Herb was coached by the brilliant but eccentric coach Percy Cerutty at his famous camp in Portsea which included hard runs over sand dunes. Herb won the national 880 yards/1 mile double in 1957 and repeated the double in 1958 and 1960. He was selected for the 1958 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff where he won the double in the process breaking the 4-minute mile.
After Cardiff , he went on a European tour and at the famous Santree Stadium in Dublin he smashed the world 1 mile record by nearly 3 seconds in 3.54.5 and in the process dragged five runners under the 4-minute mark, including Australians Merv Lincoln and Albie Thomas. He then went to Goteborg, Sweden where he smashed the world 1500 metres record with 3.36.
Herb spent the next season studying and raising a family yet went to the Rome Olympics where he went to the front two laps from home and broke his own world record in winning the gold medal in 3.35.6.
After retiring in 1962 he spent many years working for an international sports wear company and worked for SOCOG prior to the Sydney Olympic Games. He also joined the board of Athletics Australia in 2003, retiring in 2005.