The defining moment in the Olympic career of Ralph Doubell occurred not as he sprinted desperately for the finishing line in the final of the 800 metres in Mexico City in 1968 --- but a couple of minutes earlier, as he and his rivals lined up for what would become an aborted start.
With the field of eight under starter’s orders and locked in the “set” position, the runner in the lane next to the Australian broke. Doubell was wrongly accused of having made a false start … shockingly and unfairly, but still placed automatically on his last warning.
In a split second he had to make a judgment. There were three options really. He could dispute the decision, protest his innocence, and lose both concentration and emotional energy; he could “wear it”, nursing the knowledge that he had been wronged, that his final hopes were on a knife-edge; or he could shut the episode out of his mind altogether.
He settled for the last option. In doing so he demonstrated one of the qualities that made him one of this country’s finest middle-distance runners ever: his huge reservoir of mental toughness. So effectively did he pull down the shutters on that false start that when he talked to reporters later, they were unaware of his problem.
It is history now that Doubell went on to win the 800 metres final in a world-record time that still stands as the fastest by an Australian. He beat the favourite, the Kenyan Wilson Kiprugut, sweeping past him in the last 50 metres to win in 1:44.3 --- a world record he shared with Peter Snell (1962) and David Wottle (1972) until it was broken by Marcello Fiasconaro in 1973.
Doubell’s passage to glory over three days --- October 13, 14 and 15 --- at those Games provides a splendid case history of the maintenance of focus under extreme mental pressure. He was 23, unfazed by either the host city’s oxygen-depleting altitude or the quality of the opposition, and he accepted without demur the beguilingly simple instruction from his coach, Franz Stampfl: “Just win the next three races.” These happened to be the heat, the semi and the final.
One rule Doubell observed during a career that embraced six Australian 800 metres championships was always to be prepared for the unexpected. Sure enough, it came during his first race in Mexico City, when the El Salvador runner in the next lane, Alfredo Cubias, sliced directly across his path immediately after the start, almost tripping him.
“I stopped and turned to protest,” Doubell said later, “but nobody seemed the slightest bit interested … so I took off after the field. Within a short distance, I encouraged Mr Cubias with my elbow to stay in his own lane.” Doubell went on to win the heat by a couple of strides, running comfortably.
The next race, the faster semi-final, pitted him against the favourite, Kiprugut. The Kenyan had finished second in the last two Commonwealth Games. He had the fastest time before the Games, had won the trial events at the Olympic Village, and had won his heat by 15 metres.
Against that, Doubell had had a relatively short international career, but one that had peaked when it mattered: he had won the 800 at the World University Games in 1967, beating the European record-holder Franz-Joseph Kemper, and early in 1968 had had a remarkably successful barnstorming indoor season on boards in the US. He had attracted remarkably little attention from the Australian media, and the relative anonymity suited him. No fuss meant no pressure.
Kiprugut’s race plan was habitual: he would go to the lead early and run from the front. Doubell’s strategy was to sit back during the first half, gradually move up in the second, and then kick. That’s what happened in the semi-final, from which the first four place-getters would move into the final.
Doubell gave a rare insight into his race thinking when he addressed a speech night assembly at his old school, Melbourne High, in 1996. Of the semi, he said: “I was running comfortably in fourth position (but) I thought that was a bit risky, so I moved up to third, and was amazed how easy it felt. I then thought coming second might be safer, so I breezed into second place just behind Kiprugut.
“Again it felt easy --- it was as though I was on a training run. Kiprugut was leading and seemed to be making heavy weather of it. I then decided to test him, and myself, by moving level with him with about 60 metres to go. This was the start of the psychological battle … I drew level, and glanced across and indicated that I thought this seemed like an ordinary training run --- ‘Can’t you run a bit faster?’ I then breezed by him to win by one or two metres.”
By the final Stampfl and Doubell were convinced it would be a race between the Kenyan and the Australian --- a classic match between a front runner and a kicker. After his trouble at the start, Doubell was an emphatic last after 110 metres. Unsurprisingly, Kiprugut led the field from the gun, and still had a six-yard lead after 600 metres. For Doubell, the first lap was “a bit of a blur”, but with a lap to go he was back in his favourite position --- around fourth or fifth, on the outside.
Doubell continued his graphic account to the school assembly: “It was critical that I did not lose touch with him, so with 300 metres to go I moved to second, and in my mind said: ‘Okay, it’s now between you and me’. The temptation at this stage is to make a break and challenge the lead. But it was far too early for me. I just kept telling myself to wait, wait wait …. until you’re coming off the straight.
“As we reached the top of the bend, with 150 metres to go, I said, ‘This is it --- go, go, go!’, and kicked. We were neck and neck for the next 50 to 80 metres, but I was in front --- just. I kept yelling to myself: ‘Go, go, go --- you can win it, you can win it!’ … and then I broke contact. That magic moment when the race was decided --- physical and psychological contact was broken ...”
With 50 metres to go, Doubell was still yelling to himself. Then he hit the tape: “There was an eerie silence. The moment was mine. It was the ultimate high …” That memorable moment made Doubell just the third Australian male ever to win an Olympic gold medal on the track --- after Edwin Flack and Herb Elliott. Nobody has since joined the trio.
Doubell’s early prowess as a schoolboy athlete was not filled with portent. At 14 he came fourth in the C-grade triple jump in the inter-house sports at Melbourne High, and although he later ran well in cross-country races, he never managed to win a school championship. In his sixth-form year, coached by the former Olympic sprinter Mike Agostini, he was chosen to run in the All Schools’ Championships, and promptly won both the 440 and 880 yards.
At the University of Melbourne, where he graduated in zoology and psychology, he came under the influence of Stampfl, former mentor to Roger Bannister. Of Stampfl, Doubell once said: “He had the ability as a coach to badger, cajole and flatter me into thinking I could achieve my objective by winning the 800 metres at the Olympics. I well remember the many long lunches I had with Franz at Gina’s Restaurant in Lygon Street, Carlton. By four o’clock I often felt that I could conquer the world.”
One day in Mexico City, he did.© Harry Gordon, 2004. Provided courtesy of the author and not to be used elsewhere without permission.
© Image courtesy The Herald Sun.