Well, here it is a beautiful summer’s day in Montreal, I haven't written anything in this space for 14 days and I am trying to persuade myself I have writer’s block. The only cure for that, if I have it, is to sit down and write something, anything.
I tried that once when trying to begin a novel: I wrote a sentence that went something like this: “Megan Rooney should not have taken her 14-year-old son Beau with her when she went to visit her husband Dave in prison.” For a couple of weeks I dragged out of that unpromising beginning every ounce of drama that I could dream up. Along the way an agent friend showed it to a publisher who said, “It’s terrific, carry on.” It was at just about the same time that I thought, “this shapeless mess needs a plot,” so for the next month I worked on inserting a plot. Eventually, everything completed, the same publisher said, “sorry, old man, you seem to have lost the plot.” End of my novel-writing career. Six or eight of them, all reposing to this day in drawers or cardboard boxes somewhere.
I am old and increasingly feeble now, and I judge my physical and mental condition by how easy or hard it is to walk through the McGill University campus to my favourite coffee shop at Peel and Sherbrooke, a distance of about 1500 metres from my apartment. A month or so ago I could not even think if making such a walk. I had been felled by an ancillary infection in addition to my constant companion, the tumour, and it really knocked the stuffing out of me. Fortunately, it responded quickly to the prescribed antibiotics, and within a few days I was able to make it the 1500 metres again, able to bask in Café Castel’s delicious croissants and pastries, and excellent coffee. But once again, something seems to be descending upon me, and the walk is getting tougher to make with each passing day.
I felt slightly offended when I read on the Internet that my walk was estimated by GPS at 1300 metres. I had made my estimate by counting the number of paces I took, and multiplying by the average length of my stride (2.5 feet), which brought me out to a bit under 1500 metres.
I insist on that number because it has always been a special number to me, ever since, when I was eight, Jack Lovelock of New Zealand, a brainy, sightly-built young man, won the Berlin Olympics 1500 metre title in the world record time of 3.47.8, demolishing by several yards a field of the world’s greatest milers. Lovelock was a frail-looking chap at 5 ft 7 ins, and 134 pounds, a Rhodes Scholar, and a great tactician over the mile or the metric mile. He plotted his Olympic triumph four years ahead of the race, trained for it, and knew exactly how to run it. Coming from a small, barely-visible British nation in the distant Pacific, a nation as insignificant as Lovelock looked, he no doubt played his small part, alongside Jesse Owens, the triumphant black sprinter from the United States, in exploding Adolf Hitler’s dream to make the Olympics an advertisement for the giant blonde Aryan youths who lay at the centre of his racist philosophy.
Ever since that moment, I have regarded the 1500 metre race as the greatest of all achievements in sports, the one demanding the best intelligence, the best physique, the best tactical sense, and have always followed the great runners who have perfected the distance. After his Olympics win, Lovelock became like a modern-day rock star in Britain, until he married an American woman, moved to the United States, where he worked in a New York hospital, and at the end of 1949, subject to dizzy spells, fell from the platform before a New York subway train in a gruesome accident, and was killed at the age of 40.
After Lovelock, as a high school boy in New Zealand, although I never ran a race more than half a mile myself, I was always delighted to hear of the impressive Swedes Gunder Haegg and Arne Andersson, running while the rest of Europe was in flames, as, in a series of remarkable races they cut almost five seconds off Lovelock’s world record, and brought the time for the 1500 metres down to 3.43, and for the mile down to 4:01.4.
Although I, being a youth steeped in anti-imperialism, never paid much attention to the English, I have to admit the English have a notable record in this field. I was never seized with admiration for Sydney Wooderson, a runner who, like Lovelock, looked kind of frail, and who failed in the heats to qualify for the 1936 Berlin final won by Lovelock. He continued to break records in later years, and he ended his career in 1945 by taking on Haegg and Andersson in London before a crowd of 54,000 people, hungry to watch international competition. He was by no means as fit as the impressive Swedes, who combined to burn him off during the early laps, and demolished him in the straight. Among the eager crowd were a Mr. Bannister and his 15-year-old son Roger, for whom, from that day, Wooderson became a hero “because,” as Bannister later wrote, “of his attitude towards running, as much as for his feats in doing so.”A tiny man of 5 ft 6 ins and weighing 123 pounds, Wooderson lived on until dying at the age of 92 in 2006.
Next up on the English list came that same Roger Bannister, who is immortalized for having been the first to break four minutes for the mile. He did this in Oxford on May 6, 1954, but his record was broken 46 days later when the Australian John Landy ran 3.57.9 in Finland. The two men then entered into a stirring rivalry culminating in the mile at the 1954 Commonwealth Games in Vancouver when, in the so-called Mile of the Century, Bannister overtook Landy in the back straight and won in 3.58.8, with Landy finishing two-tenths of a second behind him. It was the first time two men had broken the four-minute mile in the same race. The race is also famous because Landy looked over his left shoulder for the competition just as Bannister was surging past him on his right shoulder. A statue of this moment was later erected, and Landy commented: "While Lot's wife was turned into a pillar of salt for looking back, I am probably the only one ever turned into bronze for looking back."
Landy --- who is famous in Australia for an occasion on which he stopped to help a runner who had been spiked, then carried on to catch and beat the rest of the field, which is widely regarded as the premier act of sportsmanship in Australian history--- went on to become a politician holding various public offices, including, for a time, as governor of Victoria. He is still alive, aged 89, living in Melbourne.
I cannot include all great runners in my lexicon. Next for me came the amazing Aussie --- in my opinion the greatest of them all, for he retired undefeated, at the age of 22 --- Herb Elliott. He won the 1500 metres at the 1960 Rome Olympics in world record time, beating the best in the world by three seconds --- almost the length of a football field. (I exaggerate slightly). Elliott’s time was 3.35.6. By the time he retired he had broken the four-minute mile 17 times. Between 1957, when he was 19, and 1962, when he ran his last race, he dominated middle-distance running like no one else before him or since.
The only one of these great runners I ever saw personally, Peter Snell, won the 1960 Olympic 800 metres in 1. 46.3, and in the same year he took the mile record down to 3.53.4. He was a New Zealand boy, skilled at all games, who never thought of being a runner until, at the age of 19, he happened to meet the coach Arthur Lydiard, who persuaded him he had the strength to become a world champion, and he set out on the task. Lydiard, who literally invented the modern craze for jogging that nowadays infects everyone down to the most overweight and over-stuffed businessman, told Snell he had to build his strength by running 100 miles a week, which he set out loyally to do. The athlete Snell I saw in London running after the 1960 Rome Olympics was not particularly enchanting to watch. He simply sat in the pack until the straight and then surged past them, making all his opponents look as if they were jogging. His career lasted from 1960 to 1965, when he retired. He became a prominent scientist and lives, now 80, in Texas.
He became part of this notable history of wonderful Antipodean middle-distance runners, who, in recent years, seem to have been more or less eclipsed, especially by the Africans. I remember when I was a young athlete my coaches used to tell me black men were good at sprints, but useless over the longer distances. Those coaches, who had never seen a black man in their lives, should see middle-distance races of the present day, in which the presence of a white person is notable. It seems to me that it was colonialism in all its glories that was holding them back. Once feeed of that, they have surged and become unbeatable.
Meanwhile, in the 1970s, England produced at the same time a curiously contrasting pair, Steve Ovett, a working class kind of guy, and Sebastian Coe, a bit of a toff who later became a Conservative member of Parliament, was elevated to the peerage, and now, as Lord Coe, is president of the Inernational Association of Atheletics Federations (IAAF), and is therefore leading the governing body of athletics world-wide.
John Walker of New Zealand, in the early 970s smashed many of the middle-distance records, and before he retired --- he was still running over the age of 40--- he had run more than 100 four-minute miles. He was later overtaken by Steve Ovett, but his place in the history books is secure as the first man to beat 3.50 for the mile, more than 10 seconds better than Bannister’s epoch-making time.
Since then, the times have been smashed by two North Africans, Noureddine Morceli, of Algeria, in 1997 (3.27.37), followed by the present holder, Hicham El Guerrouj, of Morocco, in 1999 recording 3.26 for the 1500 metres, a record that has now stood for 20 years.
Well, these are the reasons I stick to my nomination of my morning’s walk for coffee as over a 1500 metre course. It is a pleasant walk, there are seats along the way that I can take when I feel too tired, as I often do, and I can reflect on how many other remarkable people have preceded me over the distance.
I guess I have broken my imaginary writer’s block as well.
Well, wot the hell wot the hell, toujours gai, toujours gai….
(With acknowledgements to Wikipedia).