JOHN J KELLEY – LETTER TO A RIVAL

Another great marathoner came to the end of the longest road on Sunday. Boston Marathon winner, and eight-time US champion, John ‘Kelley the Younger’ (to distinguish him from John A Kelley, a twice Boston winner previously) died at the age of 80 from complications linked to a melanoma.

 

I never met either Kelley, but the documentary on Alain Mimoun* whose premiere I attended in Paris 18 months ago, includes a tribute from Kelley the Younger, who had featured early in the race which earned Mimoun his Olympic gold, the Olympic marathon in Melbourne 1956.

(Accompanying picture of John J, labouring over a text was taken in 1980 by his good friend William Hurshman)

Yesterday, the director of the documentary, Benjamin Rassat shared with me a letter that John J had written to Mimoun at the time of that sequence being filmed. It is a beautiful tribute, as befits a man who claimed that he discovered great literature at the same time as running, and dedicated himself to both. Ben gave me permission to share the letter with you.

Remembering Alain Mimoun in Melbourne

When I think of Alain Mimoun, I invariably think of Emil Zatopek. The two men’s lives were already intertwined in world athletic legend in November of 1956. And they were both once more fatefully brought together–for what would prove the last significant time–to race in the Melbourne, Australia Olympic Marathon set for December 1 of that now-so-distant year.

For three young Americans also entered in that event, the opportunity of sharing their company was like having won engraved passes to spend two hours among the gods. The oldest of our trio, Nick Costes, was twenty-nine, already an army veteran who had spent most of his tour in Europe, where he had actually seen the great ones compete. Dean Thackwray and I were five years or so younger than Nick. Together, we formed the strongest United States marathon contingent in several Olympiads. And for the first time in living memory, we had been rated an outsider’s chance to break into the medals.

Yet, as we began our month’s approach to the big race, plugging through ten or more miles a day around the Melbourne Olympic Village track, the task cut out for us loomed as formidable as would that of tackling Mount Olympus itself.

Our friend Nick had insisted on our sticking to the track, monotonous as such workouts tended to be. “Where else could we mingle with the gods?” Nick asked. To know Nick was to realize that his question was both rhetorical and literal. For there, circling that 400-meter oval each day, were the very immortals he had worshiped during his military tour. Nick had even made up a hymn of praise to Emil and Alain. (As I now try to bring it up, there was reference to a great Soviet runner, Anoufriev, in it, too.)

Dean and I were as impressed as Nick, but reserved our commitment to such earthly miracles. How would the likes of those deities deign to associate with us? we asked. “I’ll show you,” Nick said. The next day he called us over to shake hands with a pair of affable gods. Emil Zatopek and his supreme challenger Alain Mimoun thereafter joined us for those daily circlings of that oval populated with the “creme de la creme” of the world’s amateur athletes. Prancing in their company, Nick, Dean and I gained immediate entry to our sport’s executive suite.

Czechoslovakian Emil was said to speak five languages. On those wonder-filled days, he confined himself to English and French. Algerian Alain spoke French. Communication among us never posed a problem. Our heroes laughed and smiled constantly. Titanic though their competitions may have been, they cavorted like the thirty-five-year-old kids they were on that practice track.

At Helsinki, Finland in 1952, Emil had done the impossible by winning the 5,000 meter and 10,000 meter track events and then adding the marathon to his collection of gold. But now, at Melbourne, nobody would expect anything approaching that of a man only six weeks past a surgical operation. And Alain at his ripe athletic age, could hardly be counted on to prevail over a rising generation.

The old heroes had clearly seen their best days. Their great-hearted Aussie hosts would gladly have cast gold medals in their honor. Cornered, the pair just smiled in answer to reporters’ queries. Perhaps they knew a secret or two.

Marathon day dawned cloudless and still. Summer had suddenly come to Melbourne. A playful Emil Zatopek raised his eyes skyward from the stadium track’s starting line and said, “Today we die.” Poised beside him, a set-jawed Alain Mimoun had at last shed his frolicker’s role.

Two hours and twenty-five minutes later, the man who had put in so many miles chasing his historically famous rival, over so many years, finally clutched his Olympic Marathon laurel wreath. Once again, the mustachioed smile returned as Alain Mimoun trotted through his victory lap to rapturous applause.

It was an ovation only equaled by that accorded to fifth(in fact, sixth)-place finisher Emil Zatopek several minutes later.

Our American trio didn’t fare so well. But that’s another story. The big story for me, then and thereafter, was our unforgettable welcome into the lives of giants in the month of November, 1956.

* La legende d’Alain Mimoun

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3 Responses to JOHN J KELLEY – LETTER TO A RIVAL

  1. Anthony Lambe says:

    Beautiful, sums up the reason everybody puts on a pair of runners. Even us weekend warriors. What Zatopek was to him, as he was to so many more!
    Ar dheis de go raibh a anam.

  2. Pat says:

    Bill Rodgers was the first to post a response to this story
    yes, THE Bill Rodgers, mega-marathon winner from the 1980s
    but a glitch in the system prevented Bill’s message uploading
    here it is:
    I always liked johnnys writings,and this story about his Melbourne Olympic experiences with the Running Gods is classic Kelley All of us in the marathoning world miss johnny kelley because we knew he was ,like his athletic heroes,one of a kind.
    i learned so much about marathoning /road racing in its early contemporary days from johnnys articles in NE Runner.
    Thanks for letting us hear johnny again!
    bill

  3. Pingback: John J. Kelley, RIP, 1930-2011: 1957 Boston Marathon Winner; America's First Modern Road Runner | Footloose

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