One of the greatest regrets of my four decades of writing about athletics is that I never got to meet Aussie miler John Landy, who has died at Castlemaine, Victoria, aged 91. I should have tried harder, because Landy was a seminal figure in my formative years as an athletics fan and aspiring runner; and he would have been around at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and maybe even at the 1985 World Cup in Canberra which I also attended. Perhaps I was afraid that, as with so many celebrities the private person wouldn’t match up the public persona. But all the indications are that that was not the case with Landy. What you saw was the real thing.
For example, when he finished third in the Olympic 1500 metres in Melbourne 1956 and saw the winner Ron Delany on his knees, he went over not simply to congratulate the Irishman, but to ask if he was OK. As it happens, Delany was knelt in prayer, nevertheless that was the mark of the man. More conspicuously and extraordinarily, earlier that year in the Australian Championships’ Mile, the then junior Ron Clarke fell and, in trying to vault over Clarke, Landy trod on the youngster’s hand. Landy stopped, turned around and went back to see if Clarke was alright. He lost at least 30 metres on the field in doing so, but when Clarke assured him he was fine, Landy resumed and went on to win the race. A sculpture (left) by Mitch Mitchell entitled ‘Sportmanship’ stands outside Olympic Park, Melbourne, commemorating the incident.
But what I saw most of all was a man who laid it on the line, who wasn’t afraid to go to the front from the start and stay there in pursuit of excellence, risking defeat by doing so. In the battle for the first sub-four, Landy ran a string of Mile races between 4.02 and 4.05, leading the whole way. Meanwhile Wes Santee was regularly duking it out with rivals in the USA, while in the UK, Roger Bannister was getting invaluable help from training partners, Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher, especially when they delivered him to within 300 yards of the finishing line in the first sub-four on May 6, 1954. Invited to criticise the ‘team-effort’ as he put it, Landy simply said he had turned down offers from his own training partners to pace him, since he wanted to do it by himself. Reports of his race in Turku, Finland six weeks later differ; from taking the lead at 660 yards to being led through the bell by none other than Chataway. What is certain is he ran the last lap alone and broke Bannister’s world record with 3.57.9.*
But Landy’s dedication to front running was never more evident than in the so-called Miracle Mile at the Empire Games in Vancouver another month later in August 1954. Undeterred by an injury which required his foot to be bandaged (something that was only disclosed afterwards), Landy emerged from the pack after the first 220 yards and tried to run the legs off Bannister. As you all know, it didn’t work, and in one of the most famous moments in the history of middle distance running, with 120 yards to run, Landy looked over his shoulder to the left just as Bannister was passing him on the right, and winging away to victory. Like the gent he clearly was, Landy took the defeat with equanimity.
Landy was chosen to take the Olympic oath in Melbourne 1956, and although not fully fit, he still won bronze in the 1500 metres. He retired after that and while working in industry and writing two books on natural history, he held several roles in public office, finally being appointed Governor of his home state of Victoria in January 2001. He held office until the end of March 2006, just prior to which he was the final runner on the Queen’s Baton Relay at the opening ceremony for the Commonwealth Games that year.
* Recorded as 3.58.0 under prevailing rules.