There are very few legends whose aura does not diminish in the meeting of them. Arne Andersson, who died last week, aged 91, was one of those gratifying exceptions. A great athlete and a gent, a man who’d learned how to be at ease with himself, and an excellent raconteur. In short, great company.
I went to meet Andersson almost six years ago, when I was researching my book on Seb Coe and Steve Ovett. Since Gunder Haegg and Andersson were the wartime precursors of Coe and Ovett, in that they were great middle distance rivals and world record breakers from the same country, it would have been a dereliction on my part if I hadn’t gone to interview them as a major part of the historical background to the Brits’ feats.
Unlike Coe and Ovett, who raced each other just seven times in 17 years, the Swedes met 23 times in half a dozen years, at distances from three-quarters of a mile to 5000 metres. Their mile races alone realised six world records, and between them they revised the middle distance record books.
I met them both during a memorable day in summer 2003, beginning in Malmoe, south-western Sweden, where Haegg lived, then taking a 400 kilometre drive upcountry, to Andersson’s home in Vannersborg. The town, situated on the south-western edge of Sweden’s largest lake, Vannern, is known as ‘little Paris,’ due to its cultural traditions, exemplified by the variety of theatres dotted around the place.
Andersson lived in a stylish apartment at the far end of the main street, and he had a lot of style himself. Still a handsome man despite, like Haegg being in his mid-eighties. And he was easily recognisable from pictures I’d seen of the tall, blond, wavy-haired, lantern-jawed but intense competitor from the early 1940s.
Contemporary reports had painted him as a dour character in contrast to the extrovert Haegg. But as Andersson himself said of some of the things he’d heard and read about the differences between Coe and Ovett, I suppose that was the media. Andersson turned out to be chatty, courteous and witty. And self-deprecating.
Sweden was neutral during the Second World War, but there had still been conscription, and Andersson had to join the army. “I was a very bad soldier,” he said. “I was a lieutenant, the second lowest grade. But when I got selected to represent the army in a cross-country match, I got a temporary promotion. I told one of the officers not to go off too quickly, but he began to drop back, so I tied a rope round his waist and was trying to pull him along. This incident became quite famous because it was shown on the newsreels that preceded the movies in the cinema. But when we got back from the race, I was demoted again”.
Both Haegg and Andersson were banned in 1946 for taking money from their matches, a huge scandal in the post war sports world. I’d always imagined it was the international federation who pushed for their ban, but Andersson said, not a bit of it. “It was a decision of the Swedish federation president. Everybody knew, including the federation. One of the officials actually said to me one time, ‘You guys are getting too much’. What could I say? I could hardly deny it…. The public was very mad. I met people who said they never went to an athletics meeting again after that. From one Friday, when we were banned, to the next, stadiums that would be completely full with 20,000 people for our races, had about four thousand. Folks just stopped going”.
Haegg wasn’t bothered, he said he’d had enough by then. But Andersson had begun to get the upper hand in their matches. He lost 15 of their 23 encounters, but won five of their final six. Unlike his rival, Andersson admitted he’d been very angy at the ban, and tried unsuccessfully to get reinstated in order to run in the 1948 Olympic Games in London.
He’d obviously long worked out that anger. And as he said farewell at the end of that visit almost six years ago, his final story was a good indicator of that. “I was contacted on my 65th birthday by the Swedish Federation president, who announced that I’d been reinstated as an amateur”. Like a good trouper, he waited for our bemused reaction, before continuing with feigned resentment, “I thought, what’s the good of that, at 65! But after a while, I went to the fridge anyway, and cracked open a bottle of champagne. It was worth some sort of celebration”.
So, with a metaphorical raising of the glass too, here’s to you, Arne Andersson.