Here’s a piece of arcana which should be of particular interest to runners and athletics aficionados of my generation, ie anyone over 60. I was browsing my bookshelves of Saturday evening, as one tends to do with increasing frequency whenever the Plague is stalking the pubs and restaurants, which would be my natural weekend habitat; anyway, the bookshelf yielded up a tasty brew, Young Men In A Hurry by Harry Gordon who was a prominent Australian journalist in the middle of last century. Gordon wasn’t a sports specialist, but being an Aussie almost automatically qualified him as such, and indeed that’s the theme of his book, how Australians climbed from the backwaters of sporting excellence to supremacy in a range of pursuits – athletics, swimming, tennis, cycling, boxing, motor racing, golf – from the 1950s onwards.
During that period, Gordon spent a lot of time in Europe, and was present at some of Herb Elliott’s most notable triumphs; his world record 3min 54.5sec in Dublin in 1958, his Commonwealth Games’ double gold, 880yds/Mile in Cardiff the same year, and culminating in his dominating Olympic victory in the 1500 metres in Rome in 3.35.6, the only time that a world record was set in what used to be the Olympic blue-riband event, until the circus-performers, ie the sprinters took over the five rings.
At 60 years’ distance, it may be difficult to persuade youngsters of the awe in which Elliott was held at that time (certainly by me), as much for the fact that he was never beaten in a Mile/1500m during his career, as for the spectacular training he did, particularly on the sandhills at Portsea, south-west of Melbourne, photographed and detailed in his various books by his eccentric coach, Percy Cerutty.
Gordon’s book has been on my shelves for a very long time, and I may well have read it before; if so, there is no excuse for forgetting the following passage – Elliott was bitterly disappointed that Australia’s athletic authorities would not give him the opportunity to contest the marathon at the Rome Olympics.
I’d never seen or heard this before. Further down the page Gordon writes, Elliott and Cerutty argued hard with athletic manager Judy Patching and other team officials, but there was no change.
The day following his mile world record in Dublin, Elliott returned the compliment to his pacer, colleague Albie Thomas by pacing Thomas in turn to a world Two Mile record of 8.32.0; Elliott himself ran 8.37.6. Elliott also ran cross country, notably the English national, all of 15 kilometres, in Blackpool 1962. I was still a junior, and remember being ridiculed by my senior colleagues when I said I’d seen Elliott finish 35th. We didn’t know that he was studying at Cambridge University; but I was never going to mistake anyone else for Elliott.
But a marathon; what’s more, the Olympic marathon? Elliott might have run the Olympic marathon in Rome? Arguably the greatest middle distance runner in history might have traded strides along the Appian Way with potentially the greatest marathoner, barefoot Abebe Bikila? Fetch the time machine! Get Christopher Nolan on the phone, here’s his new time-twisting project!
I sat back and tried to wash down this indigestible item with a copious draft of weissbier; then strode to the computer and emailed four of the wisest and well-informed of track and field historians, plus my pal Tim Johnston – eighth in the Mexico Olympic marathon – who’d been at Cambridge with Elliott.*
The wise men were equally struck dumb, except my Aussie journo colleague Len Johnson, who sent the following missive overnight –
What a can of worms you have unknowingly opened. This was also a story I grew up with, having been given Harry Gordon’s book at an impressionable young age and read it many times over before I got through my teenage years. Then, it came up again during one of our Saturday morning runs around the Tan (Royal Botanical Gardens). I did a bit more research and found mention of the incident in Harry’s official history of Australia at the Olympics.
Finally, having seen that Al Lawrence had also run the marathon, I went to his book. He gives a same-but-different account, throwing in the first-hand observation that Herb had concluded after one long run in Rome that it was just too darned hot to consider a marathon in those conditions. Al’s account also has it that Judy Patching, the team manager, mentioned that (Dave) Power had already asked to fill one of the vacant spots, but no mention of Herb.
I haven’t sought out Herb for a recollection, but it’s unlikely he would have a definitive version either. A bloke who didn’t know who his own rivals were in the 1500 final is hardly likely to have been up on the paperwork which would have been involved in this one! It’s possible all stories are true, but things like final entry declarations got in the way. Anyway, no Australian did any good – Sinfield 43rd and Lawrence 54th (Power DNS), I think, so Herb may well have done better. Hard to see him threatening Bikila, Rhadi or Magee, though.
My conclusion was that all possibilities remain open. Chris Wardlaw, who was part of the discussion, invoked the Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance line – “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend!”
So, ultimately the answer to the question posed in the title of this piece is, No, Herb Elliott wasn’t a marathoner. But what if?
* Elliott’s career at Cambridge – https://www.nuts.org.uk/trackstats/herbelliott.htm