xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Font of Noelage: Herb Elliott: Outstanding Australian middle distance runner.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Herb Elliott: Outstanding Australian middle distance runner.

Herb Elliott was an outstanding Australian middle-distance runner. But an accident at school nearly ended his great career. Nearly ended it before it began. I know, because I was there when it happened.

In August, 1958, Herb Elliott flashed in to world prominence when he smashed the mile record by an incredible 2.7 seconds, running the distance in 3.54.7 minutes.

The following September he smashed the 1500 metre record by 2.1 seconds, when he ran the race in 3.36 minutes. The world was astounded by the young Australian’s incredible achievements. Mile and 1500 metre records are usually broken by tenths of a second. Breaking them by over two seconds was remarkable. However, even greater feats lay ahead.

Running in the 1500 metres at the Rome Olympics, Herb broke his own world record and spreadeagled an elite field of runners to win in 3.35.6 minutes. He finished  a whopping 2.6 seconds in front of the second placed runner, Michael Jazy, of France. In fact, in a photo taken of Herb as he crossed the finish line in that remarkable race, no other runner can be seen. Herb had left the world’s best runners trailing far behind in his wake.

We can get an idea of how wonderful Herb’s performance in that race was, by the fact that in the fourteen Olympic games held since 1960, his time would have won him the 1500 metre gold medal in ten of them. Between 1957 and 1961, Herb Elliott was never beaten in a mile or 1500 metre race.

And yet his outstanding international athletic career nearly did not happen.

In 1955, Herb and I were in the Leaving Class at Aquinas College. Herb was the Head Prefect and I was one of the footsloggers. In November of that year it was decided to hold a Prefect’s Dance in the school hall.

In preparation for this event, on a Saturday afternoon, Herb and I were asked to move the piano to the end of the hall. On the way, the top heavy piano overturned and fell on Herb’s foot. It broke his big toe. 

It ended any thoughts Herb had of participating in the Australian athletics championships in January, 1956.  Indeed, it more or less ended any thoughts he had of running competitively again.

In 1955, Herb was the Australian boys’ junior mile champion. At the 1955 Aquinas Faction Sports, Herb won the mile race, as everyone knew he would. He also won the 100 yards, 220 yards, 440 yards and 880 yards races, as well as the high jump and the long jump. The only major event he did not win was the shot putt, which he did not enter. At the Greater Public Schools Interschool Athletics Carnival at the WACA ground in September that same year, Herb surprised no one by winning the mile in grand style and in record time.

At Aquinas of course, we all knew Herb was destined for greatness. In fact, I made a point of ensuring that the last time I kicked a football at Aquinas College at the end of Second Term, it was a drop kick to Herb. It was my way of having some connection to the certain fame that was to come.

In the early and mid-1950s, there was great interest in attempts by various runners to crack the four-minute mile barrier. Englishman, Roger Bannister, became the first person to run the mile under four minutes, when on May 6, 1954, he ran a time or 3.59.4.  46 days later, the great Australian miler, John Landy, smashed Bannister’s mile record at Turku, Finland, when he recorded a mile time of 3.58 seconds.

So, when young Herb Elliott started showing some promise as a mile runner, the Australian public and the media started paying attention. One person who was very interested was the flamboyant and eccentric sports trainer, Percy Cerruty.

I was there when Herb Elliott first met Percy Cerruty. Like Herb, I was a boarder at Aquinas. It was a Sunday morning and my parents had made their regular week-end visit to see their favourite, and only, son. On this balmy Spring Sunday in October of 1955, The Headmaster, Brother Murphy, had invited the famous Percy Cerruty to have a look at Herb and talk to the boys and their parents about running. That was what Brother Murphy had thought, but Percy did much more than just talk. After seeing Herb run two laps of the Memorial Oval, Percy made some comments on his style and stride length and then slipped into a dissertation that ranged from athletics to philosophies of life, eating habits and the evolution of man. All the while he talked and gesticulated in a most animated fashion and gradually took off all his clothes.

First, he removed his cravat, then his jacket, then his shirt. Next, he removed his shoes and socks. When he started to take down his trousers the boys all wondered what would happen next. There were many mothers present, including Herb Elliott’s mother. Well, none of the Brothers made a move, but they must have been relieved to see that under his trousers Percy was wearing a fancy pair of silk racing shorts. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

At that time, Percy would have been in his early sixties, but he had a finely muscled physique and proceeded to demonstrate how Man could run like a horse, a dog, a cheetah or a gazelle. He demonstrated different stride styles and different arm actions as he sprinted or jogged in front of the enthralled throng. He seemed to glide over the ground. He spoke non-stop and with such intensity that everyone present was spellbound by his delivery. At length, he finished and began putting his clothes back on. As my family and I walked away, my father commented that he felt like running up the grassy bank of the oval and back to the car. Percy Cerruty had that effect on people.

So, it was obvious that even Percy Cerruty thought that Herb was destined for big things. Then came the Prefects’ Dance and the broken big toe. Herb could not compete and even when his toe had healed he did not participate in the 1956 Western Australian amateur athletics events or the State Championships in September. It seemed that his running days were over.

Just by chance, Herb attended the Melbourne Olympics in November 1956. He was impressed by Olympic 1500 metre winner, Irishman, Ron Delany, and even spoke with him during the games. However, what really impressed Herb were the outstanding running achievements of Emil Zatopec and especially, Franz Stampfl, who won gold medals in the 5000 and 10 000 metres.

So inspired was Herb by these runners, that it rekindled his own interest in running. He contacted Percy Cerruty and began following the eccentric trainers Spartan regime at his
training camp at Portsea, on Port Philip Bay. Running for Coburg  in Melbourne on Saturday afternoons at Olympic Park, Herb's close to 4 minute mile times attracted a lot of attention.

At that time, Australia’s successor to the great John Landy was another up and coming runner, Mervyn Lincoln. I once Herb heard talking at an Old Aquinian gathering at the college. He spoke of a very hot afternoon in Melbourne. A strong, burning, searing northerly wind was blowing and the temperature was well over the old century Fahrenheit mark. Probably, well in excess of 40 degrees Celsius.

Herb said, “I was tossing up whether to go to training at Olympic Park or not. But, I decided that if I was going to be successful, I needed to go to training, so off I went. When I jogged onto the track at Olympic Park, that northerly wind was like a blast from an open furnace.

“In those days, the training regime was to sprint one hundred meters and then jog one hundred meters and so on. Just after I started off, I noticed that Merv Lincoln had also come on to the track. He was running on the opposite side of Olympic Park to me. We ran around the track like pursuit bike riders. Sprinting 100 meters and then jogging one hundred meters. Then I noticed that while I was sprinting into the fierce northerly wind, Merv was jogging into it.

“Why would you do that?” asked Herb. “You come down on a stinking hot day to do your training, so that you can be the best that you can be. But then you take the easy way out. You jog into the wind and sprint with the wind.

“If you are trying to make yourself better, wouldn’t you do the hardest things. Sprinting into the wind makes you better than sprinting with the wind. I knew then,” Herb said, “that Merv Lincoln would never beat me in a race.” And he never did. Neither did anyone else.

I did see one famous race between Herb and Merv Lincoln on the grass track at Leederville Oval, probably in the summer of 1957/58, before Herb headed overseas to fame and glory. Lincoln was leading as they came into the final straight. Then Herb moved in front of him.  Lincoln came again and regained the lead. The crowd was in a frenzy. The lead changed about four times as they sprinted the final one hundred yards towards the finish tape before Herb claimed the front and ran over the line a winner.

On Thursday, September 7, my wife, Lesley and I will be venturing back to Aquinas College for the Senior Old Boys Day. One of the features of Seniors’ day is a whole school assembly, where the college’s Interschool Athletic Team is introduced. The Inters are held the day after Seniors’ Day.

Last year, the Sports master addressed the assembly and said how very privileged the boys were, earlier in the year, to hear an inspiring address given by Herb Elliott. He said that when training began for The Inters, he had wanted to impress  the boys with the magnificence of Herb’s 1500 metre win at the Rome Olympics.

He selected the school’s six fastest sprinters to each run 250 meters around the 1500-metre track and compared their time with Herb’s Olympic run. The six sprinters did extremely well and finished the 1500 metres in 3minutes and 39 seconds. It was a great effort, but Herb Elliott’s Olympic time was 3.35.6 seconds. More than three seconds faster. Truly a magnificent achievement. 

What a tragedy it would have been if that fast and furious, First Piano Movement, by Herb and me on that November Saturday in 1955, had stopped his illustrious career in its tracks?

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