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Steeplechasing in the 1930s: The American Perspective, and a Technical Development 30 Years Ahead of the Times

Steeplechasing in the 1930s – the American Perspective, and a Technical Development 30 years Ahead of the Times


At the beginning of the 1930s the World's fastest time for the 3000 metres steeplechase was 9:21.8 by Toivo Loukola, of Finland, in winning the 1928 Olympic title. Loukola's fellow-countryman and successor as Olympic champion in 1932 and 1936, Volmari Iso-Hollo, reduced this record to 9:03.8 on the latter occasion in Berlin. Iso-Hollo might well have become the first man to run under nine minutes, had he had the competition to do so and had he been more dedicated to the sport. Contrary to the dour and dedicated demeanour thought typical of the Finns, and personified by Paavo Nurmi, Iso-Hollo was a happy-go-lucky sort of individual.


During 1934 and 1935 Iso-Hollo didn't bother too much with the steeplechase at all, and in his absence it was two Americans who headed the World rankings. This was not altogether surprising because Loukola's 'record' had first been beaten by Joe McCluskey, with 9:14.5 in the AAU Championships of 1932 which also acted as the US Olympic trials. The next year Iso-Hollo – having been deprived of a likely record by that error of the Los Angeles Olympic officials in making the steeplechase finalists run a lap too far – ran an unchallenged 9:09.4, having been on a nine-minute schedule at 2000 metres, but this was still a Cinderella event which was rarely contested, and only five other men – two more Finns, two Americans and a German – broke 9:30 during the year. Though it had first been part of the Olympics in 1900, the steeplechase would not be recognised for official World-record purposes until 1954, largely for the reason that courses varied in the 1920s and 1930s – in some instances, there was no water-jump. Why, then, weren’t proper regulations introduced much earlier by the IAAF for what, after all, was an established Olympic event ? You may well ask ! Whatever, there's no reason to doubt the achievements of Iso-Hollo and others..


Iso-Hollo went over to England for the 1933 AAA Championships two miles steeplechase and beat the brawny and bronzed Derbyshire quarry-worker, George Bailey, by more than half-a-minute in a meeting record 10:06.6 which would last until 1951. Tom Evenson, a Salford Harriers clubmate of Bailey's who had taken the silver medal in Los Angeles, was another 10 seconds further behind in 4th place. One of the sub-9:30 Americans that year was McCluskey, who had been the Olympic bronze-medallist and who won races in Düsseldorf and Stockholm while on tour with an AAU group but not, unfortunately, coming up against Iso-Hollo. During the next couple of years there was only one occasion on which 9:20 was beaten, and that was at the 1934 AAU Championships in Milwaukee, where McCluskey had a great race with Harold Manning, and the latter won, 9:13.1 to an estimated 9:14.2.


McCluskey reversed the positions at the 1935 AAU, winning in a modest 9:30.6, and the next major advance would again come at a US Olympic trials. The 1936 meet was at Randall's Island, New York, on 12 July, and Manning won in rather easier fashion in 9:08.2 from McCluskey, 9:16.8, and Glen Dawson, 9:23.2. In the subsequent Olympic final Manning was holding 2nd place to Iso-Hollo for much of the way before fading to 5th on the last lap. According to one account, Manning had suffered from sea-sickness on the transatlantic voyage to Europe and then from influenza, and there's even a newspaper reference to him being hospitalised. So he was obviously not in the best of shape and yet still got very close to his best time. The full result of this race was as follows:


1 Volmari Iso-Hollo (Finland) 9:03.8 World record, 2 Kaarlo Tuominen (Finland) 9:06.8, 3 Alfred Dompert (Germany) 9:07.2, 4 Martti Matilainen (Finland) 9:09.0, 5 Harold Manning (USA) 9:11.2, 6 Lars Larsson (Sweden) 9:16.6, 7 Voldemars Vitohls (Latvia) 9:18.8, 8 Glen Dawson (USA) 9:21.2, 9 Wilhelm Heyn (Germany) 9:26.4, 10 Joe McCluskey (USA) 9:29.4, 11 Roger Rérolle (France) 9:40.8, Harry Holmqvist (Sweden) did not finish. The two British entrants, Tom Evenson and James Ginty, were eliminated in the heats. No intermediate times for the final seem to have survived, but Iso-Hollo may well have had something in hand and could perhaps have run sub-nine if needed.


Harold Manning remains one of the least known of steeplechase 'record-holders'. He was born on 9 January 1909, in the small town of Sedgwick, Kansas, which is situated less than 20 miles north of Wichita. Sedgwick, named after a Major-General in the Union army during the US Civil War, was (and still is) actually little more than a village by European standards, having been incorporated in 1872 and described 10 years later as 'little affected by the influx of the cow-boy element' when the population was some 500. Manning's parents would have experienced the 'Wild West' at first hand. By the year 2010 there were still less than 1,700 inhabitants in Sedgwick, whereas Wichita's 382,000 or so citizens have made it the largest city in the state. The first established settlement on the site had been the grass huts of Wichita Indians in 1863. Oil was discovered nearby in 1914-15 and the city became a major centre for aircraft manufacture.


Laying the foundations with successes at the mile and two miles


Manning was an outstanding high-school miler, setting a Kansas state record of 4:30.5 in 1927. As it happens, this only lasted three years, but then that's perfectly understandable because the youngster who reduced it to 4:28.4 was a future World record-holder at 800 metres,880 yards and the mile indoors and out, Glenn Cunningham. Manning had moved on to Wichita State University, and at the National Collegiate (NCAA) Championships of 1929 he had placed 2nd to David Abbott at two miles; Abbott was a very sound runner who had competed for the USA in the 1928 Olympic 5000 metres and was the 1929 AAU two miles steeplechase winner. The next year Manning won the NCAA two-mile title on the flat in 9:18.1, improving the meet record by more than 10 seconds, and a revealing slant on this performance is provided by the fact that it was not until 1931 that anyone in the World broke nine minutes – the 'anyone' in question being, by the way, a certain Paavo Nurmi ! Manning also ran in the AAU Championships mile that year, finishing in 3rd place, some 15 yards down on Leo Lermond, who had placed 4th in the Amsterdam Olympic 5000 metres.      


By the normal circumstances of that era, this should have been the climax of Manning's track career as he would then have followed the usual custom of US university graduates in retiring from competition to concentrate on earning a living … but Manning was one of those rare and valiant American athletes of the years between the wars in whom an Olympic ambition had been fired. He must surely have been a man of strong resolution because other than in the very largest of US cities there was little in the way of a proper structure of competition for non-college athletes. None of the US steeplechasers of the 1930s had the opportunity for more than two or three races a season at their chosen event, other than in Olympic years. So they fleshed out their competitive careers with races on the flat – many of them indoors.


In 1930 Manning had placed 3rd to Joe McCluskey in the AAU indoor two miles and in February of 1931 had run a capable 9:19.8 on the boards. With Gene Venzke breaking 4:12 for the mile indoors in February of 1932, and then Glenn Cunningham and Henry Brocksmith doing so outdoors in June,  the Olympic 1500-metre selections were seemingly wrapped up. So it made sense for Manning to look elsewhere if he wanted to run in the Games that year, but it would be interesting to know what prompted his venture into steeplechasing, rather than his opting for the 5000 metres. Whatever the motivation, his first venture was astonishing – a winning 9:20.1 at Evanston, Illinois, on 1 July, to beat Loukola's best ever ! Yet there's a mystery surrounding this performance because it does not figure at all in the official IAAF handbook of records, even as a footnote on the basis that there had been some sort of technical failing in the configuration of the course or a mistake in the distance measurement


A fortnight later Manning finished 5th in the US Olympic trials race, more than 100 yards behind McCluskey, who was at the time a student at Fordham University, in New York. The 2nd-placed Walter Pritchard, later to be a cardiologist of renown, was at Hamilton College, also in New York, and the other qualifier was Glen Dawson, then studying at Oklahoma University. Dawson, like Manning and then Pritchard, was a college miler/two-miler who achieved his Olympic destiny as a steeplechaser, and certainly at some later stage had an indirect influence on Manning's track career. Dawson's university coach was an ex-hurdler named John Jacobs who would apparently meet up with Manning at some early stage of the 1936 season and generously suggest that he should try hurdling the water-jump instead of stepping on the rail.


Jacobs had long been a believer that this was a logical progression for the event, and this technique would, as we now know, be spectacularly demonstrated by the Kenyans when they started to take over steeplechasing more than 30 years later, but it would seem that Manning deserves credit as the originator. What we don't know is whether Manning actually used this method at the AAU Championships on 4 July, when he won from Dawson (20 yards down) and McCluskey in 9:15.1, or in the Olympic trial race eight days later when he set his World best time of 9:08.2 despite the 100-degree heat in the Randall's Island stadium. Manning ran in the curious eight-lap steeplechase relay which formed part of the post-Olympic match between the British Empire and the USA at the White City Stadium, in London, on 15 August and then in a meeting in Paris. He competed again in 1937 with less success, placing 3rd in an invitation two miles steeplechase at Princeton on 19 June which was won by Floyd Lochner in 9:59.3 (passing 3000 metres in 9:20.8), with McCluskey 2nd. Lochner’s time was  a US record and a World best.


Lochner (born 8 May 1912) was another product of Oklahoma University and the coaching of John Jacobs. He had a successful college career on the flat, winning the NCAA two miles in 1935 in 9:26.8, and then Jacobs built a makeshift steeplechase course for Lochner to train on before he graduated. Unfortunately, he suffered an ankle injury running indoors in 1936 which ended his Olympic hopes, but he then beat Manning, McCluskey and Dawson at the annual New Orleans Sugar Bowl meet on 27 December of that year with a time of 10:01.5 for the two miles 'chase, which was then a World best and US record, erasing McCluskey's 10:05.2 from the 1932 USA-v-British Empire match in San Francisco.


Lochner won at Princeton the next year, as previously mentioned, and a week later in Milwaukee became AAU champion for the 3000 metres steeplechase in 9:26.6, with neither McCluskey nor Manning present on that day. Lochner had another quick two miles steeplechase time of 10:02.7 in the New Orleans meet on 2 January 1938 and ran a 9:06.0 indoor  two miles at the end of that month. Both he and Harold Manning enjoyed very long lives. Lochner, who became a prominent state administrator in Oklahoma and then a church leader, died on 23 October 2003 at the age of 91. Manning was 93 when he had died in Wichita on 26 January of that same year.    


American titles from 1930 to 1943 … and McCluskey was not finished yet !


No such account of steeplechasing in the 1930s would be complete without some further detail about Manning's great rival, Joe McCluskey, and an equally durable 'chaser, Forrest Efaw. McCluskey was another who enjoyed a very long life-span, dying in 2002 aged 91, survived by his wife and eight children. He had a best flat two miles of 9:04.8 indoors in 1938, and his competitive record was a remarkably extended one, including 16 national titles – nine of them in the steeplechase from 1930 to 1943, plus the 5000 metres in 1936 and 1937, the 10,000 metres in 1942, the indoor two miles in 1930, cross-country in 1932, and 15 kilometres on the road in 1941 and 1942. In addition to his 2nd places in the AAU steeplechase to Manning in 1934 and 1936, he was also 3rd in 1942, 2nd in 1944 and 1947, 6th in 1948 and 5th in 1949 at the age of 38 ! Even then he was far from done – he was still competing in masters' events at the age of 85 ! He served as a US Navy lieutenant in the Pacific during World War II, worked as a stockbroker for 30 years, and was coach to New York AC for 14 years.


Forrest Efaw's AAU steeplechase results were not quite as prolific as McCluskey's but impressive nonetheless. He won the title in 1941 (9:13.7), 1944, 1947 and 1948, was 2nd in 1938, 1940, 1942 and 1949, and 5th in 1943 while serving in the US Navy ! He ran 10:01.2 for the New Orleans two miles steeplechase of 31 December 1942, which only narrowly missed Lochner's World best performance, and but for wartime would surely have improved on that. He was also from Oklahoma and may have been another one to benefit from the advice of John Jacobs. Efaw was a very solid performer on the flat, running 9:04.7 for an indoor two miles in 1941 and winning the AAU indoor three miles in 1945 and 1946, but on another less auspicious occasion was trailing so far behind in a race at Madison Square Garden that some joker in the press-box was heard to wisecrack, ' 'e faw down !'  I guess that Efaw didn't guffaw when that remark was repeated to him.


Another crazy tale about Efaw is that in his college days he came up against a runner named Josh Howell who was renowned for talking and whistling during his races (yes, really !). It was claimed that when Efaw kicked away from Howell in the last-but-one lap of a two-mile event, Howell started whistling 'Won't You Wait Till The Cows Come Home ?' and Efaw was so intrigued that he slowed down to listen and was promptly passed before regaining the lead and winning ! (Explanatory note for musicologists: this song featured in a long since forgotten 1917 show, 'Jack O'Lantern', but was the theme for an NBC radio series sponsored by the Carnation milk company from 1931 to 1951).     


Manning – the best technician of the 1930s


None of these Americans were the equal of Iso-Hollo in terms of basic speed, as the Finn had run 3:54.3 for 1500 metres (worth about 4:12 for the mile), whereas the fastest of them was Efaw at 4:16.7. Some interesting comparison of the technical ability of leading steeplechasers of the 1930s and early 1940s, suggesting that Manning was much the most accomplished 'hurdler', can be made by listing the differentials between their best times for 3000 metres flat (* two miles time less 35sec) and the steeplechase, as follows: Iso-Hollo – 8:19.6, 9:03.8 = 44.2; Manning – 8:43.1*, 9:08.2 = 25.1; Matilainen – 8:28.8, 9:09.0 = 40.2; McCluskey – 8:29.8*, 9:13.9 = 44.1; Tuominen – 8:28.2, 9:06.8 = 38.6; Efaw – 8:29.7*, 9:13.7 = 44.0, Lochner – 8:31.0*, 9:20.8 = 49.8.


Naturally, these figures should be treated with caution, but interestingly Manning still rates far ahead of the three who set steeplechase 'World records' in the 1920s. The differentials in these cases are 48.6sec for Ernesto Ambrosini, of Italy (9:36.6 steeplechase in 1923), 43.2sec for Paul Bontemps, of France (9:33.4 steeplechase in 1924), and 44.8sec for Toivo Loukola, of Finland (9:21.8 steeplechase in 1928). Maybe Harold Manning did, indeed, put that recommended water-jump clearance to good effect ! In the three years following the Berlin Games, the most significant steeplechase performances came on the eve of war from two Germans who were both much faster 1500 metres runners than even Iso-Hollo: Ludwig Kaindl (9:06.8) had run 3:50.2 for 1500 metres; Rolf Seidenschnur (9:11.6) was to run 3:51.4 in 1942. Either of them might well have transformed the event, but the war put an end to any hope of that.


McCluskey and Harold Manning were not quite a match for the best in the World in the 1930s, but what delight they must have taken in Horace Ashenfelter's shock Olympic steeplechase success in World-record time for the USA in 1952. Ashenfelter, an FBI agent by profession, could be said to have followed the trail of clues which the earlier Olympians, McCluskey and Manning, had laid. After all, it was not until the 1952 US Olympic trials – Los Angeles, 28 June, to be precise – that Manning's US metric record was at last beaten, and by both Horace and his younger brother, Bill, with 9:06.4 and 9:07.1 respectively.  The pair of them were coached at New York Athletic Club by Joe McCluskey.


Here, out of interest, is a list of the progressive World best times for the two miles steeplechase from 1890 onwards until its final appearances at the AAA Championships in England in 1952 and at the AAU Championships in the USA in 1957. Readers may like to know that in a steeplechase race in Los Angeles on 18 May 1962, described as being '3000 metres plus 230 yards' – in other words, 10 yards short of two miles – George Young, of the USA, won in 9:16.9.



William Young (USA)

Manhattan, N.Y. (AAU Ch)



John Daly (GB/Ireland)

St Louis, Mo. (AAU Ch)

    /    /04


Michael Devaney (USA)

Newark, N.J. (AAU Ch)




Philadelphia, Pa. (AAU Ch)



Joe McCluskey (USA)

Lincoln, Neb. (AAU Ch)




San Francisco (USA v Br Emp)



Floyd Lochner (USA)

New Orleans




Princeton, N.J.



Petar Segedin (Yugoslavia)

London, White City (AAA Ch)



John Disley (GB)

London, White City (AAA Ch)




Progress and trends in the steeplechase: national records through to the 1960s


National records to the end of 1939:

This was the era of Scandinavian domination, with only the occasional intrusion from Great Britain, Germany and the USA. Very few other countries had any widespread experience of the event. So far as can be established, it remained almost unknown in Asia and totally unknown in Africa.    


Finland: 9:03.8 Volmari Iso-Hollo 1936. Germany: 9:06.6 Ludwig Kaindl 1939. USA: 9:08.2 Harold Manning 1936. Sweden: 9:09.0 Lars Larsson 1939. GB: 9:16.0e George Bailey 1932. Latvia: 9:18.8 Voldemars Vitohls 1936. France: 9:25.0 Roger Rérolle 1936. Austria: 9:26.4 Ferdinand Muschik 1939. Italy: 9:26.5 Alfredo Furia 1932. Belgium: 9:27.0 Jean Chapelle 1939. USSR: 9:27.3 Pavel Savelyev 1939. Japan: 9:32.8 Hideo Tanaka 1938.


National records to the end of 1959:

Horace Ashenfelter's unexpected triumph at the 1952 Olympics was not the spur to a steeplechasing resurgence in the USA that might have been expected, and that shortfall can be blamed on American insularity. The event continued not to be contested at the NCAA (National Collegiate) Championships other than in Olympic year, and when at last it came on to the schedule annually in 1959 the first winner was a Polish refugee who had helpfully changed his name from Jan Miecnikowski to John Macy. In the latter 1950s Eastern Europeans dominated the World rankings and the Scandinavians slipped down the lists – Finland from 1st pre-1940 to 8th pre-1960; Sweden from 4th to 13th. The other obvious feature here is the emergence of so many countries in Asia and South America which were establishing capable records, though there was still almost no African presence. Note, too, that France and Italy, for inexplicable reasons, were making only very slow progress.       


Poland: 8:32.0 Jerzy Chromik 1958. Hungary: Sândor Rosznyói 1956. USSR: 8:35.6 Semyon Rzhishchin 1958. Germany (GFR): 8:37.4 Hans Hüneke 1958. Germany (GDR): 8:37.6 Hermann Buhl 1958. USA: 8:40.8 Phil Coleman 1958. GB: 8:41.2 Chris Brasher 1956. Finland: 8:42.4 Ilkka Auer 1956. Norway: 8:42.4 Ernst Larsen 1956. Czechoslovakia: 8:45.4 Bohumir Zháňal 1959. Yugoslavia: 8:47.8 Petar Segedin 1953. Bulgaria: 8:48.0 Ivan Peev 1959. Sweden: 8:48.0 Gunnar Tjornebö 1956, Hans Norberg 1959. Australia: 8:50.0 Neil Robbins 1956. Rumania: 8:50.8 Tadeus Strzelbiscki 1959. Greece: 8:51.2 Georgios Papavasiliou 1958. Spain: 8:56.2 Manuel Alonso 1958. Belgium: 8:56.6 Gaston Roelants 1959. France/Algeria: 8:57.2 Hamoud Ameur 1959. Mexico: 8:58.0 Alfredo Tinoco 1959.


Japan: 9:00.4 Osamu Inoue 1956. Brazil: 9:01.8 Sebastiano Mendes 1959. Pakistan: 9:03.0 Mubarak Shah 1958. Turkey: 9:04.4 Cahit Önel 1952. Holland: 9:05.6 Hein Cujé 1957. Portugal: 9:05.8 Joaquim Ferreira 1959. Iran: 9:06.6 Ali Baghban Bashi 1958. Italy: 9:06.6 Gianfranco Baraldi 1958. Argentina: 9:08.0 Alberto Rios 1959. Chile: 9:09.0 Santiago Nova 1956. India: 9:09.0 Pan Singh 1957. Switzerland: 9:10.8 Walter Kammermann 1957. Denmark: 9:11.6 Frederick Hauge 1954. Austria: 9:14.4 Walter Steinbach 1959. Taiwan: 9:15.0 Liu Chiu-cheng 1958. Iceland: 9:16.2 Kristleifur Gudbjörnsson 1959.              


National records to the end of 1969

Kenyans had finished 1st and 2nd at the 1968 Olympîcs, but that revelation tended to be attributed to the benefits of high altitude, and the more salient features of the 1960s were (i) that the latest of seven World records during the decade was set by a virtually unknown winner of the USSR national title, and (ii) that while Ron Clarke was re-writing the record-book on the flat another Aussie and a New Zealander had joined the exclusive sub-8:30 steeplechasing club – Kerry O'Brien was to go on to set a World record in 1970. Interesting to note also that there were now 21 countries with national records less than 15 seconds slower than the World record, compared with 10 at the end of 1959, and 41 with national records sub-9:00, as against 20 the decade before.


USSR: 8:22.0 Vladimir Dudin 1969. Finland: 8:24.2 Jouko Kuha 1969. Bulgaria: 8:25.0 Mikhail Zhelev 1969. Belgium: 8:26.4 Gaston Roelants 1964. Australia: 8:26.8 Kerry O'Brien 1969. New Zealand: 8:29.6 Peter Welsh 1966. France: 8:30.0 Guy Texereau 1966. Poland: 8:30.4 Zdzislaw Krzyszkowiak 1961. USA: 8:30.6 George Young 1968. Great Britain: 8:30.8 Gerry Stevens 1969. Germany (GFR): 8:31.0 Manfred Letzerich 1966. Germany (GDR): 8:31.6 Dieter Hartmann 1966. Kenya: 8:31.6 Benjamin Kogo 1967. Hungary: 8:32.6 István Jóni 1967. Sweden: 8:33.8 Bengt Persson 1968. Rumania: 8:34.0 Zoltan Vamos 1966. Norway: 8:34.4 Arne Risa 1969. Yugoslavia: 8:35.4 Slavko Span 1964. Japan: 8:35.8 Taketsugu Saruwatari 1969. Portugal: 8:36.2 Manuel de Oliveira 1964.


Spain: 8:36.4 Javier Alvarez 1968. Italy: 8:37.6 Umberto Risi 1969. Switzerland: 8:37.8 Hans Menet 1968. Czechoslovakia: 8:39.8 Bohumír Zháňal 1963. Argentina: 8:41.8 Domingo Amaizon 1968. Tunisia: 8:42.2 Labidi Ayachi 1966. Morocco: 8:42.8 Ben Assou El Ghazi 1964.  Canada: 8:43.6 Ray Varey 1969. Holland: 8:45.0 Willie Willems 1968. Greece: 8:45.8 Georgios Papavasiliou 1960. Turkey: 8:47.2 Cahit Önel 1962.  Austria: 8:48.0 Horst Gansel 1964. Denmark: 8:48.4 Ole Steen Mortensen 1969. India: 8:53.4 Pan Singh 1960. Mexico: 8:54.6 Hector Villanueva 1968. Algeria: 8:55.4 Hamoud Ameur 1961. Iceland: 8:56.4 Kristleifur Gudbjörnsson  1961. Iran: 8:56.6 Hossein Mir Hosseini 1966. China: 8:57.1 Chi Cheng-wen 1966.  South Africa: 8:57.2 Giulio Nardini 1965.


Pakistan: 8:57.8 Mubarak Shah 1962. Brazil: 9:01.8 Sebastiano Mendes 1959. Ireland: 9:02.2 Jim McNamara 1967. Tanzania: 9:05.6 Omari Abdallah 1965. Uganda: 9:05.8 Eddy Okadapau 1965. Uruguay: 9:07.6 Albertino Etchechurry 1965. Chile: 9:08.4 Francisco Allen 1960. Venezuela:  9:11.0 Rolf Duwe 1967. Luxemburg: 9:11.4 Domenico Marini 1968. Taiwan: 9:15.0 Liu Chiu-cheng 1958. Cuba: 9:18.8 Rigoberto Mendoza 1968. Malaysia: 9:18.8 Dilbagh Singh Kler 1964. Note: 52 countries sub-9:20.       


Notably far down the list of national records to the end of 1969 is Ireland. What is even more perplexing is that the Irish now rank lower in the steeplechase than they did 40 years ago. By the end of 2011 there were 44 countries with national records better than Ireland's, which has been held by Brendan Quinn at 8:24.09 since 1985. Why is this ?   



Vamos – a steeplechase opportunity missed ?


The man with much the best basic speed who succeeded in the steeplechase during the 1960s was Zoltán Vamos, of Rumania, who was 5th in the 1960 Olympic 1500 metres. The previous June he had run a personal best 1500 of 3:40.5 in Prague and at the Games he was only three-tenths slower. After a modest showing in 1961 (best of 3:42.6), he switched to the steeplechase for the next year's European Champîonships in Belgrade, but it would be interesting to know what persuaded him to do so. After all, only one man had broken 3:40 for 1500 metres in the lead-up to the Championships (Michel Jazy, of France, who went on to win the title in 3:40.9), and so there was every opportunity of a medal there for Vamos if he could reproduce his Olympic form. On 12 August, a month before the Championships, he had made an impressive steeplechase debut in 8:41.2, but there were still nine men among the Belgrade entries under 8:40.


The European title went to Belgium's Gaston Roelants, who had been 4th in the 1960 Olympics and so was entering into the glittering phase of his career, and Vamos was an excellent 2nd; times of 8:32.6 and 8:37.6 respectively. The noted British journalist, Mel Watman remarked justifiably in his account of the race for “Athletics Weekly” that both Roelants and Vamos “will surely clock well under 8½ minutes before long”. The World record then stood at 8:30.4 to the great Polish “unpronounceable”, Zdzislaw Krzyszkowiak (say it “Ksheesh-koviak”), at 8:30.4 and Roelants duly broke 8½ the next year and reduced the record further to 8:26.4 in 1965. By contrast, Vamos slipped down and out of the rankings in 1963 and 1964, maybe suffering injury, but came back in 1965 with a splendid double at the national championships in his home town of TimiÅŸoara when he placed 2nd at 1500 metres by a tenth to Constantin Blotiu, 3:40.8 to 3:40.9, and the next day won the steeplechase in 8:36.0 in another fine two-man race in which Victor Caramihai was 2nd in 8:37.8 … and 3rd place went in 9:23.8 ! Vamos had other times of 8:36.6 (a close 2nd to Britain's Maurice Herriott in a European Cup race) and 8:36.8. He was the World’s 7th ranked for the year and 14th at 1500 metres.



At the 1966 European Championships in Budapest he reduced his national record to 8:34.6 in the heats and 8:34.0 in the final, but the latter was the greatest race in depth so far in the history of the event as Viktor Kudinskiy, of the USSR, won in 8:26.6, with Roelants 3rd and Vamos 7th. Vamos continued competing for another couple of years without reaching that level again, and one cannot help but feel that an opportunity was missed here. None of the other steeplechasers who had run 8:34 or better for the distance up to the end of 1966, including Roelants, had ever broken 3:44 for 1500 metres. None of them were remotely close to the Rumanian's fastest 800 metres of 1:48.2. Zoltán Vamos was born on 27 January 1936 and was 1.75m tall and weighed 63kg. He was a member of the CS Dinamo Bucharest club and won nine Balkan Games titles at 800 metres, 1500 metres, 5000 metres and the steeplechase from 1959 to 1966. Prior to the 1960 Olympics a “Sports Illustrated” writer, Tex Maule, who had been sent on a European fact-finding tour, remarked particularly of Vamos that he “has a whistling finish”. Vamos died in 2001.    P

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