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Dan Waern: King of the Kilometre

Money! Money! Money! Athletics as it was 60 years ago

Dan Waern, King of the Kilometre,

Then Forced into Exile

Sweden’s most famous athlete bought a farm, which was certainly a wise investment for the future. His timing, though, could have been better. The year was 1960, when athletics was supposed to be strictly amateur, and Dan Waern had no obvious means of financial support. The authorities understandably concluded that his earnings must have been ill-gotten from his track activities, and he was duly banned for life. No one – at least in Sweden – was too surprised. The same penalty had been imposed on Waern’s famed fellow-countrymen, Gunder Hȁgg and Arne Andersson, some 15 years before.

Waern, like Hȁgg and Andersson, was, of course, a middle-distance runner, and it was a great pity that he was lost to the sport. The Olympic 1500 metres of 1960 had been won imperiously by Herb Elliott, but his only racing thereafter would be done somewhat reluctantly as a matter of obligation to Cambridge University. His World record at 1500 metres lasted seven years, and Waern had all the attributes to have seriously threatened it before it eventually succumbed to Jim Ryun. Elliott’s mile record held up from 1958 to 1962, and who knows what his successor, Peter Snell, might have achieved if Waern had been there that evening in Wanganui when Snell’s nearest rival (the late Bruce Tulloh) was almost five seconds behind?     

In Stockholm in 1958 Waern had lost the European Championships 1500 metres in the last stride or two to Britain’s Brian Hewson. At the Rome Olympics two years later, Waern was 4th, and like all the others in the race he was left a long way behind by that astonishing 700-metre rush for the tape of Elliott’s. I was there. I saw it for myself. And the memory of it is still as fresh almost 60 years later when a thousand other “metric miles” have long since slipped into oblivion. Waern’s great year was 1959 when, unfortunately for him, there was no title for him to seek other than his native land’s. The idea in those days of staging a World Championships as an addition to the Olympics – and, heaven forbid, as a rival! – was unthinkable.      

Waern’s supreme achievements of 1959 were to twice break his own World record for 1000 metres. That might not seem like too much of a commendation in this day and age in which Grand Prix promoters – in their adherence to the IAAF’s misguided obsession with rigid conformity – treat the classic kilometre distance as a very occasional novelty, but this was an event which had from the 1930s onwards merited the very serious attentions of the likes of Ladoumègue, Harbig, Jungwirth, Whitfield, Boysen and Rózsavölgyi. The IAAF’s supremo, Lord Coe, knows all about the distance because he, too, twice set World records for it, but who can readily name the man who succeeded him with the fastest time for the event set 20 years ago and still unbeaten at the time of writing ?

I’ve found 28 races for Waern between 27 July and 30 September of 1959, and there may be  a few more which didn’t get widely reported. He competed at 1000 metres on nine occasions during the season, including four within a week, culminating in to his first World record – 2:19.4, 2:19.3, 2:18.2, 2:18.0! – with a 1500 metres in 3:41.1 fitted in between. All of these five races were in Sweden, but it’s a big country, and assuming that he moved straight on from one venue to the next by road he would have covered 1,578 kilometres, taking maybe more than 20 hours of driving. With no more than a week off from racing throughout the summer, and no job to support him, it must already have been obvious to the authorities that he wasn’t doing all this just for the fun of it, and merely to have his expenses refunded. But then it needed no clairvoyant to know what had been going on for many years – one World-famous Olympic gold-medallist had run 78 races in 84 days in Scandinavia during July, August and September of 1950!

All of this brouhaha over payments under the table seems very silly now, but it was thought to be of much importance 60 years ago, at least by those in charge. The president of the IAAF was Lord Burghley, whose tenure of office was from 1946 to 1976, and he was utterly committed to the principles of amateurism. It would be easy to scoff at such a stance being taken by a wealthy aristocratic land-owner who had never had to concern himself too much with earning a living, but His Lordship dedicated himself to public service in one form or another and was by no means alone in shying away from professionalism in sport. Having now seen the direction that athletics has taken since it started to go open almost 40 years ago, there may well be some (many ?) long-time enthusiasts who are beginning to reflect that Lord Burghley was maybe right.

Making money in an amateur sport

Dan Waern (his name is pronounced “Don Vairn”) has been interviewed frequently over the years since the IAAF banned him in 1961 and seems to bear no grudges. He ran as many as 50 races a year, of which the vast majority were in his home country, packed into the brief Nordic summer from mid-July to mid-September, and the general reckoning is that he usually earned 1000 kroner for each outing, with a top figure of 5000 kroner and an annual income of 40,000 kroner, which was 3½ times the wage of the average Swedish working-man – whatever the definition is of a working-man in Sweden. Somebody must have been keeping accurate accounts at the time because the Swedish tax authorities stated that Waern had earned 31,580 kroner from athletics during 1960 but had declared no more than 9530 kroner. What exactly was the declaration for, one wonders.

No one – least of all the Swedish athletics authorities – seemed to ask the obvious question: why should Waern be earning anything from what is supposed to be an amateur pastime? Other relevant sums such as the value of Waern’s farm, put at 375,000 kroner, were mentioned. Whatever the true facts, Waern seemed to have led a comfortable enough life after his expulsion from the tracks, exploiting the forestry on his farmland and helping with fitness training for a nearby football team for the next seven or eight years.

His major rivals on the track had no worries about IAAF investigations. If they were deemed to have broken the rules then their entire national teams would have to go, too. István Rószavölgyi was from Hungary; Stefan Lewandowski was from Poland; Siegfried Valentin was from East Germany, and all those Communist-ruled countries – in common with the Soviet Union – gave lavish state support to their athletes, setting them up in sinecure jobs which allowed them unlimited time for training and racing.

The IAAF knew this, of course, but understandably preferred to do nothing about it. In any case, the situation on a more limited time-scale was no different in the USA where the majority of athletes were supported by generous university scholarships. Great Britain was by no means above reproach, and Gordon Pirie, for example, had given up his secure job in banking to roam the athletics world, unquestioned by the British athletics hierarchy. Yet  even he eventually could find no more benefactors to provide him with token employment as a publicity ploy, and so he went off to seek a new life in New Zealand within days of Waern losing his amateur status. Pirie later turned professional, but there was less to win there than there had been in his amateur days.

The IAAF should have recognised the signs with the departure of the two most crowd-pleasing athletes in Europe, but it would be more than 20 years before they finally accepted the idea of setting up trusts funds and awarding prize-money. Lord Burghley died in 1981, only months before payments to athletes became legitimate.  

In 1961 both Waern and Pirie went out in style. On 21 July Pirie had won the AAA three miles in 13:16.4, which was the 25th UK record of his career. Waern won a mile race in 3:58.9 four days before the IAAF announced his suspension on 5 September, finishing 10 yards ahead of Valentin, with Pirie 5th. Waern was to say in later years, “’I could beat anyone in Europe because no one was training as hard as me”. It was probably no idle boast. He was running interval sessions of 20 x 200 metres, 10 x 400, 5 x 800, often on grassland, and when the sun broke through to herald a welcome change of seasons he remembered, “I thought it was fun to compete and make some money as well”.

He had no coach, no manager, no agent, and he explained how the arrangements for races were made: “They would call me from Vȁsterȁs, for example, and say, ‘There’s nothing planned for here in a fortnight’s time. What do you say we put together a meeting? Can we say it’s a World-record attempt?’. And I’d tell them, ‘Yes, do it’, if I felt good”.

First boxing and football, but athletics might be fun

Born on 17 January 1933, he had a tough upbringing. He left school at 15 to work in a factory. There was no radio in the family home, and he had taken little interest in the Hȁgg-v-Andersson duels during the early 1940s when war was raging throughout the rest of Europe. His first sporting interests had been in boxing and football, but he said in one of his radio interviews when he was aged in his 70s, “I knew I would never be a good boxer. I scored many goals in football and ran a lot, and I thought athletics might be fun”.

He began competing in 1949 at the age of 16 and by 1954 he was on the fringe of international class with a best 1500 metres of 3:49.8, ranking 4th in Sweden and equal 37th in the World (together with Great Britain’s Ken Wood, among others). Maybe not too much notice was paid in his native land because 10 years previously in the footsteps of Hȁgg and Andersson the 4th best Swede had run 3:47.6. Waern went to the Olympics in 1956 but was eliminated in the 1500 metres heats – along with Barthel, Herrmann, Jazy, Mamo Wolde and Rószavölgyi, among others!

Waern could run World-class times at any distance from 800 metres to 3000, but he readily recognised in later life that 1000 metres was probably his best distance. The World record was beaten seven times between 1953 and 1955, reduced from 2:21.3 by a fellow-Swede, Olle Çžberg, to 2:19.0 by Rózavölgyi, and three of these improvements had been made in Sweden: 2:20.8 by Mal Whitfield, the USA’s double Olympic 800 metres champion, in Eskilstuna in 1953; 2:19.5 by Audun Boysen, of Norway, in Gȁvle in 1954; and 2:19.0 by Boysen in Gothenburg in 1955. Having already run the kilometre in 2:20.9 in both 1956 and 1957, Waern broke the World record in 1958 with 2:18.1, but the venue was in Finland, not his home country. During 1959 there were 19 races at 1000 metres throughout Europe which produced times of international quality, eight of them in Sweden and others in Austria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, France, Poland, Rumania and Spain.    


Dan Waern’s races during 1959

Note: i indoors, WR World record, NR National record, ER European record

7 February, Boston, 1 mile (i) ? (3). Delany (Ireland) 4:04.3 (1), Coleman (USA) (2) at 15

   yards, Waern (3) at another 10 yards.

13 February, Philadelphia (i), 1 mile (7) 4:14.0. Delany 4:05.8 (1).

14 February, New York (i), 1000 yards (2) 2:12.3. Orywal (Poland) 2:11.3 (1).

21 February, New York (i), 1000 yards (4) 2:14.8. Orywal 2:12.6 (1).

21 June, Alfredshem, 800 metres (1) 1:50.0.

2 July, Gothenburg, 800 metres (3) 1:52.4. Moens (Belgium) 1:51.8 (1), Walters (USA)

   1:52.2 (2)

? July, Karlstad, 1000 metres (2) 2:23.1. Barris (Spain) 2:22.9 (1).

7 July, Zurich, 800 metres (2) 1:48.1. Schmidt (Federal Republic of Germany) 1:47.7 (1).

9 July, Stockholm, 1500 metres (3) 3:46.8. Lewandowski (Poland) 3:43.0 (1), Jochman

   (Poland) 3:43.2 (2).

27 July, Malmö, 800 metres r(1) 1:47.8. 53.7 at 400 metres.

28 July, Stockholm, 1 mile (1) 4:07.1 (1). 55.0 last lap.

4 August, Gothenburg, 1000 metres (1) 2:19.4. Lewandowski 2:19.8 (2), Moens 2:19.8 (3),

   Jazy (France) 2:20.6 (4).

6 August, Norrköping, 1500 metres (2) 3:41.1. Lewandowski 3:41.1 (1) … Hewson (GB)

   3:44.6 (3).

7 August, Malmö,1000 metres (1) 2:19.3. Hewson 2:19.7 (2).

9 August, Vȁxjö, 1000 metres (1) 2:18.2. Hewson 2:19.3 (2).

10 August, Gȁvle, 1000 metres (1) 2:18.0. WR. Lewandowski 2:19.0 (2). 53.8, 1:21.6; 1:50.8.

12 August, Vȁsterȁs, 1 mile (1) 3:59.2. Lewandowski 4:00.6 (2).

15 August, Stockholm, 800 metres (1) 1:49.7. National Championships.

16 August, Stockholm, 1500 metres (1) 3:47.8. National Championships.

21 August, Karlstad, 1000 metres (1) 2:17.8. WR. Moens 2:19.2 (2). 54;5, 1:50.0.

26 August, Gothenburg, 800 metres (1) 1:48.4. Salonen (Finland) 1:50.8 (2). Sweden v


27 August, Gothenburg, 1500 metres (1) 3:45.4. Salonen 3:46.6 (2) Sweden v Finland.

28 August, Malmö, 1000 metres (1) 2:20.0. Salonen 2:20.3 (2), Moens 2:20.5 (3).

31 August; Norrköping, 800 metres (1) 1:48.2.

1 September, Stockholm, 3000 metres (1) 7:59.6. Clark (GB) 8:14.2 (2). 3:59.5 at 1500


8 September, Gothenburg, 1500 metres (1) 3:40.7. Lewandowski 3:41.0 (2), Jazy 3:42.1

   (3). Last 300 metres in 39.7.

9 September, Gothenburg, 800 metres (2) 1:47.9. Moens 1:47.5 (1).

10 September, Lund, 880 yards (2) 1:49.0. Lewandowski 1:48.6 (1) … Holt (GB) 1:50.0 (3).

   At 800 metres – Lewandowski 1:47.8, Waern 1:48.2, Holt 1:49.2.

11 September, Uddevalla, 2000 metres (1) 5:05.6. NR. Lewandowski 5:07.2 (2), Pirie (GB)

   5:11.4 (3). 

12 September, Trelleborg, 880 yards (2) 1:48.8. Lewandowski 1:48.6 (1) … Holt 1:50.1 (3).

  At 800 metres – Lewandowski 1:47.9, Waern 1:48.1.

13 September, Hagfors, 1000 metres (1) 2:21.0. Winch (GB) 2:23.2 (2).

15 September, Stokholm, 1500 metres (1) 3:44.2. Valentin (German Democratic Republic)

   3:45.3 (2),  Lewandowski 3:50.0 (3).  .

16 September, Linköping,800 metres (1) 1:48.0. Lewandowski 1:48.7 (2), Moens 1:48.8 (3),

   Holt 1:50.6 (4).

26 September, Paris (Stade Colombes), 800 metres (1) 1:47.8. France v Sweden. Jazy 1:47.9


27 September, Paris (Stade Colombes), 1500 metres (1) 3:44.9. France v Sweden. Jazy 3:46.4


30 September, London (White City), 1 mile (1) 3:59.7. London v Stockholm. Herrmann

   (German Democratic Republic) 4:00.2 (2), Lewandowski 4:00.8 (3), Jazy 4:01.8 (4),

   Salonen 4:02.8 (5). 58.7, 2:02.0, 3:04.6.

11 October, Rome, 800 metres (3) 1:48.6. Lewandowski 1:48.2 (1), Hewson 1:48.3 (2).


By the end of the season he and Dr Stefan Lewandowski must have become firm friends or sworn enemies! They had raced each other 13 times – Waern leading 8-5.

Siegfried Valentin’s races during 1959

3 May, Potsdam, 2000 metres, (1) 5:09.6 (NR).

7 May, Leipzig, 800 metres, (1) 1:48.9.

8 May, Cottbus, 1000 metres, (1) 2:20.8.

16 May, London (White City), 1 mile (1) 4:00.8 (NR). Iharos (Hungary) 4:03.8 (3) …

   Ibbotson (GB) 4:04.6 (6).

18 May, London (White City), 2 miles, (3) 8:43.4 (NR). 8:12.7 at 3000 metres. Ibbotson

  8:43.2 (1), Jochman 8:43.2 (2) … Grodotzki (German Democratic Republic) 8:43.8 (4),

   Iharos 8:44.6 (5).

24 May, Berlin, 1000 metres, (1) 2:20.1.

28 May, Potsdam, 1 mile, (1) 3:56.5 (ER). 3:40.7 at 1500 metres (NR), 58.8, 1:59.7, 2:59.6.

3 June Dresden, 1000 metres, (1) 2:18.6 (NR).

6 June, Erfurt, 1500 metres, (1) 3:40.2 (NR). Herrmann (2) 3:40.9, Grodotzki (3) 3:43.2.

17 June, Potsdam, 800 metres (1) 1:47.6.

1 July, London (White City), 1500 metres (1) 3:44.8. England v German Democratic


17 July, Oslo, 1500 metres (1) 3:39.3 (NR). Herrmann (2) 3:41.2. 2:59.0 at 1200 metres;

24 July, Helsinki, 1500 metres (1) 3:50.2. Johnson (GB) 3:52.0 (2).

1 August, Vienna, 800 metres (1) 1:49.3. World Youth Festival.

2 August, Vienna 1500 metres (1) 3:49.4.World Youth Festival.

15 August, Leipzig, 1500 metres (1) 3:44.0. Herrmann (2) 3:45.0. National Championships.

22 August, Berlin, 1500 metres (1) 3:46.7. Jungwirth (Czechoslovakia) 3:48.2 (2).

23 August, Berlin, 800 metres (1) 1:48.9.

30 August, Leipzig 800 metres (1) 1:49.1.

5 September, Berlin, 1500 metres (2) 3:42.8. Lewandowski (1) 3:42.2. GDR v Poland.

6 September, Berlin, 800 metres (1) 1:51.1. Lewandowski (3) 1:51.5. GDR v Poland.

12 September, Potsdam, 4 x 1500 metres relay, (1)15;14.2. ASK Vorwȁrts, Valentin 3:44.2.

15 September, Stockholm, 1500 metres (2) 3:45.3. Waern (1) 3:44.2.


Valentin’s European mile record was the 3rd fastest ever to Herb Elliott (3:54.5) and fellow-Australian Merv Lincoln (3:55.9), both in Dublin in 1958. Waern’s mile best remained 3:58.5 from 1957, ranking 8th of all-time. Note that on the only occasion that Valentin and Waern  met during 1959 Waern won rather easily at 1500 metres.


Postscript: Now aged 85, Dan Waern has expressed some interesting thoughts in recent years. Asked about his Olympic conqueror, Herb Elliott, Waern said simply, “He was a God-given runner”. Asked about his philosophy of life, Waern replied, “So far as it’s about heaven and hell, I do not know if I think so much about that. But I’m a spiritualist and I believe in reincarnation”. Maybe he hopes to return one day in even better form and this time defeat Elliott. It could be a long wait. Waern’s 2:17.8 lasted as a Swedish record 57 years until 2016, and even then was reduced by only 0.33 of a second.  


Siegfried Valentin made his own valued contribution to the 1000 metres event, beating Waern’s World record with 2:16.7 in 1960 (intermediate times of 54.2 and 1:48.8, paced by compatriot Rolf Meinelt, who eventually finished in 2:33.8). Valentin, born in 1936 and now 82 years of age, presumably took a more prosaic view of life at least during his years in the Communist-ruled German Democratic Republic. Like Waern he came from a humble background and was originally a plumbing and heating engineer by occupation but as an athlete was given a job in the army. After the reunification of Germany, he worked for a civil engineering and construction company.


Now living in Potsdam, he celebrated his 80th birthday in 2016, and it was a big party – he and his wife of 57 years, Erika, have seven children and 12 grand-children. Still keenly interested in athletics, he told an interviewer that year, “We trained hard in my day for quantity and quality, but now many don’t want to do that sort of hard work. Other sports are more in fashion and the position of athletics in society is different to when I was active. The structure for youngsters was better then. I would like to believe that Germany will produce another male long-distance or middle-distance runner to achieve the Olympic throne, but many things would have to change in Germany, including the crusty and outdated attitude of the DLV German athletics federation”.      

1 Comment

Richard Bond 17th July 2023

A superb article Bob, I really enjoyed reading it. You clarly did a lot of very thorough research. kind regards, Richard

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