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George Campbell: Australia's Vegetarian Marvel

Australia’s “Vegetarian Marvel” Who Allegedly Ran a World-record Mile in 1942

An investigation into the competitive career of George Campbell

John Landy’s emergence as a sub-four-minute mile candidate in December of 1952 was a major surprise, and maybe so even to Landy himself. Concerning the rivalry which developed between Landy, Roger Bannister and Wes Santee to become the first man to beat four minutes, Len Johnson wrote in his 2009 book, “The Landy Era”, “If culture and tradition do play a part in sporting performance, Landy represented a stark contrast to the other two. Bannister and Santee each had tradition to draw on. Landy, and his generation of Australian runners, had to develop their own”.

The author’s opinion is to be highly respected, but there had been some miling of  consequence in Australia before Landy. The very first Olympic 1500 metres title, in 1896, had been won by a London-based Australian, Teddy Flack, though it has to be said that there were no immediate successors, and it was 32 years before another Australian, William Whyte (oddly nicknamed “Tickle”), reached the Olympic final of that event. A genuine international-class talent came to light in the latter 1930s when Gerald Backhouse ran in the 1936 Olympic 800 metres final and then was 2ndto the Welshman, Jim Alford, in the 1938 British Empire Games mile in Sydney. Bizarrely, no official time was taken for Backhouse on the latter occasion and he could only be credited in the hindsight of later years with an estimated 4:12.3, which was more than four seconds faster than any fellow-countryman had ever run.

Gerald Ian Dacres Backhouse “was something of a singular character, religious but not sanctimonious, following his own ideas on training and racing”. – again to quote Len Johnson. One of Backhouse’s unconventional ploys was to run home in the early hours of the morning from a party, reputedly covering the marathon distance on one occasion. Sadly, his life was a short one, dying at the age of 29 in December of 1941 in an aircraft accident in the North of England while serving with the Royal Australian Air Force on coastal operations.

Within a few months of Backhouse’s death a sensational miling feat was reported by the “Sydney Morning Herald” – but in the most laconic of terms. The issue for Monday 2 August 1942 stated that George Campbell had been beaten by inches in a handicap mile in 4:29.5, with an added note that “a week earlier, at Clyde Oval, Campbell was credited with creating a World’s record of 4 minutes 3 seconds”. No further explanation was given, and maybe it was simply a case that the newspaper’s editors did not believe the performance – which, of course, would have been perfectly understandable. Perhaps they suspected that the distance was short or that Campbell did not run off scratch, as had been claimed. 

The venue was actually an Australian Rules football ground, and only the previous week the “Herald” had carried an item to the effect that “the sensational times credited to athletes at Sunday Carnivals, organised by professional promoters in aid of patriotic funds, will be considered by the executive committee of the AAA”. Maybe the controllers of amateur athletics in Australia believed that the times being recorded at these unsanctioned meetings were exaggerated. Maybe they were just jealous of the success of these ventures – when Campbell ran his unlikely 4:03 the “Aid To Russia Fund” had benefited by £444.

Yet more than 70 years later Campbell’s “record” was given credibility by another Australian source whose views deserve serious attention. Allan Lawrence was the bronze-medallist at 10,000 metres in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, and he went on to a distinguished coaching career in the USA. In his autobiography, “Olympus and Beyond”, published in 2014, Lawrence expresses unqualified admiration for Campbell, who he raced against in the early 1950s, describing him as “a vegetarian marvel … one of the finest distance-runners Australia has ever produced”. Lawrence further writes of Campbell, “He was an awesome figure for any young runner to compete against. I felt privileged in the six or eight times I had lined up with him in a race to go up to him, shake his hand, and say, ‘Good luck, George’ He was always gracious as he quietly replied, ‘And you’ “. 

Lawrence gives every impression of accepting Campbell’s mile time without question, though his facts differ from those appearing originally in the Sydney newspaper. Lawrence’s version is that Campbell was “running off scratch in a mile handicap race at Sydney’s Redfern Oval and stunned the Australian track world when he came through the field and won the race in 4 minutes 2 seconds”. Whether it was 4:02 or 4:03, it would still have been well inside Arne Andersson’s World record of 4:06.2 set in Stockholm earlier that July. Gunder Hägg would run 4:04.6 in September, but nobody would beat 4:02 until first Andersson and then Hägg did so in 1944 and 1945 respectively.

Only a fortnight after his mile run Campbell went into the services – the Australian army, according to Lawrence; the Royal Australian Air Force, according to the New South Wales Athletics website. Whatever the colour of his uniform when on duty, Campbell apparently continued to compete in meetings against Australian and American servicemen on impromptu tracks at various Pacific islands, remaining unbeaten throughout the war years. He returned to civilian life in 1948 (the same year that 18-year-old John Landy was winning the national public schools’ mile) and raced at every distance from 880 yards to the marathon through to 1954, producing some authentically-timed performances which give us a chance to assess his true worth. 

In 1946 he had won the national cross-country title by 51 seconds, having apparently enjoyed a pre-race meal of eight bananas. In 1947 he had set a national two miles record of 9:15.6, which was a perfectly creditable performance in a year in which the fastest time in the World at that distance was 9:07.4 by Willy Slijkhuis, the “Flying Dutchman” who was to win Olympic bronze at both 1500 and 5000 metres the following year,. In 1948 Campbell won the national one mile and three miles titles. In so doing, he beat a championship record for the mile which had stood since 1934, though his time of 4:18.4 was a long way short of what he had reportedly done six years before. At the longer distance he finished ahead of his younger brother, Don, in 14:31.4. .

George Campbell had been born on 14 March 1923, which means that he was still only 19 in 1942, and for the next three years, at least, his competitive opportunities were restricted by his military commitment. But it must be admitted that none of those subsequent achievements of his are of sufficient merit to suggest that this slightly built runner – he was 5ft 8in (1.72m) tall and weighed 9 stone (57kg) – really was capable of breaking the World record for the mile. 

No, of course, he couldn’t possibly have done so, could he ? Or could he ?

Note: Don Macmillan, who raced frequently in Britain in the early 1950s while studying medicine in London, set an Australian record of 4:08.9 in 1951 and had a best time in Britain the following year of one-tenth faster. Also in 1952 he was 9thin the Olympic 1500 metres – the first Australian in 24 years to reach the final of that event. John Landy was the bronze-medalist four years later and Herb Elliott won the gold for Australia in World-record time in 1960.  

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