Racing Past

The History of Middle and Long Distance Running

Bob Phillips Articles / PROFILE

Luigi Beccali: A Long Hard Route from Youthful Indisgression to an Olympic Title




 

 

Choosing 12 kilometres as the distance for one of your first races at the age of 14 is not the wisest of decisions, but everything turned out alright for Luigi Beccali in the long run – or rather, one could say, in a series of shorter runs. An Olympic gold medal and two World records at 1500 metres are enviable achievements by any measure. In purely statistical terms, he was the first man run under 3min 50sec for the distance twice – and, for that matter, three times – and though this might not seem too impressive now it’s a feat which is justifiably still thought to be of great significance more than 90 years later by anyone with a real sense of athletics history. 

Beccali’s surname is pronounced “Baik-kaa-lee”, and he was given the nickname “Nini”, which was a convoluted adaptation of a term of familiarity, “Luigino”, by his friends. One of them in later years was a fellow-Italian and the most respected of chroniclers of the sport, the late Roberto Quercetani, who in  turn became fondly known as “RLQ” and lived to the age of 97 in 2019. In his immensely detailed history, published in the year 2000, he wrote of Beccali’s youthful debut as a runner, “As might be expected, the result was disastrous and ‘Nini’ decided to give up track in favour of cycling, but luckily for Italy, which did not lack good cyclists, his showing on wheels left something to be desired, and he eventually returned to his first love”. 

It was Beccali who sparked off the passion for athletics of “RLQ” at the age of 10 and he recalled, “My memory seems to have settled on an episode which occurred on an August day in 1932, whilst I was walking in the streets of Firenze in the company of my father. In the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele my sight was attracted to a large screen mounted on the top of a building on which a newsreel was unfolding, and I was excited more than somewhat by the announcement that Luigi Beccali had won the 1500 metres at the Los Angeles Olympics the day before. My earliest recollection of an event seen in person again concerns ‘Nini’ Beccali, setting a new Italian 800 metres record in Firenze during the half-time intermission of a soccer match in 1933”.

The comparative values of athletics and cycling in “Nini” Beccali’s youth, as related by “RLQ”,  are neatly illustrated  by the fact that at the top level in 1924 and 1925 the Tour de France cycle race was won by an Italian, Ottavio Bottechia, whereas the leading 1500 metres runner among his compatriots in the latter year, Disma Ferrario, barely ranked in the top 30 in the World, if one-mile times are also taken into account. By far the greatest number of middle-distance runners ahead of Ferrario overall was provided by the USA, with 13, followed afar by Great Britain five, France four and Finland three.

In that same year of 1925 there occurred the tragically early death from a bacterial infection at the age of 39 of Emilio Lunghi, who in the assessment of “RLQ” was the one Italian who could previously have been a 1500 metres competitor of World class, “but he only ran the distance sporadically”. At the 1908 Olympics Lunghi had suffered the singular misfortune of finishing 2nd in his 1500 metres heat by two-fifths of a second, with only the winner to qualify for the final, but he was silver-medallist at 800 metres a week later. Beccali, who had been born in Milan on 19 November 1907, and had a brother and two sisters, made his first appearance in the international rankings the year after Lunghi’s death, with 1:57 for 800 metres, still aged only 18, which was 2nd fastest in Italy and just outside the World’s top 50. Progress, though, was halted in 1927 when he began compulsory military service.

Eventually given special dispensation by the army in 1928 to train for the upcoming Olympics, Beccali’s apprenticeship at 1500 metres was hard work. Even when in June he became the first Italian to break four minutes for 1500 metres this was in a France-v-Italy-v-Switzerland match at Stade Colombes, in Paris, in which he finished far behind the rising French star, Jules Ladoumègue, 3:55 to 3:59⅗. A month later on the same track Ladoumègue ran 3:52⅕, which was threateningly close to the existing World record of 3:51.0 by Germany’s Otto Peltzer in 1926. Ladoumègue and Beccali would have their own contributions to make to the 1500 metres record in later years, but meanwhile at the 1928 Olympics the Italian, still learning at 20 years of age, was 4th and eliminated in his heat, and the Frenchman, also yet lacking in tactical know-how, was 2nd in the final to Finland’s Harri Larva. 

“His road to success was a long one”, Roberto Quercetani explained further of Beccali. “Between 1928 and 1931 he continued to improve slowly but steadily and learned much from those who defeated him”. Among the most chastening experiences in that educative process were visits to London’s Stamford Bridge Stadium for the prestigious English Amateur Athletic Association Championships, which were open to all-comers. On the first occasion, in 1929, he entered the two miles steeplechase, having made an intriguing debut in May in the event at the 3000 metres distance, for which his time of 9:38.4  bore some worthy comparison to the World best 9:21.60 by Toivo Loukala, of Finland, in winning the Olympic gold the previous year. After a storm-tossed Channel crossing, and on a cold day, Beccali was further discomforted when he fell headlong in the steeplechase water-jump and understandably retired with two laps to go. Why Beccali and his coach, Dr Dino Nai, should have had ambitions for the event is a mystery, as although it had been contested in the Olympics since 1920 it was not recognised as standard by the IAAF because of variations in course lay-out, and would not be until 1954. Maybe it was a case of reaction (over-reaction, even ?) by Beccali and Dr Nai to the Olympic setback.

At the 1930 AAA Championships Beccali opted more conventionally for the mile but suffered a decisive defeat behind Britons Reg Thomas, 4:15.2, and Jerry Cornes, 4:18.0. The defending champion, Cyril Ellis, had also qualified from the previous evening’s heats, but the organisers generously allowed him to withdraw and run the 880 final instead, for which he was again the title-holder. The same concession was made to a Polish visitor, Janusz Kusocinski, in favour of the four miles (which would remain the AAA standard event until replaced by the three miles in 1932). As it happens, Ellis was 3rd and Kusocinski 4th in their alternative outings, but the latter would attract rather more attention two years hence in winning the 0lympic 10,000 metres. Eight days after his AAA loss Beccali ran a personal best at 1500 metres in the France-v-Italy match at Colombes but was again overwhelmed by Ladoumègue, 3:53⅘ to 3:57⅕. Ladoumègue was sharpening his form towards a World record 3:49.2 – which would displace Peltzer and, most significantly, achieve the first sub-3:50 timing – in October.

The next year Beccali was back at Stamford Bridge yet once more for the first GB-v-Italy match, for which the home team was described as “England” despite including a Scot and a Welshman, and he valiantly chose to run the 880 yards against the British Empire Games champion, Tom Hampson. The finish to the race was desperately close after Hampson and his team-mate, Tom Scrimshaw, had seemed to have it under control, and Fred Dartnell, one of the most astute of British athletics writers, takes up the story in his report for the London “Daily News”: “Coming into the straight, however, the Italian made a terrific effort, shot past Scrimshaw, and with Hampson unable to put anything extra in by way of reply was only beaten by inches”. A photograph in the “Daily News” shows Hampson and Beccali lunging at the tape together, and Hampson’s narrowest of successes was headlined at the top of the page. British newspapers had a daily circulation of well over eight million then and were the most important source of information for the 46 million population – no television, of course ! The performance so highlighted against the man who would become Olympic 800 metres champion can now be seen in hindsight as a turning-point in Beccali’s career, even though the time, 1:55.8, was of no great consequence.  

By stark contrast the mile event in that single-day August encounter was entirely one-sided: Cyril Ellis 4:17.0, Reg Thomas 4:18.2, and the hapless Italian substitutes 4:34.0 and 4:37.0 ! Beccali concentrated on 800 metres that year to such good effect that he ran the Italian champion, Ettore Tavernari, very close in Milan in October, 1:53.2 to 1:53.4, and the pair of them thus ranked 7th and 9th in the World. Tavernari had been credited with a 1:52.3 800 metres in Paris in 1929, which was annoyingly designated as half-a-metre short (How could that error in measurement have happened, one wonders, and did it really matter ?), and he had his own reversal at the AAA Championships that year, 4th in the 880 yards (Ellis 1st, Thomas 2nd). Also in 1929 Tavernari had set an IAAF-recognised World record of 1:03.0 for 500 metres.

In May of the Olympic year 1932 Beccali startlingly improved his 1500 metres best from the 3:57 of 1930 to 3:52, which was to remain the fastest pre-Games time. “Yet he was not considered a favourite by the majority of experts”, reckoned Roberto Quercetani. “At the US Final Trials a young trio – Norwood Hallowell (3:52.7), Frank Crowley and Glenn Cunningham – qualified for the Games, and among other leading contenders were the Finnish veterans, Larva and Purje; Phil Edwards, of Canada; Jerry Cornes, of Britain, AAA one mile champion; and a young New Zealander, Jack Lovelock, who as a student at Oxford had set a new British all-comers one mile record of 4:12.0”. A notable absentee was Gene Venzke, despite World indoor best marks of 3:53.4 for 1500 metres and 4:10.0 for the mile in February and a 1500 in 3:52.6 outdoors in June, all of which effort was unavailing as he was beaten into 4th place at the all-important US Olympic Trials. Missing from the line-up for a very different reason was Jules Ladoumègue, who having become the record-holder for both 1500 metres and the mile, had been banned for infringing the amateurism rules – but had his fare paid to Los Angeles, anyway, as a reporter for a Paris newspaper. Also a non-starter was Cyril Ellis, AAA mile champion in 1927-28-29 and 3rd to Cornes and Lovelock in 1932, who would not have been able to afford losing his weekly wage as a mine-worker while away for at least a month, and 

A fellow-miler who had particular sympathy for Ellis was Jerry Cornes, who was the mentor of Jack Lovelock when he arrived at Oxford University from New Zealand in the winter of 1931. Cornes was granted unpaid leave to go to Los Angeles before taking up a colonial service administrative post in Nigeria, and he never forgot what he considered was an injustice. When he was interviewed at the age of 89 in 1999 by a journalist of more than 50 years’ experience, David Thurlow, for the quarterly publication in Britain of the aptly-named National Union of Track Statisticians (whose members are not the least bit averse to being described as “NUTS”), Cornes said, “Right from the beginning when I started running I believed that Baron de Coubertin had made a mistake by insisting that we should all be amateurs. All that time ago I thought it was wrong that Ellis should miss out”.  Proposals made to the IAAF that “broken time” payments should be made to working athletes such as Ellis were vigorously rejected, with British officialdom among the most intransigent. 

Because of the expense involved in travelling to Los Angeles, there were far fewer athletes than had been in Amsterdam for the Games of four years previously. Exactly how many there were in the 1500 metres is a matter of debate because versions vary, but in the Official Report published by the organisers after the Games only 27 athletes from 15 countries are confirmed as having contested the event, compared with 43 of 21 nationalities in Amsterdam. The LA entrants, with previous best times from 1932, or from other years, where known, was as follows:

Argentina: Luis Oliva, Hermanegildo del Rosso (4:04.8, 1929).

Australia: Bill Barwick (4:16.9 mile).

Brazil: Armando Brea, Nestor Gomes.

Canada: Phil Edwards (4:01.4, 1931), Eddie King (4:02.1, 1930), Leslie Wade.

Denmark: Christian Markersen (3:58.1).

Finland: Harri Larva (3:52.0, 1928), Martti Luomanen (3:56.4), Eino Purje (3:53.1, 1928).

France: Jean Keller (3:59.6, 1931).

Germany: Otto Peltzer (3:51.0, 1926).

Great Britain: Jerry Cornes (4:14.2 mile), Reg Thomas (4:15.2 mile).

Italy: Luigi Beccali (3:52.2).

Mexico: Jaime MerinoPedro Ortiz, Amilio Rodriguez.

New Zealand: Jack Lovelock (4:12.0 mile).

Sweden: Eric Ny (3:55.8, 1931), Folke Skoog.

Switzerland: Paul Martin (3:58.4, 1928).

USA: Glenn Cunningham (3:53.1), Frank Crowley (3:53.6), Norwood Hallowell (3:52.7).

 

This was indeed a mixed bunch ! Five of them – Keller, Larva, Purje, Peltzer and Martin – were really well past their best. The Brazilians and the Mexicans were unknown quantities so far as this event was concerned, as was one of the Argentinians, Oliva, who had failed to finish his steeplechase heat two days earlier, and there is still uncertainty as to whether a third Brazilian, João de Deus Andrade, actually competed. His name appears in at least one authoritative list of results, though he is not among those recorded in the organising committee’s Official Report. The other two Brazilians were non-finishers in their heats, and the Mexicans were both distant last. One of the Swedish pair, Skoog, had emigrated to the USA in 1925, and was maybe only selected because he was conveniently on hand for the Games – he eventually became an American citizen and a world-renowned authority regarding plant biology. Edwards had no obvious form at 1500 metres or the mile but had already been bronze-medallist at 800 metres in Los Angeles, and together with Beccali, Cornes, Cunningham, Lovelock and Ny he would go on to compete with distinction in the 1936 Olympic 1500 final. Of the others, Martin, Gomes, de Rosso (who was Italian-born) and King had taken part in the 800 metres heats at those 1932 Games, and Peltzer had been 9th and last in the final of that event. No strict qualifying credentials needed to go to the Olympics in those days!

 

The 12 qualifiers for the 1500 final (the first four from each of three heats) comprised all three from both Finland and the USA, together with Edwards and King for Canada, Beccali, Cornes, Lovelock and Ny. Cunningham had by far the fastest heat time, 3:55.8, but extravagantly so because 2nd to him was Cornes in 4:01.0. Lovelock and Beccali won the other heats in 3:58.0 and 3:59.6 respectively. Paul Martin, the 800 metres silver-medallist of eight years previously, narrowly missed the final, only three-tenths of a second behind the title-holder, Larva. Reg Thomas, suffering from a leg injury, could not complete his heat, though the British Olympic Association unfeelingly made no mention of his problems in their Games report. The Frenchman, Keller, who had figured in both the 800 and 1500 metres finals in Amsterdam, had also been a non-finisher in his 800 metres heat, and maybe he, too, was out of sorts.

 

Otto Peltzer was yet another who failed to finish, in the third heat, but his future biographers in 2016, Tim Johnston and Don Macgregor, both of them Olympic marathon runners, related a remarkably complex tale regarding the circumstances, which involved Peltzer running in flat-soled gym-shoes because of problems with his spikes and deliberately stepping off the track when in a qualifying position because he was under pressure from the team management to save his energies for the 4 x 400 metres relay straight final three days later. Such a selfless patriotic gesture proved in vain as the Germans were 4th in the relay, a considerable distance behind the USA, Great Britain and Canada. 

 

The closing stages of the 1500 were described in typically ebullient style by Arthur J. Daley, the long-serving track and field correspondent for the “New York Times”, who started his report with a clarion cry no doubt targeting his likely widespread readership among Italian immigrants – four million of whom had already arrived in the USA by 1920: “For the first time since the meet got under way, the Green, White and Red of Italy went up on the central mast as the raven-haired Luigi Beccali raced into the ground one of the greatest 1500-meter fields the Games have known”. Daley set out the manner in which victory was ultimately achieved thus: 

 

“Beccali won the 1500-meter run because he had the sprint, not an ordinary sprint but a closing drive that one might expect from a half-miler but never from a distance runner. Edwards ran just the right kind of race for him, setting a fast pace into the home stretch that left the Canadian with not enough staying power to resist  the Italian’s finishing burst. As that brilliant field swept into the last straight-away it was anybody’s race. When Cornes, Lovelock, Ny and Hallowell started to kick for the final drive Beccali had too much for them. And when the Italian let loose with all he had his powerful sprint was enough to carry him to an Olympic championship”.

 

Daley then gave what was almost a stride-by-stride account of the preceding part of the race, and maybe he expected some hot-blooded histrionics afterwards, as he concluded, “Team-mates rushed over to congratulate the winner. Beccali took his new-won honors very calmly. Remarkably composed, he reached down for his training-suit and pulled it on. When he marched to the victory stand the Italian raised his right arm in the Fascist salute as his anthem was played and as the Italian standard shot up the mast”. The Official Report gave lap times of 60.5 for Lovelock and Cunningham, 2:04.5 and 3:07.0 for Edwards, and the result was as follows: 1 Beccali 3:51.2 (3:51.20 electric timing), 2 Cornes 3:52.6, 3 Edwards 3:52.8, 4 Cunningham 3:53.4, 5 Ny 3:54.6, 6 Hallowell 3:55.0, 7 Lovelock 3:57.8, 8 Crowley 3:58.1, 9 Larva 3:58.4, 10 Luomanen 3:58.4. Purje did not finish, King did not start. All three medallists beat the Games record of 3:53.2 by Larva from 1928. 

 

In thoughtful reflection more than 50 years later, when their history of the mile race was published, Roberto Quercetani and his equally authoritative American co-author, Cordner Nelson, summed up the long-term impact which Beccali’s win would have: “His last 300 meters was estimated in 41.7, easily the fastest ever run in a fast race. His last lap was guessed at about 57 seconds. Something new had been added to foot racing”. A further statistical nicety was that Beccali’s winning margin of 1.4sec had not previously been exceeded in a 1500 metres final at the Olympic Games – even by Paavo Nurmi in 1924 – and would not be for another 28 years until Herb Elliott won so majestically in Beccali’s home land in 1960. The Official Report by the British Olympic Association, edited by a prolific coach and writer, F.A.M. Webster, claimed that Jerry Cornes “might possibly have won had his attention not been concentrated upon those runners who were regarded as the real danger”. That opinion, it must be said, was surely wishful thinking. 

 

The most lyrical of French journalists, firstly Gaston Meyer (1905-1985) then Robert Parienté (1930-2006), who are rightly regarded as pre-eminent writers of athletics history, nevertheless accorded Beccali less than his due, distracted as they were by Ladoumègue’s pre-Games disqualification. Meyer, who was editor-in-chief of the iconic Parisien sports daily,  “L’Equipe”, gave two pages to Ladoumègue in a chapter entitled “The Gods of the Stadium”, which formed part of a history he wrote in 1966, but less than four lines of passing mention to Beccali. Parienté, in a massive Olympic history published in 1996 (890 pages, weighing 4.5 kilogrammes !), introduced Beccali as one of the 1932 Olympic finalists who Ladoumègue had previously outclassed, which was certainly a true remark but decidedly ungenerous, though adding that Ladoumègue’s detractors “affirm even to this day that he would have been defeated by the hot weather”.  

 

A predictable invitation to compete in the highly competitive US indoor season was sent to Beccali by the omnipotent AAU secretary-treasurer, Dan Ferris, but not until January of 1933, which was rather late in the day. There was no getting on the next flight for Beccali and being in New York in a matter of hours; a sea voyage of several days was obligatory. So,  while Beccali stayed at home, and was in any case nursing a foot injury, Glenn Cunningham beat Gene Venzke’s indoor mile best with 4:09.8 in Chicago in March, though it was Venzke who won the AAU 1500 by one-tenth of a second in 3:55.4 from Cunningham and fellow-Olympian Crowley. In previous years other European middle-distance and distance runners had spent their winters “on the boards” in various eastern cities of the US; most notably, Paavo Nurmi winning the AAU two miles and breaking numerous records in 1925, and then further AAU titles for Edvin Wide, of Sweden, at two miles in 1929 and the Swiss, Paul Martin, at 1000 yards the next year.

 

Outdoors in that post-Olympic year of 1933 Cunningham won the National collegiate (NCAA) mile in 4:09.8 and the AAU 1500 metres in 3:52.3 by the proverbial street (2.7sec, to be precise), both in Chicago in June, and if Beccali needed any reminding that some of the men he had beaten for Olympic gold had been far from deterred by the experience it came on 15 July. Jack Lovelock won the first of what were going to be described, not without reason, as “The Mile of the Century” at Princeton, New Jersey, in 4:07.6, with Bill Bonthron 2nd in 4:08.7, and so both of them surpassing Jules Ladoumègue’s 4:09⅕ World record from 1931. Bonthron, still aged only 20, had advanced in typically precocious American manner, having run only one serious race, at two miles, the year previous. Beccali, meanwhile, kept a low profile, winning the 800 and 1500, 1:56.2 and 3:55.4, in a one-day match against France at Colombes on 11 June, running a ¾-mile in 3:03.4 in Milan four days later and then 1:53.2 for 800 metres, again in Milan, on 27 August, which was a personal best by two-tenths.

 

It would be interesting to know if Beccali was directing his thoughts at least by mid-summer towards a rendezvous with Jack Lovelock in September. Beccali had taken leave from his job as a draughtsman for the Milan municipality to further his studies at a School of Architecture, and so he would be eligible to take part in the International Student Games in Turin. So, too, of course, would Lovelock, continuing his medical studies at Oxford University and by his own admission prepared to settle for a second-class degree in the interests of proving his athletics potential. We know a great deal about Lovelock’s mode of life – or, at least what he was prepared to make public – because he kept meticulous diaries and these were published in immaculate and lavishly illustrated form by David Colquhoun in New Zealand in 2008.  However, there’s no clue as to whether a return match with Beccali was specifically targeted by Lovelock, and it seems rather unlikely that it was, considering that he had spent an exhausting month of July when he set his mile record while on tour in North America with the combined Oxford and Cambridge Universities team. On 20 July in Montreal he had noted that he and his colleagues were “worn out physically and mentally with travel, competition and entertainment”.

 

After beating Reg Thomas in a 4:13 mile at the hugely attended Rangers FC Sports in Glasgow at the beginning of August, and then forced to spend a week in bed with influenza, Lovelock arrived in Turin a week in advance, presumably at the organisers’ expense because he said that he had “accepted the offer” to compete. He thus had the opportunity to catch up on his training, but there was an adverse side. “The match was boosted too much for my liking”, he wrote. “It fairly does play the devil with one’s nerves”. The Games were being held for the sixth time since 1923 but were yet to become anything like the world-wide event they are now. On the oddly-configured Stadio Comunale 446-metre track all of the 10 competitors in the 1500 metres qualified in two farcical heats on 7 September, and later in the day Beccali greatly impressed Lovelock, who noted in his diary, “He turned out to run a beautiful 800 metres in the last leg of a Relay – he really is a delightfully pretty and courageous athlete”. Beccali’s time in making up a 50-metre deficit for Italy to win from Germany was 1:51.4 – by far his fastest, even allowing for a “flying” start.

 

Only eight finalists reappeared for the 1500 metres two days later. They included two other Italians, together with Basil Page, of London University, whose best mile of the year had been a modest 4:23.7, and a Hungarian and three Germans, of whom Wolfgang Dessecker had also qualified for the 800 metres final. Of course, Lovelock recorded in his diary a detailed précis of the race, and within the first lap it was obviously already a two-man contest and a record attempt masquerading in the guise of a championship: 

 

“In the back straight, as the field settled down, I carefully moved up into 2nd position behind Beccali. He set a cracking pace, intent obviously on dropping the field and me with it. We soon left the others behind and raced away together to the applause and encouragement of the crowd. The first 400 was a little fast – 60 dead. The second correspondingly dropped a little to give 2:04½ for 800 metres. Luigi then realised he was dropping and cracked away hard in the third quarter to return 3:06½. I clung like a leech though not feeling as comfortable as I’d have liked. Even then, as we started the last 300 metres, I thought I might hold him in the finish. About 150 metres from the tape he made a big effort to draw away and opened a gap of two metres. This I endeavoured to close in the last 80, but my big ‘Kick’ was not there when I wanted it and he increased his gap to three metres to finish neatly and compactly”. 

 

Beccali’s 3:49.2 equalled Ladoumègue’s World record from 1930. Lovelock was timed in 3:49.8, and Dessecker was a very remote 3rd in 4:03.0 but won the 800 metres the next day. Taking a pragmatic view, Lovelock concluded, “I did not feel badly beaten. It is probably rather good for me to take an occasional drubbing, and though I would naturally have preferred to win I did not in the least begrudge Luigi his win. He is a delightful opponent. Two wins to him, the third is mine”. A fellow New Zealander, the late Norman Harris, who was the most sensitive of athletics writers, had this to say in a biography of Lovelock in 1964:

“In truth Beccali would not have been unbeatable if Lovelock had been able to find his real speed in the straight, to raise his tempo to the sprint which had beaten Bonthron. But all the same Beccali’s had been a very impressive run. For all of his carefree image, he was almost Nurmi-like with his upright style and ability to run a strong exact pace on his own. To quicken the speed of a strongly-run race by two seconds in the traditionally cruel third lap was remarkable”. Impressive as he was to watch on the track, Beccali was not of exceptional build – 1.69m (5ft 6½in) in height.

 

Ironically, Glenn Cunningham could also have taken part in the Games as a University of Kansas student, and he had actually been on a demanding European tour of 20 unbeaten races, taking in a 1000 metres in 2:23.9, which was only three-tenths slower than Jules Ladoumègue’s World record, and a 1:50.6 for 800 metres on successive days in Stockholm, 20-21 July, maybe spurred on by Bill Bonthron’s US mile record against Lovelock a few days before. Cunningham was still in Europe a month later, winning a 1500 in Budapest on 12 August in 3:51.6 and another 800 in Paris in 1:51.0 five days later. Unfortunately, he was  apparently told that Beccali would not be running in an intended 1500 metres in Italy – and it rather seems that this was a reference to the Student Games. So Cunningham returned home. A chance missed!  Italy won 19 medals at the Games, Germany 16, and the token USA representation four.

 

Ten days after his record-equalling victory, Beccali was back in Milan and on his favoured 500-metre Civica Arena track for the return Italy-v-GB match. There to report the meeting for his newspaper was the well-informed Fred Dartnell, and he wrote of the 1500 metres: “We were relying on Thomas and Whitehead for this race, but nobody could have stood up to the brilliant Italian with the perfect style and buoyant spirit. Two hundred yards from home he came away like an express train to win by 35 yards from Thomas. The crowd, of course, was delirious with excitement and would not be satisfied until Beccali had gone to the microphone and told them how proud he was as a Milanese to bring the World’s record back not only to his native town but to Italy itself”. Beccali had improved by two-tenths to 3:49.0, and even though Reg Thomas was outclassed he had set a British record of 3:53.6.

 

Beccali had stormed away at a furious pace from the start – intermediate times of 60.0, 1:59.4 – and maybe had gone a shade too fast because his 1200 metres in 3:07.0 was half-a-second slower than in Turin. It is easy to speculate that had Beccali run, say, 61 and 2:02.0 for the first 800 metres he might have finished in 3:48 or so, but the principle of even-paced running was not yet properly appreciated by middle-distance runners. A notable exception was Paavo Nurmi, who on a visit to the USA in 1940 was for once drawn out of his customary taciturnity when asked by press-men as to how he thought the sub-four-minute mile might be achieved. He responded, “It will be run at even speed – four 60-second quarters. That is less exertion and I believe is the way it will be done”. History shows that few milers of later generations heeded the great man’s advice. The intermediate times for previous World records at 1500 metres and the mile ratified by the IAAF from 1914 onwards show  a similar pattern of fast start, gradual easing-off, and then a restrained third lap preparing for a grandstand finish:

 

1912: Abel Kiviat (USA), 1500 metres, 3:55⅘ – x, 2:03⅗, 3:09⅕.

1913: John Paul Jones (USA), 1 mile, 4:14⅖ – 61.8, 2:09.4, 3:16.2.

1915: Norman Taber (USA), 1 mile, 4:12⅗ – 58.0, 2:05.0, 3:13.0.

1917: John Zander (Sweden), 1500 metres, 3:54.7 – 59.5, 2:02.5, 3:07.5.

1923: Paavo Nurmi (Finland), 1 mile, 4:10.4 – 60.3, 2:03.2, 3:06.7. 

1924: Paavo Nurmi (Finland), 1500 metres, 3;52.6 – 57, 2:01.0, 3:06.0.

1926: Otto Peltzer (Germany), 1500 metres, 3:51.0 – 60.0, 2:02.2, 3:02.2.

1930: Jules Ladoumègue (France), 1500 metres, 3:49.2 – 58.4, 2:00.4, 3:05.0.

1931: Jules Ladoumègue (France), 1 mile, 4:09⅕ – 60.8, 2:04.2, 3:08.0.

 

Beccali was clearly in the form of his life during that balmy Italian autumn of 1933. On 24 September he won a handicap 800 metres on a 500-metre track at the new Campo di Marte stadium in Florence in 1:50⅗, which must have been the race that the young Roberto Quercetani was charmed by, and that year only the US champion, Charley Hornbostel, and Cunningham achieved faster times. On 15 October in Turin Beccali produced a 1500-metre time of 3:49.6 (laps passed in 60, 2:05, 3:06), and this was part of a long-range contest 600 kilometres apart with Jules Ladoumègue, now a professional but apparently encouraged by the French athletics authorities, having run 3:50.8 in Paris the day before, followed by 3:51.4 and 3:50.4 within a week. Beccali had the last word with another record of his own, in Milan on 4 November – 1000 yards in 2:10.0, passing 800 metres in 1:53.2, to beat the existing best of 2:11.2 by Cyril Ellis from 1929 for an event which was officially recognised by the IAAF at least until 1937.

 

Another of Roberto Quercetani’s histories of athletics was dedicated entirely to the “two-lap race”, the 800 metres and 880 yards, and he said, “It is certain that in 1933 Beccali could have done better if he had chosen to commit himself to this distance completely. However his combination 1:50.6/3:49.0 would remain among the best on the 800/1500 axis for a long timre to come”. Equally, it’s interesting conjecture as to why Beccali did not give some attention to the records for the 1000 metres and, of course, the mile, which carried a lot more prestige than the thousand yards, but these standards were not simply there for the taking. The 1000 metres record, as previously mentioned, was one of those still in the possession of Ladoumègue, with his 2:23⅗ from 1930, and though there was not the statistical knowledge then to make direct comparison of different events it can now be readily done with the aid of tables compiled from the 1980s onwards by Hungarian experts, and most recently revised in 2022. These show, for instance, that Beccali’s 800 metres equated to a 1000 metres in 2:23.3 and his 1500 to a 1000 metres in 2:24.6, and there is an even more telling inference, as the points scores below show:   

 

800 metres, 1:49.70, Tom Hampson (Great Britain), 1932 – 1035pts

1000 metres, 2:23⅗, Jules Ladoumègue (France), 1930 – 990pts

1500 metres, 3:49.0, Luigi Beccali (Italy), 1933 – 989pts

1 mile, 4:07.6, Jack Lovelock (New Zealand), 1933 – 983pts  

To have matched Hampson’s 800 metres, the 1500 metres would have needed to be run by Beccali in a fraction under 3:45.5 and the mile by Lovelock in a fraction under 4:03.3 ! It might be thought in view of this dramatic imbalance that the Hungarian “Scoring Tables of Athletics”, as they are called, are tilted in favour of the shorter distances, but this is how the scores look for the World records at the time of writing:

800 metres, 1:40.91, David Rudisha (Kenya), 2012 – 1301pts

1000 metres, 2:11.96, Noah Ngeny (Kenya), 1999 – 1250pts

1500 metres, 3:26.0, Hicham El Gerrouj (Morocco), 1998 – 1302pts

1 mile, 3:43.13, Hicham El Gerrouj (Morocco), 1999 – 1292pts

 

If there’s a simple answer as to why the 800 metres record in the early 1930s was so much better than the records for the longer middle-distances it is surely that there was not yet a widespread belief in intensive training for increased strength and stamina, whereas natural speed still counted for much.

 

Beccali’s example was yet to be followed in his native land, as the next ranked Italian in 1933 was Alfredo Furia at 800 metres in 1:55.0 and 1500 metres in 3:55.0, both times achieved in finishing a long way behind the supremo. Beccali’s 1500 metres would remain an Italian record until 1956, but his fastest mile so far was only 4:16.0 in 1930. Also in 1930 he had run 2000 metres in 5:29.0 (unbeaten by another Italian until 1947), and the World record there was yet another of Ladoumègue’s at 5:21 in 1931, passing 1500 metres in 4:02 and the mile in 4:19⅘. This was actually a worthy World record for a non-standard event, though open to improvement as it was equivalent to 1500 metres in 3:52.7 or a mile in 4:11.1.

 

“After his great year in 1933 Beccali eased off in 1934”, wrote Roberto Quercetani and Cordner Nelson in their miling history, but what they didn’t mention was that the year started so disagreeably. The AAU had invited Beccali again to run indoors, but within a week or so of being due to sail in January he asked for a postponement because cold weather in Milan had restricted his training. Having set up a series of races in New York, Boston and Chicago, Dan Ferris and his AAU colleagues were naturally miffed and voted to place a ban on the recalcitrant Italian. Cunningham and Bonthron kept the crowds happy – habitually, a full house of 16,500 at New York’s Madison Square Garden – with a joint World best 1500 in 3:52.2 and a mile improvement to 4:08.4 by Cunningham, which was only eight-tenths slower than Lovelock’s outdoor record. 

 

It’s a moot point as to how indoor miling times of that era compared with those outdoors: the indoor tracks involved a lot more bend running (20 turns to the mile on a 176-yard circuit), but there were no fickle weather conditions to deal with. A hazard for middle-distance and distance runners competing indoors, which got very little media attention in the 1930s because it was taken for granted, was that smoking was prevalent among the crowds and even the officials, and that created air pollution which affected the athletes’ breathing. Glenn Cunningham was known to have even asked meet promoters for a ban on smoking to be imposed. 

 

The AAU ruling didn’t stop Beccali from racing in Europe, though not with great distinction after a capable 3:52.6 for 1500 metres in Milan in June. The next month he was beaten almost out of sight at the same distance in Malmö by another of his Olympic victims, Eric Ny, who set a Swedish record of 3:50.8 to Beccali’s 3:54.3. Then in August the unthinkable happened when Beccali lost again in a Hungary-v-Italy match in Budapest – not, as could have been thought feasible but unlikely, to the Hungarian, Miklós Szabó, but to the Italian No.2, Umberto Cerati – Cerati 3:54.0, Beccali 3:54.8. Meanwhile, there were sensational happenings in the USA, where Cunningham set a World record of 4:06.7 in the second edition of Princeton’s “Mile of the Century” in June, with intermediate times of 61.8, 2:05.8 and 3:07.6, which were a shade closer to the even-pace concept, finishing 40 yards ahead of Bonthron. Then in the beer-brewing city of Milwaukee a fortnight later Bonthron was the one being toasted as a World record-holder, winning the AAU 1500 (but only just!) from Cunningham, 3:48.8 to 3:48.9. Cunningham led until the final straight and Bonthron’s laps were passed in the frenzy of the chase in 61.3, 2:01.8 and 3:06.0. 

Though no doubt disappointed to lose his 1500 record after little more than nine months, Beccali had other matters on his mind. The first European Championships were to be held in Turin on 7-8-9 September at what was now called the Stadio Benito Mussolini, and the revered “Nini” would have been fully aware that the Italian dictator and a rather large proportion of the country’s 40 million population would be hoping for – even expecting – another gold medal. These Championships had been a long time in the making because of the prestige of the AAA Championships through to the 1930s, as was to be explained by Roberto Quercetani in his introduction to a very weighty history (1160 pages, four kilogrammes!) published in 2010,  “For many athletes of our continent being crowned an AAA champion was tantamount to being  European champion”. Ironically, the British did not send a team because they claimed that the Empire Games, held in London in August, had provided quite enough top-level competition[1]  for the year, but this decision made no sense, especially as there were at least a dozen or so serious contenders for medals, and in some cases gold, and five among them were even sent off on a tour of Sweden and Norway later in September. The obvious absentees from Turin at 1500 metres were Sydney Wooderson and Jerry Cornes, 2nd and 3rd to Jack Lovelock in the Empire Games mile.

 

Had GB been represented when the Championships opened there would have been an unwelcome surprise greeting Wooderson, Cornes and at least a majority of the 14 competitors from Belgium, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Poland who were actually there, as was fully related in the 2010 Championships history: “The Italians had insisted on time-tabling the 1500 metres on the first day, confident that victory by the Olympic champion, Beccali, would attract more spectators in the following days. This meant that the heats and the final had to be run with only a few hours between them”. The timings were at 10.30 a.m. and 4.30 p.m. and the preliminaries were fortunately not too demanding, with nobody needing to break four minutes to qualify, and in one of the heats all three starters  were able to coast round, led by the Hungarian, Szabó, in 4:19.0.

There was not a great deal to say about the final as Beccali duly won in 3:54.6 from Szabó, 3:55.2, watched by what was described as “a sparse crowd”. Beccali remained the only Italan winner throughout the three days, but there were some commendable performances from his team-mates. A newcomer, Mario Lanzi, was the closest possible 2nd in the 800 metres to Szabó, both timed in 1:52.0, and there was another silver medal in the hammer throw and a bronze in the marathon and the 50 kilometres walk. Beccali’s 1500 metres team-mate, Cerati, was right out of it in the final, 10th of 11, and Beccali’s other conqueror earlier in the season, Ny, of Sweden, preferred the 800 but was 4th. Finland won 13 medals overall, Germany 11, Sweden eight, Hungary seven, and Italy’s five tied with France and Holland. The organisers wanted to present the “Mussolini Cup” to the winning team, but the IAAF, opposed to the idea of classification of countries, wouldn’t allow it. History doesn’t record what Mussolini said.

“Nini” Beccali at last got to visit the USA, setting off a week later in the steamship, “Saturnia”, but there was no Cunningham or Bonthron on the quayside to greet  him when the voyage ended at New York’s West 57th Street pier. Their competitive season was long since finished, and in any case there is no evidence that Beccali had any expectations of racing against them. He was one of a vast group of students sponsored on their goodwill visit by the American-Italian Universities Committee, and the two 1500 metres events in which he took part were low key, to say the least. In one of them he fell on the third lap and then collided with a photographer who had obliviously wandered on to the track. In chilly weather and with no opposition to speak of, he still managed to win as he liked in 4:02.0, confounding the excitable and completely unjustified predictions by US newspapers of yet another World-record attempt. In more serious vein, Umberto Cerati broke the  national record for 3000 metres with 8:32⅘, though the Italian federation didn’t approve it. 

The co-authors of the 1980s, Messrs Quercetani and Nelson, seeking out a discernible trend, described 1934 as “one of the most remarkable years in the entire history of the 1500 and mile”, and put together the following list, equating performances at both distances (n non-winning, i indoors):

(3:47.7)    4:06.7   Cunningham 1934

(3:48.5)    4:07.6   Lovelock 1933

  3:48.8   (4:07.8)  Bonthron 1934

  3:48.9n (4:08.0)  Cunningham 1934

  3:49.0   (4:08.1)  Beccali 1933

  3:49.2   (4:08.3)  Ladoumègue 1930

  3:49.2   (4:08.3)  Beccali 1933

 (3:49.3)   4:08.4i  Cunningham 1934

  3:49.6   (4:08.7)  Beccali 1933

 (3:49.6)   4:08.7n Bonthron 1934

 (3:49.7)   4:08.9   Bonthron 1934

  3:49.8n  (4:09.0) Lovelock 1933

 (3:50.0)    4:09.2  Ladoumègue 1931

 

By contrast, 1935 was unremarkable in almost all senses, and the obvious conclusion is that everyone was saving themselves for the next year’s Berlin Olympics. The one middle-distance record achieved was 3:50.5 for 1500 metres indoors by Cunningham. Certainly, restraint was a common feature of the middle-distance and long-distance events outdoors, with best times in the World for the year of merely 1:51.4 for 800 metres, 3:52.1 for 1500 metres (Cunningham), 4:11.2 for the mile (Lovelock) and 14:36.8 at 5000 metres and 30:38.2 at 10,000 metres by post-Nurmi Finns. The kindest one could say of Beccali was that he had a quiet year, though starting with an official national record 8:36.6 for 3000 metres (which Cerati drastically improved to 8:27.4 much later in the year). Beccali was beaten by an unfamiliar visiting American, Norman Bright, in a 3:56.6 1500 metres at Colombes in August, then won a 4:15.4 mile (actually a personal best) in Milan later that month, and found some form in September with wins at the 1500 in Berlin, 3:54.0, and Turin, 3:53.0. 

 

Norman Bright was the US two miles record-holder and no faster than 4:14 for the mile, and there were no obvious new contenders at 1500 metres, save for a German, Friedrich Schaumburg, who had run 3:53.6, though now 30 years old, and in Britain Sydney Wooderson, at 4:12.7 for the mile, and a most unexpected national record-holder, Bobby Graham, of Scotland, with 4:12.0. The focal race of the year had been another Princeton “Mile of the Century” watched by a crowd of 40,000 in which Lovelock had done his 4:11.2 ahead of Bonthron and Cunningham. Beccali, back in favour with officialdom in the USA, had been invited, but the race was in mid-June, which was a time of year in which he had never been at his very best, and it seems surprising that negotiations for his appearance lasting some four months should ever have started.

 

The Olympic year began for Beccali in the least favourable circumstances, as was to be related by a New Zealand journalist, Lynn McConnell. In 2009 he wrote a most intricately researched book about the leading middle-distance runners of the years 1932-to-1936, which was understandably focussed on Jack Lovelock but contained some highly valued research concerning Lovelock’s rivals, Beccali included. Mr McConnell interviewed Beccali’s son, Gene, in 2003 and learnt from him much intimate family detail, particularly about his father’s relations with his coach. McConnell wrote, “Gene recalled that his father had fallen out with Professor Nai over issues that were never disclosed. As a result of this dispute Beccali did not train for a period in the lead-up to the Olympics, a time in which he, as Gene put it, ‘was smoking, drinking, partying, and basically went out of training condition. I believe that this was a spiteful gesture by my father meant to upset Nai – in the end it may have cost him victory. This period of time was not one of his proudest moments’ ”. 

 

Thankfully, Beccali’s bacchanalian diversion could not have lasted long, nor could it have had too much destructive effect, which was just as well because Gene Venzke had reappeared indoors and won the AAU 1500 metres from Cunningham in a World-best 3:49.9. On 30 May in Milan Beccali ran 3:53.0 for 1500 metres and a fortnight later he convincingly beat his Hungarian rival, Miklós Szabó, in Budapest, 3:50.6 to 3:53.0. Beccali’s rehabilitation on the track was likely due to the influence of the national coach, Boyd Comstock, who had been appointed in 1935 and was hugely experienced from many years of service in some of the leading US universities. Throughout the winter of 1935-36 he worked with the leading Italian athletes from his base in Genoa, and by June of Olympic year Comstock was even being quoted in American newspapers as saying that he believed Beccali was in better form than ever and would win the Olympic title again.

 

News soon after from Randalls Island, New York, where the “sudden death” US Olympic Trials were taking place on 12 July, confirmed who some of Beccali’s chief opposition would be, as it was revealed that Cunningham had won from a fellow-Kansan, Archie San Romani, both in 3:49.9, with Venzke a distant but delighted 3rd and Bill Bonthron taking his unenviable turn as the 4th-placed reject from the team to travel to Berlin. Others most prominently active elsewhere were another of the Olympic veterans, Eric Ny, of Sweden, with 3:52.2 for 1500 metres, and Sydney Wooderson, with a British record 4:10.8 mile. As for Lovelock, beaten by Wooderson in the AAA mile, he was by no means the gold-medal favourite, and it was not even certain that he would run the 1500. In his Lovelock biography, Norman Harris wrote of the uncertainty of the early summer months of preparation, “He couldn’t help wondering if his own sprint might have been lost forever ... he was moving freely over the longer distances, at any rate. Might it not be feasible, then, to make a diversion to a longer distance race, such as the 5000 metres? It was a daring thought”.

 

Named at his request by the New Zealand selectors for both the 1500 and 5000 in Berlin, Lovelock ran a three miles in the Kinnaird Trophy inter-club meeting in June on the White City track in London, and he produced a startling time of 14:20⅖, with a last lap of 59.4, which made respectable comparison with the World record 13:50.6 by Lauri Lehtinen, of Finland, from 1932. In his diary Lovelock wrote, “I had great difficulty restraining myself, but at 300 I really let fly … V. Instructive, especially the last lap ! Can be run much faster if lap times are levelled better !!”. In cold, windy and showery weather on the afternoon of Saturday 25 July he ran a truly magnificent 9:03.8 for two miles in another inter-club race at Perry Barr, in Birmingham, against 48 opponents (!) and wrote afterwards that he “was rather annoyed I had not managed the World record” – this had been very recently set, rather surprisingly, at 8:58.3 by Don Lash, of the USA, at Princeton the same day as Lovelock’s Kinnaird Trophy race.   

 

Astonishingly, Lovelock made the decision not to run in the Olympic 5000 metres heats only half-an-hour before they were due to start, having already changed into his all-black New Zealand uniform ! His thinking, however belated, made sense because those heats were on 4 August, the 1500 metres heats and final on 5 and 6 August, and the 5000 final on 7 August, which was not only a demanding schedule but an awkward one of inter-twined distances. Nurmi had taken on such a challenge in 1924 and won both the 1500 and the 5000 on the same day, but Lovelock would have had to deal with the defending champions, among others, in both events, which presented a herculean challenge to have stretched even the Flying Finn to his limits. 

 

There were 43 competitors from 28 countries in the preliminary round of the 1500, with only the first three in each of four heats to go through to the final, and none of those 43 were attempting a 1500/5000 double. One of the pressmen who had been keeping a close eye on what had been happening on the training track was Gayle Talbot of the US news agency, Associated Press, and he told his readership in numerous newspapers back home that Venzke and San Romani were “in fine fettle but Cunningham was suffering from sore legs”, wittily quoting Venzke as remarking philosophically, “Glenn always runs a little faster when there’s something wrong with him”. Describing Beccali and Wooderson as “two other topnotchers”, Talbot added that they “had completed their training in fine shape although Wooderson was still limping slightly”.

 

We know very little about Beccali’s training, though in the month that he had been preparing in Berlin – a length of stay which seemed to cause the powers-that-be no concern, though athletes were supposed to be strictly amateur – he was regularly running hard sessions of 15 x 300 metres, which was the sort of interval work that had first been introduced by his fellow Olympic champion of 1932, Janusz Kusocinski, of Poland, whose title there was at 10,000 metres but who was also versatile enough to place 5th behind Beccali in the 1934 European Championships 1500. Glenn Cunningham’s range of achievements was as impressive as the Pole’s as he claimed best times from 10.2 for 100 yards to 9:11.8 for two miles, and in training he ran as far as eight miles each night pre-season, and then much briefer intervals than Beccali’s of, for example, 3 x 440 yards or 2 x 660 yards. Sydney Wooderson ventured out for no more than four miles five times a week in winter and would also include a 2 x 660 in the summer, together with what he called “fast sprints for two miles” and “mile jogs with 150-yard bursts”.  

 

The spread of nationalities for the Olympic 1500 metres included Chinese, Japanese, Chilean, Colombian, Peruvian, but the majority of entrants were, of course, from Europe – 17 countries – and the others from the established North American and British Empire athletics powers, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa. The fastest 1500 metres times among them were the following: 3:48.9 Cunningham 1934, 3:49.0 Beccali 1933, 3:49.8 Lovelock 1933, 3:49.9i Venzke 1936, 3:49.9 San Romani 1936, 3:50.8 Ny 1934, 3:52.6 Cornes 1932, 3:52.6 Szabó 1933, 3:52.8 Edwards 1932, 3:53.0 Joseph Mostert (Belgium) 1936. Relevant one-mile times for others were the 4:10.8 for Wooderson and 4:12.0 for Graham. 

 

The misgivings about Wooderson were confirmed when an ankle that he had seriously sprained on a pre-Games walk gave way, and among the other 30 eliminated were his team-mate, Graham, and the Belgian, Mostert. The fastest time was 3:54.0 by Robert Goix, of France; Ny and Cunningham finished together in their heat in 3:54.6; Beccali won his in 3:55.6; Venzke, Cornes and Lovelock had no need to break four minutes; two Germans got vital 3rd places, and one of them, Werner Böttcher, ran a personal best 3:55.0. The 12 qualifiers had a familiar look about them, and no wonder – six of them had run in the Los Angeles final and almost completely dominated it, finishing in the order Beccali 1, Cornes 2, Edwards 3, Cunningham 4, Ny 5 and Lovelock 7. The final has been depicted so often in print and newsreel film over the more than three-quarters of a century since that it bears no detailed repetition here yet again, but an impassioned eye-witness account by the well respected coach and author, F.A.M. Webster, in one of the many books which he had published maybe presents the closing stages of the race, when Lovelock made his famed long run for home, in a novel light:

 

“Could any man living, we asked ourselves, hold such a speed as his over such a distance ? Strong runners like Cunningham or Beccali might well bring him to heel if he had over-estimated his own sprinting power. They did indeed tear past the sagging Swede, but although the great Glenn flashed the fastest finish of his brilliant career in competition, and the dark-haired Italian again produced that sprint which had borne him on flying feet to Olympic victory over Jerry Cornes four years earlier, they could not catch the great runner drifting along with the lightness of an air-borne leaf. The furious speed at which Lovelock finished out that race was not revealed by any action of his own. It was rather seen in the admirable acceleration of Cunningham and Beccali, who tore after the leader without making the least impression upon the lead of half-a-dozen yards which he had established”. 

 

1 Lovelock 3:47.8 (World record), 2 Cunningham 3:48.4, 3 Beccali 3:49.2, 4 San Romani 3:50.0, 5 Edwards 3:50.4, 6 Cornes 3:51.4, 7 Szabó 3:53.0, 8 Goix 3:53.8, 9 Venzke 3:55.0, 10 Schaumburg 3:56.2, 11 Ny 3:57.6, 12 Böttcher 4:04.2. Laps – Cunningham 61.5, Ny 2:05.0, Lovelock 3:05.0.  Lovelock’s diary entry concluded, “It was undoubtedly the most beautifully executed race of my career, a true climax to eight years steady work, an artistic creation”. 

 

There was no pyrotechnical frenzy of post-Olympic Grand Prix meetings in those days to show off Lovelock’s artistry, with servile pace-makers to aid him. The British Empire met the USA in their customary quadrennial match and Cunningham, San Romani and Venzke, joined by the 800 metres 5th-placer, Charley Hornbostel, set an untested 4 x 1 mile relay World record of 17:17.2, while Lovelock ran in the three miles and again hinted at what would sadly be an unrealised distance-running potential by winning very easily in 14:14.8. Cunningham then laid claim to a World-record-equalling 1:49.7 for 800 metres in Stockholm later in August, though Ben Eastman had run an unofficial 1:49.1 en route to a record 880 yards in 1934. The Princeton mile had been delayed until October because of the Olympics, but that was unseasonably late and San Romani won in 4:09.0 from Lovelock, 4:10.1, and Cunningham, 4:13.0. 

 

Beccali might have shaken things up in New Jersey as he was usually in full stride by that time of the year, but he had a rather more pressing engagement to fulfil as Mussolini, “Il Duce”, staged a reception for Italy’s Olympic medallists. An American correspondent, Ralph E. Forte, of the United Press, was also on the guest-list and he reported cheerily, “Mussolini strode in, took one quick look at the group and headed straight for the one and only woman representative, Trebisonda Valla, who had won the 80-meter hurdles event. He virtually ignored all others, who included such star performers as Luigi Beccali, Mario Lanzi and Giorgio Oberweger”. Lanzi had won the 800 metres silver and Oberweger the discus bronze in Berlin. Presumably Mussolini preferred winners, though Signorina Valla was particularly beauteous. 

 

At the end of October Beccali finished his year’s racing with a narrow but workmanlike 1:53.3 win at 800 metres in an Italy-v-Austria match in Rome, one-tenth ahead of Franz Eichberger, for the visitors, as a splendidly named Italian No.2, Ildefonso Pieraccini, was 3rd in 1:53.9. Perhaps Beccali was already giving thought to at last accepting Dan Ferris’s offer on behalf the AAU to join in the American indoor season, all previous tensions forgiven and forgotten. Beccali had by now put his architectural qualifications to use in his employment as a construction engineer and was either conveniently off to the US, anyway, for a prolonged study tour or was going to combine it with his track commitments. It’s not entirely clear who paid the travel bill. 

 

How Beccali arranged his itinerary to fit in the two sets of engagements was explained by Pat Robinson, a reporter for the International News Service which supplied sports coverage to the countless local newspapers across the US which understandably couldn’t afford their own specialists. Robinson’s widely distributed article in February of 1937 was typical of the intense, colourful and sometimes, one might suggest, imaginative reporting of that era: “Beccali has been working out steadily for weeks while studying American road construction work. He has refused to start a race until he felt absolutely sure he could make a fine showing. As he told a friend the other day, ‘If I should make a poor showing, Papa Mussolini is liable to give me a chance to study road building with a pick and shovel’ ”.

 

Whether or not such a threatening prospect was really troubling Beccali, he made a commendable enough “showing”, very narrowly losing in February to San Romani in a pulsating AAU 1500, 3:51.2 to 3:51.3, with Venzke on their heels, 3:51.4. One of the Kansas newspapers which naturally took an abiding interest in their local heroes, Cunningham and San Romani, described Beccali a shade disparagingly as “the trim little invader”, which might not have  pleased him too much, but added in more flattering a manner that “he seems ready to challenge the crowned heads of mile racing in the US”. Beccali duly lived up to his rating as pretender to the throne in another thriller in March at the mile distance for the usual packed-out Madison Square Garden multitude – Cunningham 4:08.7, San Romani 4:08.9, Beccali 4:09.0, Venzke 4:11.1 – with lap times of 61.0, 2:05 and 3:09. The Hungarian, Miklós Szabó, had also been invited over for the indoor seson, at a cost of $600, according to Dan Ferris, but made little impression in repeated 4th places.  

 

Both Beccali’s performances were the fastest ever by a European indoors and would continue to be so fo a long time to come. His 1500 was eventually surpassed by the slightest margin, one-tenth of a second, in unexpected circumstances by John Disley in Germany in 1955. Disley was primarily a steeplechaser (bronze-medallist for Great Britain at the 1952 Olympics) but his fastest mile of 4:07.0, outdoors in 1956, was uncannily worth almost exactly the same as Beccali’s best 1500 – the Hungarian Scoring Tables give 1500 metres in 3:48.96 and a mile in 4:07.05 the same points score. Beccali’s indoor mile mark resisted  offensives until 1954, and it required another Olympic 1500 metres champion, Josy Barthel, of Luxemburg, to break through then on successive weekends, with 4:07.7 in Boston and  4:07.5 in New York. Barthel’s arduous training included sessions of 15 x 300 metres, as Beccali had done, but also 12 x 600 metres, 6 x 1000 metres and 3 x 1600 metres.

 

Beccali met up with the American “crowned heads” again in the Princeton “Mile of the Century” on 19 June in that same year of 1937. The judges had difficulty deciding the winner – no electronic devices to aid them – before giving the verdict to San Romani over Don Lash, both 4:07.2, ahead of Cunningham, 4:07.4, with Beccali 15 yards behind, 4:09.6, but apparently suffering from a leg injury. Only Glenn Cunningham’s 1934 World record of 4:06.7 was faster than San Romani and Lash, though by the following August Sydney Wooderson, fully fit again, reduced the record to 4:06.4. 

 

Returning to Milan, Beccali had ordinary performances of 3:57.0 and 1:53.8 in September and 3:52.8 in May of 1938, and then went to the European Championships in Paris. There he led through the first lap in the 1500 final, perhaps over-ambitiously, in 60 seconds but could not match the finishing speed of Wooderson and the Belgian, Joseph Mostert: Wooderson 3:53.6, beating Beccali’s Championship record, Mostert 3:54.5, Beccali 3:55.2. Italy’s only winner to gratify Mussolini was again a woman hurdler, Claudia Testoni, competing separately from the men in Vienna, but Beccali had by now decided to sever his allegiance to Italy and ,settle in the USA, where he set up his own business as a wine importer. 

 

He married Aida Mausi, who was from New Jersey but clearly of Italian ancestry, in December 1940, and he continued with his athletics activity for a couple more years. He ran cross-country for the socially exclusive New York Athletic Club and was a commendable 3rd in the AAU 10 kilometres championship when it was contested at the Meadowbrook Country Club, near Richmond, Virginia, in November 1940 on a surface which must have been fast even though snow-covered and was probably the club’s top-class golf-course. Don Lash won in 30:25.8 for the seventh successive year from Greg Rice, who would be AAU indoor three miles champion every year from 1940 to 1943, with a fastest time of 13:45.7, and was 5000 metres champion outdoors 1938 to 1942, with a best of 14:33.4, while in 4th place was Tom Quinn, AAU indoor mile champion-to-be in 1948. 

 

Beccali had also seemingly developed a liking for running on the boards because he turned out again in 1941 and in January won a mile in 4:16.6 from a useful opponent, Andy Neidnig, and even met up with a new generation of front-rank American milers whose potential, sadly, would be stifled by war service. In another mile race in February delighting the usual Madison Square Garden full house, Beccali played a key but subsidiary role, pacing through to the three-quarters of a mile in 59.4, 2:02 and 3:07 before he “slipped off the track virtually unnoticed”, as one reporter noted a shade pensively. Leslie MacMitchell, who was aged only 20, and Walter Mehl both ran 4:07.4 to equal the indoor best set by Glenn Cunningham in 1938 and twice by Charles (“Chuck”) Fenske in 1940. After the USA entered World War II in December 1941 (on Beccali’s first wedding anniversary, to be exact) he joined the US Army Corps of Engineers as a civilian employee and worked in Persia (now Iran), on rail transport systems, which was a skill he had learned during his military service in Italy in the 1920s. 

 

In June of 1944 one of the most experienced of American track and field coaches, Mike Ryan, who had run in the 1908 and 1912 Olympic marathons, responded from his home in Moscow – the Moscow in Idaho, not the USSR – to a press invitation to name his Top Ten 1500 metres/milers of all time. The rivalry between the Swedish duo of Gunder Hägg and Arne Andersson had by then reduced the World records for 1500 metres and the mile to 3:45.0 and 4:02.6, both by Andersson, as it happens, and Ryan made some interesting choices in his ranking: 1 Hägg, 2 Andersson, 3 Beccali, 4 Lovelock, 5 Cunningham, 6 Wooderson, 7 Nurmi, 8 Albert Hill (Olympic 1500 metres champion, 1920), 9 Arnold Jackson (Olympic 1500 metres champion, 1912), 10 Tommy Conneff, fastest amateur miler, 1893 and 1895-1911). Ryan  justified his choice, maybe to the consternation of his interviewer and then the readers, “While a lot of American runners have made remarkable times over the mile distance, most of the marks have been made indoors, and foreign runners have nearly always been able to beat our best in the Olympic Games, when the chips are down”.

 

No Italian 1500 metres runner of medal-winning calibre was to emulate Beccali for 33 years until Francesco Arese won the European title in 1971, though Beccali’s contemporary, Mario Lanzi, was to rank behind only the peerless Rudolf Harbig, of Germany, at 800 metres. When Harbig set his historic World record of 1:46.6 in Milan in 1939 Lanzi was 2nd in 1:49.0, and both were able to continue running during the the war years, Lanzi even beating Harbig in 1941. Harbig was killed in action, but Lanzi was still competing through to 1943 and briefly resumed activity in peacetime. 

 

Becalli and his wife shared their time between the USA and Italy for the rest of his life until his death from natural causes on 29 August 1990, aged 83, in Rapallo, which is part of the metropolitan region of Genoa in north-eastern Italy. He was survived by his wife, son and two grand-daughters. In 1948 Beccali had met up again with Glenn Cunningham, Jack Lovelock and Gene Venzke at a New York preview of Leni Riefenstahl’s glorious but contentious film of the 1936 Olympics. Then in his latter years Beccali had renewed acquaintanceship with his admiring compatriot, the statistics and history maestro, Roberto Quercetani, and had told him dolefully that multi-nationality held its problems: “Americans think I am too Italian and Italians think I’m too American”. 

 

To finally set Luigi Beccali’s achievements in long-term perspective, the only man other than him to have won both Olympic and European titles at 1500 metres is the Spaniard, Fermin Cacho, who completed that double 60 years later in 1994. Beccali was also the only winner of two Olympic 1500 metres medals for 36 years until Kipchoge Keino added 1972 silver to 1968 gold, and of two European Championships 1500 metres medals for 28 years until Michel Jazy, of France, added silver in 1966 to his gold of 1962.

 

Note: Stop-watches recorded times in either one-fifth of a second or 0.1 of a second in the 1920s and 1930s, and for record purposes the latter were rounded off to one-tenth of a second. Timing to one-fifth, where known, is referred to above. Other timings originally to one-fifth have been converted (illogically!) to 0.2 by statisticians for convenience sake in later years.   

 

 

 

 

 

  

   

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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