Racing Past

The History of Middle and Long Distance Running

Articles / Major Games

1948 Olympic GamesLondon, EnglandJuly 29-August 14With Great Britain still recovering from WW2, there was much opposition against holding the 1948 Olympic Games in London. Britons were still subject to severe rationing and economic hardship. Thus expensive preparation for the sake of mainly foreign athletes was seen as a lesser priority. However, teams from abroad brought their own food and gave the surplus to hospitals. And frugal utilization of existing facilities lowered the costs. Psychologically, Britons needed a morale booster. And the Olympics definitely fitted the bill. Emil Zatopek had experienced the ravages of war in Czechoslovakia, and he clearly saw how badly needed the games were: "After all those dark days of the war, the bombing, the killing, the starvation, the revival of the Olympics was as if the sun had come out....I went into the Olympic Village and suddenly there were no more frontiers, no more barriers. Just the people meeting together. It was wonderfully warm. Men and women who had just lost five years of life, were back again." Despite the inability of the war-torn host nation to provide the best of facilities and accommodation, these Games produced large crowds and some fine competition. The White City stadium, where the athletics competition was held, saw crowds from 60,000 to 70,000 despite the often rainy weather.

1950 European Championships Brussels, August 23-27 800Boysen of Norway, who had run a fast 1:48.7, was the clear favorite.  Hansenne and Bengtsson were also highly favoured. The British were not expected to be in the medals, even by their own supporters. Bannister, who had just completed his Oxford finals, admitted, “I was ill-prepared for such an important race.” (Bannister, First Four Minutes, p.101) Boysen shot away at the start and created a huge 15m lead. His lead at the bell (53.8 but 51.8 in T&FN) was 10m from Swedes Bengtsson and Linden. Hansenne and Bannister were a few yards behind him, and Parlett and Clare were even further back. Hansenne moved hard round the curve with Bengtsson on his heels.  At 260m to go Bannister caught them and moved into second.  The three of them were now catching the flagging Boysen. Coming into the straight Bannister and Hansenne had passed Boysen together and prepared for a duel over the last 80 meters.  But behind them Parlett was smoothly making up ground.

1952 Olympic Games

14th February 2011

1952 OLYMPIC GAMESHELSINKI, FINLANDJULY 19-AUGUST 3 Performances were much better than in the previous Olympics. Recovery from the stresses and deprivations of the Second World War meant that runners were able to train harder and eat properly. Zatopek, with his triple crown, outshone all other runners. 800 Mal Whitfield, 31, the 1948 800 Olympic champ, showed his strength and maturity in this race. He had been flying bombing missions in the Korean War, but was given time off for the Olympics. After a false start by Nielsen, the race started slowly with the elegant Wint leading the first lap in 54.0. Whitfield, who had started last to stay out of the wind, moved up a few places on the back straight and then eased into third at the bell. On the back straight he surged past Heinz Ulzheimer of Germany and his longtime rival Arthur Wint to gain the lead just before the bend. These two held on to him round the last bend, but he had control of the race. When Wint got within a yard, Whitfield was able to accelerate just enough to hold him off. It was a classy and economic performance by the American, who had the 400 and the 4x400 relay ahead of him. “I had plenty left in the stretch,” he told Track & Field News.

1954 Empire Games

18th February 2011

1954 EMPIRE GAMESVANCOUVER, CANADA, July 30-August 7   These games were the most famous of all the Empire (and later, Commonwealth) Games. The intriguing four-minute mile barrier had been finally broken in 1954, first by Roger Bannister and then by John Landy.  Now these two milers were to meet head-on in the games. The excitement surrounding this clash built to a high pitch. However, excessive enthusiasm had some negative effects not only on the race itself but also on the Marathon, which was in progress while the Mile race took place.

1954 European ChampionshipsBern, Switzerland, August 25-29 Despite the modest location, Berne Neufeld Stadium, this meet produced some stellar performances, including three WRs and 16 meet records. As Track and Field News (7.8) said, “These Games were probably second only to the Helsinki Olympics.” Bannister followed up his Vancouver victory with another major title here. The biggest news was the emergence of a new distance star: Vladimir Kuts.  At the same time it was evident that Zatopek was no longer a threat over 5,000. The best race was undoubtedly the 800.

1956 Olympic Games

15th February 2011

OLYMPIC GAMES 1956     Melbourne, Australia, November 22-December 8 800The finalists lined up in gusty conditions, while the last bend was still being compacted by two large rollers. Fortunately, the attention of the starters was alerted. After a delayed start, American Tom Courtney, who was the favorite for this event, went straight into the lead from compatriot Arnie Sowell and Britain’s Derek Johnson. On the back straight, Sowell took over and led Courtney and Johnson through 400 in 52.6. The two Americans stayed ahead in the next 200, while Boysen moved up to Johnson. On the crown of the last bend Courtney moved up beside Sowell, and the two Americans ran side by side into the final straight, with Johnson in hot pursuit. But then the Americans moved apart, allowing Johnson to sprint through between them. For “eight unbelievable strides,” as The Times correspondent put it (Nov. 27, 1956), Johnson was in the lead. But Courtney showed his amazing strength by responding and gaining a two-foot lead over Johnson at the tape. Boysen finished as fast as Johnson and was only 4/10 of a second behind Courtney for the bronze. A fading Sowell was fourth just 2/10 back.

1958 Empire Games

19th February 2011

EMPIRE GAMES  Cardiff, Wales, July 18-26, 1958. On the new En Tout-Cas track in Cardiff, Australian and New Zealand runners dominated the distance events, winning all the races. Foremost was 20-year-old Elliott’s impressive 880-Mile double. But emerging longer distance runner Dave Power was almost as impressive in the Six Miles and Marathon. Then Murray Halberg showed that he had what it takes to win the big races, in this case the Three Miles. Also, worthy of mention is Albie Thomas, who was third in the Mile and second in the Three Miles—although he should perhaps have won the Three Miles, having recently set a 13:10 WR. UK athletes—Eldon, Pirie, Hewson—disappointed. But Merriman and Wilkinson ran well.

1958 EUROPEAN ATHLETICS CHAMPIONSHIPSStockholm, Sweden, August 19-24 800This was the race that favourite Brian Hewson wanted to run, but he was selected for the 1500 instead. His team-mates Derek Johnson and Mike Rawson thus became Britain’s hopes. These were the days before the staggered lane start, so the first bend was inevitably a melee as runners fought for crucial positions. Waegli of Switzerland ran hard from the outside to get into the lead. In doing so he caused a lot of jostling on the first bend, as a result of which the man on the inside, Rawson, was pushed off the track for three strides. Waegli meanwhile took the field through 200 in 25.0. At the bell (53.0) he still led.  But going into the back straight he suddenly slowed, and Schmidt of Germany found himself in the lead.

1960 Olympic GamesRome, August 25-September 11 800 Roger Moens (30), a very experienced runner with a great competitive record, was the co-favorite with Paul Schmidt, who had been fastest over 800 in 1959 (1:46.2). George Kerr (22) of Jamaica, a talented newcomer, was also fancied. The demanding heats eliminated two other top picks, Brian Hewson of Great Britain and Stefan Lewandowski of Poland (second fastest over 800 in 1959). The 800 race almost always provides a close finish. This time five of the six finalists were in a position to win as they entered the final stretch. As expected Christian Waegli led the field through the first 600 in 25.4, 51.9 and 1:19.1. Schmidt of Germany and Kerr of Jamaica followed, with Snell of New Zealand and Moens of Belgium close behind. At 600 Moens pushed into second place behind Waegli. Behind Moens, Snell was on the inside, boxed in by Schmidt and Kerr.

1962 BRITISH EMPIRE AND COMMONWEALTH GAMES Perth, Western AustraliaNovember 22-December 1  880This was a highlight race featuring two great rivals: Peter Snell of New Zealand and George Kerr of Jamaica.  Although Snell had won six out of their seven encounters, Kerr was always able to push Snell to his limits. Kerr had finished third behind Snell in the Rome Olympics, after setting an Olympic record in the semis. And he was little more than half a second behind Snell in the final. Later in 1960, in New Zealand, Kerr defeated Snell with a very fast burst on the back straight. After that Snell was wise to this tactic and had beaten the Jamaican in subsequent races. Still in 1961, Kerr almost beat Snell in Dublin, when he used the same tactic that had worked before and once again caught Snell napping. Snell had to really work to catch Kerr and was level at 800 and ahead at 880. They had both clocked 1:46.4 for 800 and Snell ran the fastest 880 of the year with 1:47.2.