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1954 European Championships

1954 European Championships

Bern, 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.



After the usual scrum on the first bend, Boysen of Norway, reportedly nursing a sore knee, emerged as the leader. He led the field through the bell in a brisk 52.4. Moens, DeMuynck, Szentgali and Johnson were close behind. The positions of these four stayed the same down the back straight and round the final bend. Coming into the straight, Boysen had a 1m lead on the two Belgians, 2m on Szentgali and 3m on Johnson. The five contenders spread across the track as they strained for the tape. It was Szentgali who found the most reserves; in the last 70 meters he surged from fourth to the front, ending up in lane 3. In a desperate finish, DeMuynck also passed Boysen for second, while a young Johnson almost did the same but had to be satisfied with fourth.

The first five in this race, with only 0.6 of a second separating them, had run some of the fastest times in history. Szentgali’s second-fastest-ever time was only half a second outside Harbig’s 15-year-old WR. Track & Field News called it the greatest 800 race in history, noting that the race demoted two-time Olympic champion Mal Whitfield from third to seventh in the all-time list. Szentgali, 21, with little previous competitive experience, caused quite a sensation. Much credit for the fast times must be given to Audun Boysen, who set a steady pace for most of the race. The laps were 52.8 and 54.3 (Compare Harbig’s WR: 52.8 and 53.8). The high quality of the top five was underlines by the time of the sixth finisher: 1:51.4, a huge 3.6 seconds behind the fifth-place finisher.

 1. Lajos Szentgali HUN 1:47.1; 2. Lucien de Muynck BEL 1:47.3; 3. Audun Boysen NOR 1:47.4; 4. Derek Johnson GBR 1:47.4; 5. Roger Moens BEL 1:47.8; 6. Gerard Rasquin LUX 1:51.4.



Three days after the heats, eleven men lined up for the final. Gunnar Nielsen of Denmark, who with Roger Bannister was most favoured to win, was suffering from a cold. There was the usual melee on the first bend, during which Mugosa of Yugoslavia fell. Bannister records that “only by jumping over him did I avoid transfixing his hand with my spiked running shoe. (First Four Minutes, p.20). The German Dohrow led the pack through the first lap in  58.2. Jungwirth, Nielsen and Lueg were at his heels. Bannister, meanwhile, ran dead last. As the German slowed, Jungwirth reluctantly took over and passed 800 in a slow 2:02, followed by Dohrow, Johansson and Lueg.  Bannister had moved up to eighth. A slow 62 third lap (3:04.3) saw Jungwirth maintain the lead, while Bannister moved easily into third and then second.

Bannister leads into the last bend. Nielsen, 
Jungwirth and Lueg follow.

Things started to happen after this on the back straight. As Nielsen moved up into  contention, Bannister challenged the leader Jungwirth. The Czech offered some resistance but could not prevent Bannister from taking the lead at the start of the last bend. Bannister was now in full flight, “Feeling like an engine with a supercharger full on (FFM, p.24); only Nielsen could respond, but he had lost ground through Bannister’s initial attack. Then with 80m to go, the Dane, who had a fast 1:48 800 clocking to his name, started to close on Bannister. But Bannister was able to respond “with supreme authority” (T&FN, Sept. 1954). He moved away from Nielsen in the closing stages and had a 4m advantage at the tape. Bannister was clocked unofficially in 39.5 for the last 300 and 25.0 for the last 200. One full second behind Nielsen, Jungwirth hung on for third.

 The race was typically slow for a championship race—perfect for Bannister and Nielsen. In his last big race, Bannister was lucky not only with the slow pace but also with the fact that his main rival, who had an 800 time two seconds faster, had a cold. However, his late response to the challenge of the Dane suggested that he could have gone a lot faster. It was a great swansong for the Brit, a perfect race.

1. Roger Bannister GBR 3:43.8; 2. Gunnar Nielsen DEN 3:44.4; 3. Stanislav Jungwirth CZE 3:45.4; 4. Ingvar Ericsson SWE 3:46.2; 5. Werner Lueg GER 3:46.4; 6. Sandor Iharos HUN 3:47.0.



Although the little-known 27-year-old Kuts had impressed in the heats with the fastest time, most people fancied Zatopek or Chataway for the gold. Kuts exuded confidence, flying past Green after only 200 meters. He had a 3m lead at 400 (62.9) and almost 20m lead at 800 (2:10.4). The field, led by Green just didn’t take the upstart Russian seriously. Zatopek appeared the least concerned as he lingered near the back. But in the fourth lap, the Czech suddenly came to his senses and moved up to second. Slowly, with Chataway and Kovacs close behind, he narrowed Kuts’s lead. But then Kuts reacted and his lead increased steadily, going through 1,000 in 2:44, 2,000 in 5:36.7 and 3,000 in 8:23.9.

Kuts by this time was 100m ahead. The group behind him thinned as Greene, Schade and then Kovacs dropped out. Chataway and Zatopek were left to fight for the silver medal. At 4,000 (11:12.3) Kuts was slightly ahead of Zatopek’s WR pace. He roared home with a 64.8 last lap and a 13:56.6 WR clocking. Kuts’s time at Three Miles was also a WR (13:27.4). His lead at the tape was 12.2 seconds. The duel for second was easily won in the final straight by Chataway, who set a PB with 14:08.8.

Zatopek clearly miscalculated Kuts’s ability. As Track & Field News pointed out, Kuts’s early pace was not suicidal and should have been matched by the great Czech. One explanation for the 32-year-old’s disappointing run could be the unnecessarily hard run in his 27-second 10,000 victory four days earlier. Whatever the reason for his defeat, Zatopek’s status as the world’s top distance runner was now being seriously challenged by Kuts.

1. Vladimir Kuts USSR 13:56.6; 2. Christopher Chataway GB 14:08.8; 3. Emil Zatopek Czechoslovakia 14:10.2; 4. Vladimir Okorov USSR 14:20.0; 5. Lucien Hanswyck BEL 14:25.6; 6. Frand Herman BEL 14:31.4.




Zatopek was supreme in this event, winning by 28 seconds. Zatopek had been beaten by Kovacs in a tactical race earlier in the summer, so he had to make sure he would not be outsprinted again.  The Czech went out fast from the start. Only Schade made any attempt to match his pace. Zatopek was 10 meters ahead after three laps and his lead kept increasing. He ran fairly steadily: the first 5,000 was run in 14:28, the second in 14:30. Schade faded as the relentless Zatopek soldiered on. Kovacs took over second , finishing 27.8 seconds back. Frank Sando ran a fine race outsprinting Schade for third. He wasn’t too far behind Kovacs at the tape.

1. Emil Zatopek CZE 28:58.0; 2. Jozsef Kovacs HUN 29:25.8; 3. Frank Sando GBR 29:27.6; 4. Herbert Schade GER 29:32.8; 5. Franjo Mihalic YUG 29:59.6; 6. Peter Driver GBR 30:03.6.







Veikko Karvonen, who had been fifth to Zatopek in the Helsinki Olympic Marathon and third in the previous European Marathon , managed to win narrowly from Russia’s Grishayev and Filin. But it was a hollow victory. Filin had entered the stadium 20 yards ahead but turned the wrong way. Karvonen realized the mistake and took advantage of it. Nevertheless, this race established him as the most consistent top marathoner in the early 50s.


1. Veikko Karvonen FIN 2:24:51; 2. Boris Grishayev USSR 2:24:55; 3. Ivan Filin USSR 2:25:26; 4. Erkki Puolakka FIN 2:26:45; 5. Gustaf Jansson SWE 2:27:27; 6. Geoffrey Iden GBR 2:28:02.   


Hans Henrik Sand 23rd May 2020

“—-second to Zatopek—-“ in the Helsinki Olympics!? He finished five in the Marathon in Helsinki.\r\nBut anyway Karvonen was a great Marathon runner!

GHM 8th May 2017 STANISLAV JUNGWIRTH 1930-1986 documentary shows the end of 1500m starting at 7:15.

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