Racing Past

The History of Middle and Long Distance Running

Articles / Great Races

Glenn Cunningham v Luigi Beccali v Jack Lovelock (1936)



Glenn Cunningham v Luigi Beccali v Jack Lovelock (1936) 

1,500  1936 Olympic Games in Berlin

Great Races #3


The three favorites for this Olympic final were all reaching the climax of their careers. Luigi Beccali (29) of Italy had broken the WR for 1500 in 1933; he was also the reigning Olympic and European 1,500 champion. American Glenn Cunningham (25) was the current WR holder for the Mile, and he had been fourth in the 1932 Olympic 1,500 final.  New Zealander Jack Lovelock (26) had set a Mile WR in 1933 but had not subsequently run as well. Still, a recent 3:01 time-trial over 1,200 showed he was back to his best form. These three great runners knew each other well from previous encounters on the track. Beccali had the best record, having beaten Cunningham once and Lovelock twice. Cunningham had beaten both men once, while Lovelock had beaten Cunningham three times. All three were known for great finishing kicks, so it promised to be a tactical race.

Lovelock (467) positions himself behind Ny
and outside Cunningham.

The build-up to this race was huge. Even Hitler was keen to be present. The tough Cunningham, who had survived terrible burns to both legs in his childhood, was not expected to be affected by the pressure. Lovelock, on the other hand was highly strung and for the week before the final needed a masseur to relax him enough for sleeping. Beccali, the reigning 1,500 champion, had already shown he could take the pressure.

The heats, held the day before the final, definitely gave Lovelock an advantage. Whereas Beccali and Cunningham had hard heats, running 3:55.6 and 3:54.8 respectively, Lovelock qualified in the very slow time of 4:04.

A crowd of 112,000 was on hand for the 1,500 final. There was a short delay because Hitler arrived late. Then the 12 finalists were under starter’s orders.

Jerry Cornes, Lovelock’s colleague at Oxford, took the field through 200 in 30.0 and 400 in 61.5, with Lovelock well back. At 500 Cunningham, anxious to keep the pace fast, moved into the lead. Lovelock, clearly keying on the American, reacted quickly. By the end of the back straight they were one and two. Beccali had also moved up to stay in contact. As they approached 800, Ny of Sweden moved up quickly and settled between Cunningham and Lovelock. At 800 (2:05.2) Cunningham led Ny, Lovelock and Beccali, who was now right on Lovelock’s heels. Round the bend, Ny was unable to get an inside berth, while others three leaders hugged the kerb. The field bunched as it approached the bell. There was some bumping, and Ny forced Cunningham off the track for a couple of strides. As well, Beccali bumped hard with the German Schaumberg. An impatient Ny passed Cunningham to lead at 1100 (the bell). Lovelock moved out and up to Cunningham’s shoulder—perfect positioning.

The powerful Cunningham looked ready to breeze past the Swede, but the smooth-running Lovelock was still very close to him. At the crown of the bend, Lovelock quickly moved by the American and settled at Ny’s shoulder. Cunningham sped up too, but relaxed on the inside behind Ny, once he saw that Lovelock was staying on Ny’s shoulder. They passed 1200 in 3:05.4; the 60.2 third lap had been unusually fast. But as soon as Cunningham had relaxed behind Ny, Lovelock took off again with a hard burst. Cunningham and Beccali reacted, but they lost contact with the Kiwi. His burst had put him 3-4 meters ahead. Down the back straight, Cunningham and Beccali could make no impression on him. Ny and Schaumberg dropped back.

Entering the straight, Lovelock has a clear lead from
Cunningham and Beccali. 

With 200 to go, Lovelock knew he had a decent lead and relaxed slightly round the bend so that he would have something for the last straight. Behind him, Beccali came up to Cunningham’s shoulder. The two closed the gap fractionally, but Lovelock, still running gracefully, was able to lengthen his lead a little in the final 100 as a desperate Cunningham held off Beccali for second place.  Lovelock had run the last lap in 56.8 and had broken Bonthron’s World Record by a second. Cunningham was also under the old mark.

Lovelock described the last part of the race in his diary: “Just before entering the back straight I felt the tension of the field relax and realized, subconsciously perhaps, that everyone was taking a breather ready for a hard last 200. So at the 300m mark I struck home, passed Cunningham and gained a five-yard break before he awoke. Then it was merely a question of holding that suddenly acquired break which, had I left it later till everyone else was going to move, I could never have gained, and the fight would have been sterner and closer….  I finished with perfect form, relaxed and comfortable, and jogged on another half lap. It was undoubtedly the most beautifully executed race of my career, a true climax to eight years’ steady work, an athletic creation.”

Lovelock had got himself in peak condition and had run a perfect race. “His success left little to the imagination,” wrote the Times correspondent. “It was so complete and faultless.” (The Times, August 7,1936, p.4)   


Result: 1. Jack Lovelock, New Zealand 3:47.8; 2. Glenn Cunningham, USA 3:48.4; 3. Luigi Beccali, Italy 3:49.2.


Lynn McConnell 5th August 2021

To Christopher Hosford. Given my research on Lovelock I would dispute your comment that Lovelock’s 300-metre sprint was a spur of the moment thing.

Christopher Hosford 31st August 2018

Most all commentary about this race on other sites is breathless about the 300-meter dash for home, as if it were an entirely revolutionary and preplanned tactic. Lovelock's own words dispute this. It appears he made one of those intuitive decisions at a crucial moment, as all great athletes do, when his opponents relaxed. He caught them napping, but he didn't know in advance when they would nap. When they did, he woke up big time.

Carola Ny Kempf 12th December 2017

Enjoyed seeing this. Eric Ny was my uncle

cindy cunningham 7th August 2017

I enjoyed reading details about this race. Thank you for posting it.

Leave a Comment

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.