Tuesday, January 5, 2010

I let fly with my sprint

‘I took two very cautious peeps at Bill, swung out a fraction, and using the wind as best I could, let fly with my sprint.’ So wrote the great New Zealand middle distance runner Jack Lovelock in his diary about a 1935 ‘Mile of the Century’ race at the Princeton Invitational meeting. A year later he would win an olympic gold medal and Adolf Hitler would present him with an oak tree. Today is the centenary of the great runner’s birth.

John Edward (Jack) Lovelock was born on 5 January 1910 at Crushington, South Island, New Zealand, to an English immigrant in charge of a local goldmine battery. He was educated at Timaru Boys’ High School, where he became the school’s best boxer and cross-country runner, and then at the University of Otago where he studied medicine but also developed into a national level runner. He moved to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar in 1931, where he met various influential athletes.

In 1932, Lovelock set a new British and British Empire record for the mile, thereby becoming the fifth-fastest miler in history. He failed to make a mark at that year’s Olympic Games in Los Angeles, but the following year he broke the world record with a time of 4 minutes 7.6 seconds. In 1935, at the Princeton Invitational meeting, he beat two great American runners (Glenn Cunningham and Bill Bonthron). A year later, the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games provided, according to the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, the setting for Lovelock’s ‘finest moment’: winning the 1,500 metre gold medal in a stunning race, and setting a new world record time of 3 minutes 47.8 seconds. (A recording of the race can be watched online thanks to TVNZ.)

In London, Lovelock the doctor specialised in rheumatism, while also doing some freelance journalism and broadcasting. In the Second World War he served in the British Army as a medical officer on the home front, but a fall from a horse while hunting in 1940 left him with severely damaged vision and a propensity to dizziness. He married Cynthia Wells James, an American, in 1945, and they had two children. In 1947 they moved to New York, where Lovelock worked at Manhattan Hospital; but, in December 1949, he fell beneath a New York subway train and died instantly.

According to The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, an oak tree presented to Lovelock by Adolf Hitler in 1936 grows as his memorial in the grounds of Timaru Boys’ High School. Apart from the two online New Zealand dictionaries, further information about Lovelock can be found on the website of the New Zealand Olympic Committee and the Jack Lovelock website.

Unusually for an athlete, perhaps, Lovelock kept a diary, recording many details about his races and training schedules. This was published in 2008 by Craig Potton, a small independent New Zealand company. Here is the publisher’s blurb: ‘Throughout his running career, Lovelock kept a remarkable series of journals and diaries, until now unpublished. As If Running on Air: The Journals of Jack Lovelock reproduces his journals from late 1931 to the end of 1935 and extracts from his 1936 training diary in a beautifully presented volume with colour and black & white photographs throughout. There is an entry for every race: some are brief, little more than notes; others are eloquent and reflective. Collectively they constitute a unique record of a sporting life in the 1930s and offer insights into what it took to make a world champion.’

I can find only one review of the book online - in the magazine Running Times. It says Lovelock was ‘the best of the 1930s golden era of milers’ and that the Berlin race is ‘still celebrated for the split-second finesse of Lovelock’s tactics and the lyrical perfection of his running’. It’s a favourable review which concludes that the diary gives ‘many inside views of history, as do the amazing photographs’.

‘Best of all,’ Running Times says, ‘we can follow what is in [Lovelock’s] mind almost stride by stride as each race unfolds. In the 1933 World Student Games, shadowing Italy’s Luigi Beccali, the reigning Olympic champion, ‘I clung like a leech . . . and thought I might hold him at the finish, but my big kick was not there.’ Quietly (and prophetically) he adds, ‘Two wins to him, the third is mine.’ In the 1935 ‘Mile of the Century’ at Princeton, ‘Cunningham’s tactics and uneven pacing were disturbing, as Bonthron might catch us both from behind . . . I took two very cautious peeps at Bill, swung out a fraction, and using the wind as best I could, let fly with my sprint.’ After that victory Lovelock was in serious danger of being crushed by the admiring crowd. His journal comments dryly, ‘Such terrific enthusiasm seemed a little misplaced.’

1 comment:

robert d said...

Zudos on your zest and attention to detail. In the hierarchy of your endeavor your work instantly suggestions the presence of a Master.

I, personally, would be interested in some summations, e.g., lessons learned from perusing the lives of others.

Snapping out,