Ron Clarke World Athletics Legend
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Ron Clarke honoured as World Athletics Legend
World Athletics has honoured one of our greatest ‘Hunters’, Ron Clarke, as a legend of athletics.
The honour was announced by WA President Sebastian Coe at Mt Panorama, Bathurst, on 18 February 2023 during an Australian world cross-country reunion at the world cross-country championships.
All Hunters know Clarke is a legend, as do most Australians and distance running fans all over the world, but World Athletics Heritage legend status is awarded posthumously. The honour comes with a memorial plaque which will be on permanent display at Duncan Mackinnon Reserve. The statement of the award is on the World Athletics website: World Athletics Heritage Plaque – Ron Clarke
Joining Clarke in being acclaimed as a legend of the sport was his great friend the former governor of Victoria John Landy. Under another heritage award category, ‘Culture’, the seminal Australian coaching publication Modern Athlete & Coach (now the Australian Track & Field Coaches’ Journal) was also recognised with a plaque. The Landy plaque will be displayed at Geelong’s John Landy Field, home of his lifetime club, Geelong Guild, the Journal plaque at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra.
Ron Clarke passed away in June 2015. At the time, I wrote two published pieces. One was an obituary for World Athletics which appeared in edited form on their website, the other was for Australian website Runner’s Tribe. Both were prompted by comments from long-time Glenhuntly clubmates. Chris Wardlaw, a dual Olympian himself, hailed Clarke as “the man who changed the world” for the manner in which he reimagined world distance running. As the obituary put it: “Clarke showed in the 1960s that distance runners could race hard, race often, race anyone and everyone, but mostly that you could run a lot faster than had previously been thought possible.”
Statistics may be a dry topic, but it is difficult to convey the impact Clarke had without putting his records in some numerical context - beyond their sheer volume, that is: 17 in all, plus a couple of unofficial marks.
Clarke’s 10,000 metres world record 27:39.4 in Oslo in 1965 is perhaps his most famous run. He took 36.2 seconds off his previous world record – set in Melbourne’s 1963 Zatopek 10,000 – 34.2 off the ‘unofficial’ 28:14.0 he had run the previous month in Turku. Either of those massive improvements is greater than any other world record leap. Greater than the Flying Finns - Ville Ritola (12.2 was his biggest jump), the greatest of them all Paavo Nurmi (17.0) and Viljo Heino (17.2); greater even than Emil Zatopek (18.6). The 10,000 record lasted seven years before Lasse Viren ran 27:38.4 in the Munich Olympic final. It took 27 years and eight world record breakers before the world record came down cumulatively by as much as Clarke broke it in one run.
Likewise, the 5000 metres. Clarke and his great Kenyan rival Kip Keino broke the world record five times in 1965 and 1966, but it was Clarke who took the lion’s share and the lion-size bites. Starting from Vladimir Kuts’s 13:36.0, Clarke set four new world marks to Keino’s one. He took 7.8 seconds off one of his own marks and then 7.6 off Keino’s solitary record record in taking it down to 13:16.6. Again, Clarke’s final record withstood all assaults for six years until Viren took 0.2 off it in 1972. It was another six years, and three more record-breakers, before the record was improved by as much as Clarke did at his best.
So, yes, Ron Clarke did change the world. Championship gold may have eluded him, but just as Mo Farah’s lack of a world record stands as nothing against winning 10 world and Olympic gold medals at 5000 and 10,000, so Ron Clarke’s lack of a gold medal stands as nought against his reimagination of distance running.
Besides, Emil Zatopek gifted Clarke one of his four Olympic gold medals. He thought Ron had earned one. Who are we to argue?
The second line on Ron Clarke came from Glenhuntly Athletic Club's Trevor Vincent when he pointed out that Clarke ran in an era when athletes had to juggle work and family while pursuing their sporting goals. Ron was a great family man with his lifelong partner Helen and children Marcus, Monique and Nicholas and built a career away from the track in business. He gave back to the wider community, too, eventually serving two terms as mayor of the Gold Coast.
Ron also contributed his business and accounting skills to Glenhuntly Athletic Club, the establishment of ex-athletes’ organisation Athletics International and as auditor for the Victorian Marathon Club. The title of this piece was “ . . . and he did the books as well.”
A great man; a great runner; Ron Clarke sits comfortably amongst the ranks of legends of our sport.
Author: Len Johnson, March 2023
About the author
Len Johnson wrote for The Melbourne Age as an athletics writer for over 20 years, covering five Olympics, 10 World Championships and five Commonwealth Games. He is the long-time lead columnist on Runners Tribe and is one of the world’s most respected athletic writers. A long-time member of Glenhuntly Athletic Club he was also a former national class distance runner (2.19.32 marathon) and trained with Glenhuntly Athletic Club athletes Chris Wardlaw and Robert de Castella among other running legends. He is the author of The Landy Era.
Curated by: Kara Gilbert
Date published: 19th April, 2023
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