Clarke world record fires up the Zatopek

Len Johnson

Fifty years ago this year, in winning the third edition of the Emil Zatopek 10,000 metres, Ron Clarke set world records for six miles and 10,000 metres.

There are a million stories about the 1963 Zatopek race. If you have been around long enough, you’ve heard most. Some are even true.

Briefly, the facts are these. Clarke won his third straight Zatopek. His target, officially, was the six miles Victoria record held by Dave Stephens at 27 minutes 54.0 seconds. That had been a world record when Stephens set it in sensational fashion at Olympic Park early in 1956.

Achieving that goal would almost certainly see Clarke also break the Australian record held by Melbourne 1956 Olympic 10,000 metres bronze medallist Dave Power at 27:52.8.

Unofficially, Clarke was aiming even higher, at the world record 27:43.8 set by Sandor Iharos of Hungary.

Finally, given the 376 yards extra distance between six miles and 10,000 metres, Clarke would have to break Iharos’s record by a considerable margin to have a chance at the 10,000 world record of 28:18.2 held by Rome Olympic champion Pyotr Bolotnikov of the former Soviet Union.

Melbourne’s Olympic Park then had a 440-yard track. This meant that the starting line for the 10,000 metres race was 376 yards from the finish line, making the 10,000 race 24 laps plus 376 yards.

This may explain some of the subsequent confusion about times. One thing for sure, no-one seems to have kept their head in the hectic final few minutes of the race.

We’ll get to that. First, some of the other stories. One that has been revised many times over the journey is the number of spectators present. Well, the figure of 23 came from Clarke himself, who is quoted by Age journalist Graeme Kelly that there was that number present – “mostly relations of mine.”

At least one was. The back-page photo in The Age the day after the race showed Ron shaking hands with his brother, Jack Clarke, captain of Essendon Football Club at the time. Whether there was another 22, or 222, who knows. Point is, there wasn’t many.

Clarke had been on a record run coming into the Zatopek, breaking Victorian records for 2000 and 3000 metres, two miles and three miles already that season (state records had to be set in the state and national records set in Australia, back then). At Olympic Park the Sunday before the Zatopek race he had lost narrowly to the late Albie Thomas over 5000 metres, with Thomas setting a national record 13:51.4.

Whatever his private thoughts, Clarke’s ambitions were obvious from the start. He tore through the first four laps (one mile) in 4:24, with his great mate and training partner, Tony Cook, already struggling to hang on two seconds back.

At two miles – 8:58 – Clarke was eight seconds ahead, leading Trevor Vincent to reassure Cook that “Clarkie’s gone mad.” According to Vincent, he may have said this, but only to encourage Cook that he was also well on the way to achieving his own target of an Olympic Games qualifying time (28:30 for 6 miles or 29:25 for 10,000).

The third and fourth miles flew by at record pace.

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Only in the fifth mile – covered in 4:40 – did Clarke slacken, but a 4:28 took him to six miles in a world record 27:17.8.

Then the confusion set in. Clarke slowed to a jog to complete the final 376 yards, apparently thinking he had no chance of breaking Bolotnikov’s world record. Quickly told by friends  – one advantage of a small crowd being that he could hear them clearly – to “get going, you can get the other one” – he launched a belated effort to reach 10,000 in 28:15.6.

What a race. Not one, but two world records. The Victorian marathon Club had set the Zatopek up to foster Australian distance running, but this was surely beyond their wildest expectations.

“I didn’t thrash myself in the 5000 against Albie Thomas last Sunday because I felt I could run really well tonight,” Clarke told Graeme Kelly in something of an understatement.

Robert Ward was second in 31:28 and the late Tom Kelly third in 31:56, both of them lapped twice by Clarke.

But the hard-luck story was Tony Cook’s. He pulled out after five miles thinking he was not going to reach his target. In fact, he was right on it.

“There was a mess-up in the time calling and I thought I was a minute over my schedule,” Cook told Graeme Kelly.

It was the third of Ron Clarke’s record five Zatopek wins and the first and second of his 18 or 19 (depending how you count them) world records as he set about re-defining distance running in the next few years.

Tony Cook did qualify for the 1964 Olympics. He went on to finish eighth in the Olympic final as Clarke took the bronze medal after a terrific last-lap struggle with Billy Mills of the USA and Mohamed Gammoudi of Tunisia, the gold and silver medallists. He also got his Zatopek win, the next year.