Kenyan triumphs in the Zatopek are nothing of a surprise now. Luke Kipkosgei won four times in six years and holds the men’s race record; Joyce Chepkirui set the women’s record in winning two years ago.
But the first Kenyan victory in the race, when Gabriel Kamau out-sprinted Robert de Castella to win in 1983 – now, that was a surprise.
It should not have been. Kamau held the US national collegiate record at 27 minutes 36.2 seconds, 36 seconds quicker than de Castella’s personal best coming into the race (and continued to hold it until Galen Rupp broke it in 2007). He was on scholarship at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP).
But Australian sports stories didn’t come much bigger than Deek in 1983. He had successively won the 1981 Fukuoka marathon (in a world record), the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games marathon (this time watched by millions of Australians over breakfast), the 1983 Rotterdam marathon (trouncing Alberto Salazar) and the 1983 world championships marathon (having dinner with the great Emil Zatopek after that one).
The 1983 men’s Zatopek featured on the front and back pages of The Age. It certainly didn’t hurt that the paper, along with Wang computers, sponsored the race, but it was the first time this had happened since Ron Clarke’s world record in 1963.
Pictures of de Castella and Kamau ran side-by-side on the front page, right next to a headline speculating that Prime Minister Bob Hawke might call an early election: “I’ve had enough of this recalcitrant Senate”; while the back page featured a race report with more pictures.
The women’s race had not reached such heady heights by 1983. Indeed, it was still held on a different night, the main women’s event on the big night being over 3000 metres, the longest Olympic distance then for women.
Sally Pierson, an accomplished race walker before she focused solely on running, won her first of two women’s Zatopek races in 33:31.4, comfortably ahead of 1980-81 winner Megan Sloane and Nicky Taws.
Pierson had turned 20 in March, 1983.
That month she represented Australia for the first time in a world cross-country. She finished fourth in the Race Walking World Cup the same year and represented Australia again in the 1985 world cross-country.
It was the second year in a row de Castella had been out-kicked at the end of the Zatopek. The previous year, John Andrews had run away from him in the final 400 metres to win, 28:09.7 to 28:12.2.
‘Deek’ was not exactly shocked when Kamau sprinted by with 250 metres left to win in 27:59.14. He had led since the second lap, spread-eagling the field but never breaking away from Kamau. It was just the third time (after Australians Gerard Barrett and Steve Austin) anyone had broken 28 minutes in the Zatopek.
De Castella’s reward for his front-running performance was a new personal best of 28:02.73 and the confidence that his Olympic marathon preparations were coming along nicely.
“I have the strength and if I can get more speed that will give me an even greater asset for marathons,” de Castella said.
“You need speed in marathons these days,” ‘Deek’ added perceptively. You still do, many recent marathons would seem to suggest.
New South Wales runner Lawrie Whitty, running barefoot, finished third in 28:26.34. Whitty had upset de Castella in the previous year’s national cross-country championship, a wake-up call for ‘Deek’ on the road to his Brisbane marathon triumph.
Just as well de Castella ran a ‘pb’. It meant he went home with something as, earlier in the night, his national U20 record for 3000 metres had been broken by Mal Norwood, who won the junior race over that distance in 8:10.78. De Castella’s name is still inextricably linked with the junior race, however: it is now named after him.
Ultimately, de Cstella’s Olympic marathon ambitions were thwarted, too. In Los Angeles the following year he finished fifth behind the man he beat at Rotterdam, Carlos Lopes.