Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.

19.6.15

The first hero; and his brother.

I went back through the archives. (This blog is just a continuation of what used to be hand-written diaries. I keep them all in a box in the bungalow at the beach house. If fire ever roars through the Mornington Peninsula my life in words will be gone. No great loss. The early ones are just pre-teen terse two-line entries.)

I went back through the decades, right back to the early 1970s. I flicked through. It must have been winter 1970. April, May ... there it was:

Saturday 30 May, 1970. State cross-country championships at Bundoora. Saw Ron Clarke and got his autograph.

I hadn't remembered getting the autograph. All I had vaguely recalled was seeing the adidas-wearing Glenhuntly-singleted Olympian near the finish, face etched in pain as usual.

I had joined St Bernard's athletics club the previous month, after reading Franz Stampfl on Running, and Bundoora was my second race after Clifton Hill in pouring rain. I liked running and the rain never bothered me.

Two years earlier I had listened on radio as Clarke finished the Olympic 10,000 metres in Mexico, reportedly near death. From yesterday's Australian:
Realising his main rivals in the 10,000m would be from high-altitude countries, Clarke paced his race so he would be with the leaders at the 8000m mark. So far the race plan he had devised with famous Austrian trainer Franz Stampfl was working perfectly, because as the runners went through with only 2000m to run, he was only one of four who could win. But when he attempted to push the accelerator a lap and a half from home, his body didn't respond.

He couldn't get air. He staggered on, steadily turning greyer. Now, all thoughts of a medal gone, it was all he could do to finish; barely had he crossed the line for sixth than he collapsed. Up in the stands Australian team doctor Brian Corrigan was on his feet well before that happened and though there was a moat and several officious policemen in his way, he somehow kicked and fought his way to Clarke's side.

Incredibly, no resuscitative equipment was available, almost as though the then IOC president Avery Brundage was intent on demonstrating that racing at altitude was never a problem, so all Corrigan could do was give Clarke oxygen and pray. His image, holding an oxygen mask and praying, remains one of the most enduring photos of Australia's Olympic journey.
Ron Clarke had been a mesmerising figure for most of the 1960s. In 1965, when I was eight and in grade three, Clarke seemed to be never out of the news. In fact, he set nine new world records in 21 days in that incredible year. Melbourne's evening newspaper, The Herald, carried dramatic black and white pictures on both front and back pages from Europe. The morning papers couldn't get them in time. Dad brought in Clarke's triumphs every afternoon. We were a print family.

Ron Clarke's brother Jack was centreman in Essendon's 1965 premiership win, captained the team in 1962 and coached the Bombers in 1968 to a narrow grand final loss. No wonder the Clarkes were sporting heroes to a boy in Essendon.

Back to that 30 May 1970 diary entry. There was a second line:

Essendon beat Collingwood.

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