Walker, runner, world record-holder: Reunited, 40 years after John Walker made running history
As the lanky Kiwi runner rounded the final bend at Gothenburg in 1975, his hair streaming in his wake, the crowd gave a slow, appreciative clap. When he crossed the line alone, he paused for a moment. His hand shaking, journalist Ivan Agnew thrust a stopwatch under his nose. John Walker said simply, 'oh my God'.
John Walker had dreamed for years, visualising the details of the day that he would not just set a world record for the mile, but break the substantial barrier of running it in under three minutes and 50 seconds.
It's no surprise that 40 years after he became the first man to do so, he still recalls it vividly. "I do think about that race, and I remember it all," he says.
It was in Gothenburg, Sweden, on August 12, 1975, at the end of a long European tour and after training weeks of up to 90 miles at a time that Walker, almost on a whim, decided to aim for the record after winning 19 of his 19 races on the trip.
His only regret is he didn't run faster than 3.49.4 that day. Both he and his coach, Arch Jelley, now 89, think Walker could have gone as fast as 3.46, a mark not reached until Steve Cram 11 years later, but for the poor performance of the local pacemaker. (By comparison Roger Bannister, the first man to run a four-minute mile, had three expert local runners to assist him).
"Considering they ran a lot of miles in those days, it was a big thing," says Walker. "It's magical, the mile, four laps to the mile, people understand that."
There were very few New Zealanders there to see it. Walker's friend, fellow Auckland councillor and Olympic medallist Dick Quax had already gone home with shin splints. "But I remember it very well. I was absolutely delighted for John, and it was a great motivator for me."
Jelley couldn't get time off to travel. Thanks to the time difference, it was August 13, his birthday in New Zealand, when he discovered the news. "It was a tremendous breakthrough," he says, although he thinks the signs had been there. Walker had placed fourth as New Zealand won the world cross-country teams championship earlier in the year, then had trained solidly for the track season.
"I thought he was capable of breaking the world record. We always had that at the back of our minds."
But one Kiwi who was there was Sunday News reporter Ivan Agnew, who, convinced something special would happen, had paid his own way on the three-month excursion.
"I said to my wife the day I was leaving, 'I appreciate this, thanks for letting me go'," Agnew remembers. "She said 'that's okay love, but you would've anyway, wouldn't you?' I would have too."
Agnew and Walker had roomed together for much of the trip, and Agnew, an eye to history, lobbied the Gothenburg organisers to change the race from a 1500m to a mile after Walker came within two-tenths of a second of his great rival Filbert Bayi's 1500m record two meetings earlier.
On race eve, the journalist gave the athlete a note saying that he had the chance to achieve a greatness, like Bannister, that would be remembered long after many Olympians' names had faded from memory.
As Walker rounded the final bend, his hair streaming in his wake, the crowd gave a slow, appreciative clap. When he crossed the line alone, he paused for a moment. He knew he'd run fast, but not until Agnew thrust a stopwatch under his nose, just how fast.
Agnew's hand was shaking.
Walker said simply: "Oh my God".
For Walker, though, it pales compared to his 1976 Olympic gold: "The Olympics were bigger. If I'd lost that, I would have been a failure, in my own mind. You set records for others to follow."
Perhaps it was more significant for others: while it couldn't match Bannister's mark for legend, Peter Snell would later describe it as the last great mythical barrier for milers.
Snell and Rod Dixon will appear by Skype at a tribute breakfast at the Aotea Centre, Auckland, on Wednesday, with a keynote speech from Sir Ralph Norris and a message from Sebastian Coe, the man who finally broke Walker's record in 1979.
Walker, smiling, says he's "ecstatic" at the honour.
For tickets to the breakfast on Wednesday go to www.fieldofdreams.org.nz
- Sunday Star Times