'Greatest miler in the world'

21:42, Jan 11 2010
Great runner remembered: Author David Colquhoun with his 2008 Jack Lovelock book at the Timaru Boys' High School Lovelock statue.

Timaru last week marked the 100th anniversary of Olympic champion Jack Lovelock's birth. This week, Past Times page looks at how the champion's life ended.

On December 28, 1949, former Olympic champion mile runner, the New Zealander, Dr JE Lovelock, was killed by a subway train today.

The police said that Dr Lovelock apparently suffered from an attack of dizziness and fell from a station platform in Brooklyn in front of a Coney Island-bound train.

Treasure: Lovelock's medal from the 1936 Olympic Games.

Dr Lovelock was on the staff of the Manhattan Hospital for Special Surgery. His wife said he was coming home from hospital because he felt ill. Three cars of an eight-car train passed over his body before the driver could stop.

The police said that Dr Lovelock's eyesight was bad. His glasses were in his pocket when he was killed.

Dr Lovelock had not recently taken any active part in athletics, but was still keenly interested in them. Last summer, he had acted as an official at a meeting between a combined team of Oxford and Cambridge Universities against Princeton and Cornell.


Peak of his career: Lovelock breaks the tape in the final of the 1500-metre of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games ahead of Glenn Cunningham of the United States

Dr Lovelock met his wife, an American, while she was working with the United Services Organisation overseas. He was then a major in the Royal Army Medical Corps. There are two children.

Patrick Hayden, the driver of the train, said he saw Dr Lovelock topple to the tracks, but was unable to stop the train in time to save him.

In the garden plot at the Timaru Boys' High School is a fitting memorial to the greatest runner New Zealand has ever produced, Dr Lovelock.

It is the Olympic oak presented to him at the climax of his athletic career when he won the 1500 metres (the metric mile) at the 1936 Olympic Games at Berlin in the world record time of 3min 47.8sec.

Today, the Lovelock Oak is a sturdy young tree growing in front of the playing fields on which he first gained fame.

Beneath the tree is a plaque recording the feat at the Games of a man who first discovered that he might be a little faster than his fellow men when a secondary schoolboy in Timaru.

Dr Lovelock was born in January, 1910, at Crushington, near Reefton, and was educated at the Temuka and Fairlie primary schools before attending the Timaru Boys' High School as a boarder. His contemporaries recall that at school he was an unassuming curly-headed boy, studious and generally interested in all sports without a particular bent for any.

It was through the coaching of high-school masters that he began to show prowess in athletics, and in the year he was head prefect, he set the British Empire schoolboy record for the mile of 4min 42sec. This was later broken by another Timaru High School pupil, the late VP Boot.

Dr Lovelock won a senior national scholarship and entered the Otago University Medical School. A football injury prevented him from carrying on in the rugby field where he was showing promise, and he concentrated on track athletics.

He won the Otago mile championship while at the university, but in the national championships in 1930 he was only placed third in the mile.

In 1931, he was chosen as a Rhodes Scholar and entered Exeter College, Oxford University. He studied hard, but at the same time maintained his interested in running. He was beaten on a number of occasions by Sydney Wooderson, the English miler, mainly through his inability to concentrate on training while medical examinations were still in front of him.

In 1932, he had the British mile title and the university mile title to his credit and was chosen to represent New Zealand at the Olympic Games at Los Angeles in 1932.

At that time, he held the world record for 1320 yards of 3min 2 1/5 sec. He was unplaced in the 1500 metres, the race being won in record time by Beccali, of Italy, an athlete Lovelock was to meet again in another Olympiad.

It was considered at the time that Lovelock was unfit for top-class track racing because of strenuous travelling and lack of preparation.

As a member of the Oxford-Cambridge athletic team, Lovelock returned to the United States in 1933 to compete in a race in which he was matched against the best milers in the United States, including Bill Bonthron. Lovelock produced his best form, running a faultless race to set a new world record for the mile of 4min 7.6sec.

His performance was praised by experts and sports writers and he was referred to as "the medical man in a hurry who won so comfortably and easily he could have carried his bag with him". The race was run at Princeton University Stadium, New Jersey, in 1933.

An operation on his knee appeared likely to put an end to Dr Lovelock's athletic career and he did not run for many months. It was 1934 before he was back in the championship events, taking the British Empire title.

In 1936, he scored a triumph in the "mile of the century" and earned the reputation as "the greatest miler in the world".

He easily beat his old rivals, Glenn Cunningham and Bill Bonthron, in 4min 11sec.

Dr Lovelock was working up to the major event, the 1500 metres at the Olympic Games in Berlin in August of 1936, and on the day he was one of 12 starters – the cream of the world's milers.

Lovelock ran a well-judged race to beat Cunningham and Beccali, crossing the finishing line in record time five yards ahead of the American.

It was the peak of his career and he took no further part in major track races, devoting himself to his medical career.

Just before the war Dr Lovelock visited Timaru and saw his oak symbol of Olympic supremacy planted at the boys' high school. It was his last visit to his alma mater.

He had qualified in medicine and surgery in 1937 and soon after his return to England he joined the army, being placed in charge of the army physical training section at Aldershot. He specialised in internal medicine, surgery, heart and chest diseases and psychological diseases.

After the World War II, he went to Brompton Chest Hospital and St Bartholomew's Hospital. He was later appointed as assistant director of physical medicine and director of rehabilitation at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. He was largely concerned with the victims of poliomyelitis.

South Canterbury