“It is almost impossible for me to describe the race in detail, because the picture in my mind is just one long thrill of superlative excitement.”
Harold Abrahams, BBC race commentator, Berlin, 1936.
As the first New Zealand athlete to win an Olympic gold, Jack Lovelock was edge spirit manifest, an enigmatic achiever whose running style was said to be ‘artistic’ in grace. His spectacular 1500m win at the 1936 Berlin Olympics began a rich history of achievement in New Zealand middle and long distance athletics, front-running for such later greats as Peter Snell, Murray Halberg and John Walker.
From Timaru to Oxford
John Edward Lovelock was born in Crushington, near Reefton on the West Coast of the South Island, in 1910. He grew up in South Canterbury and attended Timaru Boys High, where he played a variety of sports, excelling on the track and in the ring. After graduating as Head Prefect and Dux he studied medicine at the University of Otago, where, aided by his athletic prowess, he was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University in 1930.
The spirit of “giving it a go” was a distinctly Kiwi one amongst the cloisters, turf, and class restrictions of Oxford, and Lovelock put himself under huge pressure to succeed. Earlier New Zealand Rhodes scholar and Olympic medallist Arthur Porritt noted that Lovelock was beset by anxiety: “Jack was a great worrier. He ran on nervous energy. Physically he was very fit, but mentally he was very fragile, jumpy even.” Over the decade Lovelock would go on to comprehensively prove himself on the track, channeling his nerves as propulsion.
Mile of the Century
His time in England and at Oxford as a member of the famed Achilles Club, and as captain of the Oxford University Athletics Club saw him progress dramatically as a middle-distance runner. In 1932 he set a new British and British Empire mile record, becoming the fifth fastest miler in history. Two weeks later he broke the world record for the three-quarters of a mile, making him a leading contender for the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
As well as prowess on the track, he was also noted for his élan on the dance-floor. He wrote to his old University of Otago coach A.K. Ibbotson, “Yes, I’m afraid the life over here is very different from N.Z. But oh boy it’s a grand life. The next job is the Olympics – only hope I can strike form, for I’d like to give it a real go and not make a fool of myself.”
Still inexperienced at international level, however, Lovelock only managed seventh place in the 1500 metres final. It was this failure in Los Angeles that convinced him that he was capable of only one great race every season, a realisation that proved to be the turning point of his career. Setting his sights on one race, Lovelock treated all the others as a training runs. Never allowing short term fame or rivalry to get in the way, he began a rigorous programme of self-training, targeting the Olympic 1500m of 1936.
In 1933, Lovelock became the first New Zealander to achieve a recognised world record, running a 4 minute 7.6 second mile at Princeton, USA, against hometown hero Bill Bonthron. An entry from his diary describes the event: “That is the sort of race which one really enjoys – to feel at one’s peak on the day when it is necessary, and to be able to produce the pace at the very finish. It gives a thrill which compensates for months of training and toiling. But it is the sort of race that one wants only about once a season.”
It was pay-off for Lovelock’s ‘professional’ training routine. His methods were well ahead of his time, bringing a more scientific and psychological approach to his sport, for example, maintaining scrupulous training and nutritional records and using photography to perfect his ‘fluid and springy’ running style. Lovelock also took great pleasure in his running. In full release he cruised as effortlessly as a Royal Albatross: barely a wing beating, all aerodynamic speed, efficiently gliding along the southern currents off Tairoa Head. This was the incubation period of the ‘Lovelock kick’, the impulsive quality that would prove to be the fastidious Lovelock’s edge.
He became a star of international middle-distance running in the 1930s, attracting huge crowds. He established famous rivalries with the other leading milers of his time, including Bonthron, Glenn Cunningham and their compatriot, the young rising star, Archie San Romani; Englishmen Jerry Cornes and Sydney Wooderson, and Italian Luigi Beccali, the 1932 Olympic 1500m gold medallist. He engaged in a series of high profile transatlantic tussles and exchanged world records with Cunningham and Bonthron.
A year after the Princeton victory he won the mile at the 1934 Empire Games in London (New Zealand’s only gold of the games) in a style described as “melodious prose”. In a 1935 race organized by American entrepreneurs, dubbed ‘The Mile of the Century’, again run at Princeton, Lovelock beat his American rivals. In 1936, in England, he was defeated by Wooderson, (the race where the famous “smiling while he loses” photo of Lovelock was taken. But he dominated the sport in the sense that he had an uncanny knack for winning when it mattered most.
Berlin 1936: Lovelock’s Dream Run
Lovelock’s hard work gained its sweetest consummation in 1936, at the infamous Berlin Olympics, where the enduring images would be the high theatrics of the Nazi hosts, and the spirit and achievement of two track athletes: African American sprinter Jesse Owens and a lithe 1500m runner from New Zealand. On August 6, 1936, before a crowd of 120,000 people – including Adolf Hitler and the camera of Leni Riefenstahl (who captured the event in her seminal film ‘Olympia’) – Lovelock executed the perfect race, entering the annals of New Zealand and international sporting history.
Lovelock’s kick was renowned, but lining up at the starter’s gun, all his main rivals had been acknowledged as demonstrating greater basic speed. After the bell, with 300m to go, Lovelock was crouched in second place behind Swede Eric Ny. Up to this point the race had consisted of the usual jostling for position, powerful surges as runners strove to maintain the heat, cranking tiring muscles, lungs and heart towards their limits, mentally pressing competitors to crack first, conscious of maintaing reserves for a final burst.
In a decisive blink Lovelock accelerated into a hidden gear, shocking the field and instantly carving up a gap of 5 metres (years later he spoke to the young Roger Bannister about the need “to choose the moment for the unexpected finish”). Lovelock sensed that the pack was taking a breather, holding back before the sprint. He had never delivered his kick this early, and now he had to hold it. Ny faded, Cunningham and the Italian Beccali gave chase to the black blur ahead, but to no avail. Lovelock blistered down the track, increasing his margin and coasting in for New Zealand’s first Olympic gold in athletics. His time: 3:47.8 – equivalent to a 4:04.8 mile – was a new world record. This achievement meant the four-minute mile was now a realistic possibility. Click here to watch great footage of Lovelock’s winning race (with Italian commentary), or here to view footage with English commentary.
“Magnificent Beyond all Description”
Said E.A Montague of the Manchester Guardian; “It was a race magnificent beyond all description …There never was such a run nor such a runner.” The commentator, Harold Abrahams, famously lost his BBC poise and broke every broadcasting rule: “Lovelock leads! Lovelock! Lovelock! Cunningham second, Beccali third. Come on, Jack! A hundred yards to go! Come on, Jack!! My God, he’s done it. Jack, come on! … Lovelock wins. Five yards, six yards, he wins. He’s won. Hooray!!” Writers searched for phrases to describe Lovelock’s genius: his alluring mix of frail grace with the sudden destructive strike; floating power delivered with a devastating secret sprint. Afterwards he was exultant. It was not merely the race of the season, but the race of a lifetime. Lovelock meticulously kept a diary and in the entry on the day of the race, he recorded, in a moment of rare flamboyance: “It was undoubtedly the most beautifully executed race of my career, a true climax to 8 years of steady work, an artistic creation.”
Death on the NYC Subway
After the Olympics Lovelock returned ‘home’ on a government-sponsored tour of New Zealand where he performed demonstration runs, made speeches at schools, and was generally feted. He then abruptly retired from running and returned to England to complete his medical studies. In WWII he served in Northern Ireland in the field of physical medicine and rose to rank of Major. In 1940 he was thrown from a horse during a hunt and lay unconscious for an hour before being discovered. He sustained a broken arm and leg, damage to one eye, and was to be troubled by dizzy spells for the rest of his life. After the war, with his American wife Cynthia James, he moved to New York, where he was assistant director of physical medicine at Manhattan Hospital for special surgery.
On December 28th, 1949, Lovelock complained of dizzy spells and rang his wife to say he would be coming home early to her and their two daughters. He was standing on the southbound platform of the Church St Subway Station in Brooklyn when he suddenly fell before an oncoming train. He was killed instantly. He had just received a research fellowship, it was eight days short of his 40th birthday.
Man and Myth
The extraordinary highlights of Lovelock’s life continue to fascinate New Zealanders. The compelling combination: the obsessive perfectionist, the anxiety of failure, the great international victory, the ambivalence of the expat, the inscrutable tragedy of his premature end far, far away from Timaru, in a NYC subway tunnel – combined with a famously reticent public persona – make a suitably immutable mould for a country still finding its heroes.
Roger Robinson – runner, sports writer, and Professor of English at Victoria University – has noted the extraordinary frequency with which Lovelock crops up in New Zealand popular culture. Streets, playing fields, and sports bars are named after him, and his life has inspired several books, stamps, a stage play and a film (most recently David Geary’s successful play, Lovelock’s Dream Run, and James McNeish’s biographical novel, Lovelock). Lovelock’s journals are being edited at the Alexander Turnbull Library by David Colquhoun, and sports writer Lynn McConnell has a book well advanced on the milers of the 1930s. In 2002 a statue was erected at his alma mater, Timaru Boys High School.
Robinson sums up the enduring fascination with the life of the man: “New Zealand doesn’t have myths yet, other than Maori ones. I believe Lovelock has the makings of a mythic figure.” Lovelock’s victory at Berlin was the triumph of one man’s will over the boundaries of speed; the supremely judged apex of a unique sporting career.
The ‘Lovelock kick’ unfurled into our sporting and collective consciousness as the moment a singular New Zealander (black singlet, silver fern intersecting the N.Z.) dominated on the most public of athletics stages, the Olympics.
Harris, Norm. The Legend of Lovelock. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1964.
McNeish, James. Lovelock, Auckland: Vintage, 1999.
” Fifty years after the Lovelock victory in the 1500 metres at the 1936 Olympic games a mystique remains; an aura surrounding a small wraith-like figure in black continues to stir the imagination of people who have no other interest in sport.”
Based on research in five countries, McNeish’s “autobiographical” fiction, Lovelock, was first published in 1986 and was republished three times. Learn more about this book at New Zealand Books Ltd.
Tobin, Christopher. Lovelock: New Zealand’s Olympic Gold Miler, Dunedin: McIndoe, 1984.
Read Roger Robinson’s entry on Lovelock in The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography
Lovelock takes his place in the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame
Athletics New Zealand pay tribute to one of their greatest heroes
Read about Lovelock in the Oxford University Athletics Club Hall of Fame
The Lovelock Olympic Story on Cool Running
Read the entry on the Berlin 1936 1500m final in Runner’s World magazine’s ‘Great Olympic Moments’ series (includes a transcript of Lovelock’s August 6th 1936 diary entry)
Lovelock features in the Otago University exhibition ‘A Civilising Mission: New Zealanders and the Rhodes Scholarship‘
Plot the speed of the mile over time beginning at Lovelock’s 1933 world record time
Three gold medalists in the same Olympic race – Puke Ariki take a look at the story
“Lovelock” A short film by David Robertson, New Zealand 1993, 15 minutes.