When John Walker Ran the Forgotten Mile in 1977
Everyone remembers the cricket but few recall the day New Zealand running hero John Walker took to the track in Melbourne, Adam Collins writes for The Guardian’s weekly cricket email, The Spin.
It started with a tweet. On 4 March 2018, reacting to the news that barrier-busting miler Roger Bannister had died, Mike Selvey – the long-term lord of this manor – posted the following: “The great John Walker ran a sub-four-minute mile on a track laid out on the outfield of the MCG during the Centenary Test in March 1977.”
Hold up. He did what? During the most fondly recalled Test ever staged at the G?
Let’s zero in on the third day – the one that opened the door to this Test evolving into a classic after a pair of first-innings collapses, Collins writes.
Before lunch, Walker – an Olympic champion nine months earlier – changed into his famous all-black running kit. Having won gold in the 1500m at the 1976 Montreal Olympics he was a superstar in the tradition of Trans-Tasman middle-distance giants of the previous quarter-century, from Herb Elliott and Peter Snell to Ron Clarke and John Landy. His event was unmistakably blue riband in Melbourne, the Olympic city itself in 1956.
But when Walker emerged for the start of the Centenary Mile, as it was billed, it would not be alongside the man he expected – Australia’s best at the distance, Graham Crouch. The “little Australian”, as he was described on commentary during the frenetic 1974 Commonwealth Games 1500m, was also in the placings when the Kiwi became the first man to break 3:50 for the mile in 1975 and then trailed Walker in his successful Olympic final in 1976. He elected to sit out the race, watching from the stands. Ken Hall, the national champion from only three days earlier, did likewise, citing exhaustion.
The field of four Walker had left were, The Age described, “willing but weak” by comparison. Combined with blustery conditions and a grass track, the organisers’ hopes of a sub-four-minute time were dashed. The champion sat back before going to work in the final 300m, newspaper reports saying he bolted in by 30m in 4:05.
Walker’s disappointment in his rival Crouch was unmistakable, calling it a “very bad show” from the local lad. “Graham is supposed to be the best runner in Australia,” he said. “The crowd expected him to run and he should have run.” But Dr Larkins’ perspective is that this was simply reflective of their competitive relationship. For taking part in the race, they all received a brass wine goblet in which Larkins keeps his pens at home to this day.
“It always surprises people when I say the biggest crowd that I ran in front of was not at the Olympics but at the MCG during the cricket! And I have very fond memories of John. He was the track star. It was not my most glorious performance but it was such an honour.”
Walker would not top his 1976 triumph, thwarted by injury and then a boycott, which denied him a chance to defend his Olympic crown in 1980. He never stopped running the mile, becoming the first to break four minutes on 100 occasions in 1985 and going on to do so 135 times.
Walker is 68. He lives in Auckland.
Original article by Adam Collins, The Guardian, April 14, 2020.
Photo by Monty Fresco.