The New Zealand Herald
5. JACK LOVELOCK
Of the three New Zealanders to hold the world mile record — Peter Snell and John Walker being the others — only Lovelock held the world 1500m record as well.
He did it in the Olympic final at Berlin in 1936, clocking 3min 47.8s. It was “the most perfectly executed race of my career” Lovelock wrote. The perfect race, at the perfect moment. You can’t do better than that.
Lovelock left a remarkable legacy for New Zealand athletics.
He won our first gold medal on the track and started a love affair with the 1500m that has continued to this day.
For a small nation, New Zealand has a remarkable Olympic record in the blue riband event, with three golds, a silver and three bronzes. Men like Peter Snell, John Walker, John Davies and Rod Dixon all created history for New Zealand, but Lovelock did it first.
He didn’t just win on the cinder track in Berlin’s Olympic stadium in 1936 — he triumphed in supreme style over what was then the best field ever assembled across the distance.
His outstanding run inspired one of the most famous pieces of sports commentary, with close friend and 1924 Olympic 100m champion Harold Abrahams (one of the chief protagonists in the Academy Awardwinning film Chariots of Fire) overwhelmed as Lovelock stormed to the finish.
Born in the small West Coast quartz-mining settlement of Crushington, as a youngster Lovelock excelled in numerous fields. A talented runner, he was a champion boxer and dux at Fairlie Primary and Timaru Boys’ High schools.
After studying medicine at Otago University, Lovelock won a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford.
It was while in England that his running career took off. He competed at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, finishing seventh in the 1500m final. The following year he set a world mile record and in 1934 took gold across the same distance in the Empire Games, hosted in London.
Berlin was the climax of his career, as years of meticulous training and planning paid off.
“It was undoubted the most beautifully executed race of my career,” Lovelock wrote in his diary. “A true climax to eight years’ steady work, an artistic creation.”
It was a spellbinding performance. Alongside Lovelock in the 12-man field that day were defending champion Luigi Beccali (Italy), American world mile record holder Glenn Cunningham, 1932 silver medallist Jerry Cornes and two Germans, desperate to impress a watching Adolf Hitler.
In front of 100,000 spectators, Lovelock sat tucked behind the leaders for the first three laps. Then, just after the final bell, he began a withering final burst from 300 metres out, an unprecedented tactic at the time.
“Just before entering the home straight I felt the tension of the field relax and realised, subconsciously perhaps, that everyone was taking a breather — ready for a hard last 200,” Lovelock wrote in his diary, reproduced in David Colquhoun’s book As If Running On Air.
“So at the 300m mark I struck home, passed Cunningham and gained a five-yard break before he awoke. Then it was merely a case of holding that suddenly acquired break . . . and for all practical and tactical purposes the race was over 300m from home.”
The fascination with Lovelock’s life continued, paradoxically, after his death.
Lovelock was a major in the Royal Army Medical Corps during World War II but made his life in New York after the war. Three days after Christmas, 1949, he rang wife Cynthia, an American with whom he had two daughters, to say he was leaving work early because he was unwell.
While waiting at the Church Avenue subway station in Brooklyn, he fell on to the tracks and was killed by an oncoming train.
There is a statue of Lovelock at Timaru BHS, along with his Victory Oak from Berlin, the tree having been granted the status of nationally protected landmark.