John Landy: a significant life


As Melbourne, along with the rest of Australia and, indeed, the Commonwealth, embraces the 2006 Commonwealth Games, we are reminded of moments that were inspiring and sometimes devastating. In reminiscing, who could forget the “Thorpedo” in the pool, Cathy Freeman on the track, or Jacqui Cooper on the slopes? Most such moments require someone to win (or controversially lose), but there are other moments of inspirational sportsmanship, perhaps more rare.
While a training teacher, I was fortunate to witness just such a gesture by a Year 6 girl in an 800-metre race involving five schools. It was a final and all points were vital.

In the mad dash to gain inside priority at the first bend, legs and bodies were bustling and one of the girls tripped. In a touching display, a team-mate stopped, asked if the fallen competitor was alright, then helped her back on her feet before running on, now out of contention for a place.

Witnessing this selfless act, thoughts of a similar moment at Melbourne’s Olympic Park of 50 years ago came immediately to mind. Australian champion runner John Landy and one-mile world-record holder, now Governor of Victoria, was involved in a near identical incident. However, the stakes were somewhat higher.
Thousands were packed into the stands where they hoped to witness Landy again break the previously elusive “four-minute-mile” and set another benchmark performance. Huge expectation preceded the event, with all of the pressure and focus on Landy.

Entering the third lap of four, the field was beginning to pick up the pace—a world record pace. However, hope was extinguished when Ron Clarke was accidentally tripped by the pack and fell. As Landy leapt over him, his spike caught Clarke and injured him.

It was a moment witnessed by well-known Australian Dr Gordon Moyes, who recalls it as if it “happened yesterday.”

Landy … did the most incredibly stupid, beautiful, foolish, gentlemanly act I have ever seen,” says Moyes. “He stopped, ran back to the fallen young Ron Clarke and helped him up to his feet, brushed cinders from knees, and checking his bloodied shoulder said, ‘Sorry.’”1

Harry Gordon, a journalist for Melbourne’s Sun, also found the moment incredible and wrote on the day of Landy’s courageous action, saying, “Yours was the classic sporting gesture. It was a senseless piece of chivalry, but it will be remembered as one of the finest actions in the history of sport.

In a nutshell, you sacrificed your chance of a world record to go to the aid of a fallen rival. And in pulling up, trotting back to Ron Clarke, muttering ‘Sorry’ and deciding to chase the field you achieved much more than any world record.

For those unfamiliar with the events of the day, Landy, upon helping Clarke to his feet, then ran down the field who were some 30 metres ahead and won the race, just six seconds outside his world record. Experts are in no doubt that Landy was in a form that would have broken his own record that day but for the vital seconds lost in helping Clarke.

I stopped involuntarily,” Landy said later, “and for a moment I thought, I’ve been disqualified. Then I thought, No, I’m still in the race. It looked impossible, with the rest of the field some 30 yards ahead, but I thought I’d better have a go. I was in a blind panic, and I didn’t think about times or tactics. I just ran.”2
John Landy etched a more permanent record into history that day, but for a rather different and more elevated reason.

And while Landy may be justifiably renowned for his selfless act that day, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that at the time he was an incredible athlete, one of the fastest milers, only bettered by his British nemesis, Roger Bannister.

Bannister beat him in the 1954 Vancouver Commonwealth Games in another amazing story—“the backward glance”—two years earlier. In fact, it was just 46 days after Bannister had cracked the seemingly impossible four-minute mile in the “race of the century” at Oxford University, on May 6, 1954, that Landy bettered him in world record time.

Two years later, at the colourful opening ceremony of the Melbourne Olympics, on November 22, 1956, Landy shared the limelight with Ron Clarke, who carried the Olympic flame into the arena, where Landy read the Olympic oath.

Landy won numerous races and titles in his athletics career, giving him deserved legendary status among track athletes, something now overshadowed by that event, but something we shouldn’t forget. In 1955, he was awarded the MBE for services to sport, but his career off the track is just as distinguished and includes several notable and inspirational achievements.
Born in Melbourne in 1930, Landy, now aged 75, can look back on his life away from athletics and still be proud of his accomplishments. He carried his prowess on the track to his commitment in serving the community.

Apart from his love for athletics and competition, he has a passion for Australia’s natural beauty and its conservation and restoration. Landy is a foundation member of the Land Conservation Council, in which he played a major role in increasing Victoria’s National Parks from yesterday’s minimal 200,000 hectares to more than one million today. He has also authored two books themed around nature, one of which won the C J Dennis Award.

He has served his community, state and country at a high level, chairing numerous committees, including Clean Up Australia, Athletics International, and the Australia Day and the Greening Australia Committees (to name but a few). All these accomplishments add to a significant life, one shared with his wife, Lynne, and two children, Matthew and Alison.

Evidently John Landy’s accomplishments, commitment and profile provided the essential attributes and experience necessary to become the 25th governor of Victoria, which he took up on New Year’s Day, 2001. It’s fitting that John Landy, AC, MBE, Governor of Victoria, stand with royalty for the opening of the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.

John Landy’s distinguished career and service to the community is emphasised by the meaning behind the maxim, “One’s true character is revealed in the competitive sporting arena.” Landy’s true character has certainly been convincingly demonstrated not only on the track but also through his devoted and loyal service to Australia.

As an amateur sportsperson, and professionally as leader of children, I’m grateful for the inspiration John Landy gives me and those I serve. His life and deeds should inspire us all, running our own race in life. The lesson of life that Landy taught us is that we shouldn’t be so concerned with the position in which we finish, nor how we compare with others, but in how we run our race—how well we serve others in our community, our country and, especially, how we help those who fall.

1. Rev Dr Gordon Moyes
2. Peter Cochrane and Brian Hoepper, The Finest Sporting Gesture in the History of Sport?

Adrian McGregor, “The real mile of the century,” Good Weekend, July 2004.
Young Men in a Hurry, Harry Gordon.

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