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Athletics: The Black Singlet

Our proud tradition in the blue riband of Olympic distance events spans 80 years.
Jack Lovelock
Jack Lovelock

When Dr John Edward Lovelock tore away from the 1500m field at Berlin's Olympiastadion on August 6, 1936 to win in a world record time of 3m 47.8s, he set a tradition, bordering on obsession, for New Zealand sport.

Lovelock, a Rhodes scholar turned Oxford University medical graduate, planned meticulous revenge after finishing seventh at Los Angeles in 1932. In the pre-Lydiard era, he already employed a miles-make-champions mantra. His sprint from 300m out had BBC commentator Harold Abrahams - from Chariots of Fire 100m gold medal fame - imploring "C'mon Jack" in un-BBC fashion as his friend strode to glory before Adolf Hitler's box.

Lovelock's 80-year legacy lives on via a Black Forest oak presented to him on the medal dais. It remains a Timaru Boys' High School landmark. On Friday, a record three New Zealand men - Nick Willis, Julian Matthews and Hamish Carson - were confirmed to contest the 1500m at Rio. As Willis, the Beijing Games silver medallist, suggested: "This is a blue riband event, one of the hardest in all of sport to succeed at."

Fourteen Kiwi men have competed in the discipline, delivering three gold, one silver and two bronze medals. Sir Peter Snell conquered at the 1964 Tokyo Games. Wearing singlet '466', a garment recently returning to the national consciousness with Te Papa's interest, he also scythed through from a Lovelock-like spot.

"I was known for a race-winning blow to opposition," Snell said. "But that's only possible when you have the fitness to be cruising and waiting to turn it [the power] on. That's what being well trained is all about in endurance. You float along at a fast pace but have reserves for the finish."

Sheltered by a nylon jacket and insulated by olive oil rubbed into his legs, Snell logged 1010 miles in 10 weeks over the Auckland winter, particularly at Alexandra Park. "With that base, I could do more race-related interval training. That meant I could handle the six races in eight days which was required to do the 800m/1500m double."

Sir John Walker was the last to achieve New Zealand 1500m glory at Montreal in 1976. He was the mile world record holder and finished behind Tanzania's Filbert Bayi at 1974's Christchurch Commonwealth Games, when both men broke the old 1500m world record. Bayi was forced out when several African nations boycotted the Olympics because the All Blacks toured South Africa but his participation would have been in doubt anyway given he had malaria. Walker, with open arms and flowing locks, seized his chance.

New Zealand experienced a 32-year medal hiatus until Willis, a reverential student of the sport, emerged from the Hutt Valley early this century. He missed the Athens final, before working his way from sixth into a plum position on the Beijing home straight. Tenacity brought him home third. Willis was elevated a place when 'champion' Rashid Ramzi was exposed as a drug cheat.

Lovelock, Snell and Walker have provided stimulus to this generation. "I have always been inspired by our 1500m legends," Matthews said. "I've even been to the track where Lovelock won gold. Having them succeed helps us to think we can do likewise."

Not only athletes pave the way. Carson paid tribute to his 93-year-old coach Arch Jelley, believed to be the oldest elite level coach in the sporting world. "Arch is so experienced in this event, right back to when he coached John Walker to gold in 1976. I've spent 11 years drawing on his knowledge. We catch up every week and he sent me an email of congratulations. Hopefully I've paid him back by making the pinnacle event in our sport."

Jack Lovelock
Berlin 1936
PB 3:47.8
Lovelock beat a quality field in front of Adolf Hitler in Berlin, breaking the world record in the final to take gold. It was New Zealand's first athletics gold.

Peter Snell
Rome 1960
PB 3:37.6
Snell successfully defended the 800m title he won four years earlier in Rome and then underlined his class by blitzing the field in the 1500m, winning by 15m.

John Davies
Tokyo 1964
PB 3:39.6
Davies finished third behind Snell in Tokyo, marking the first time New Zealand had won medals in the same Olympic event. He was later NZOC president.

Rod Dixon
Munich 1972
PB 3:33.89
Dixon first gained fame as a middle-distance runner, winning bronze in the 1500m in Munich, before moving to longer distances. Won 1983 New York Marathon.

John Walker
Montreal 1976
PB 3:32.4
Walker lived up to his favouritism in Montreal in the absence of Filbert Bayi. The first man to go under
3m 50s for the mile and first to run 100 sub-four minute miles.

Nick Willis
Beijing 2008
PB 3:29.66
The 2006 Commonwealth champion originally placed third but received the silver (in 2011) after winner Rashid Ramzi failed a drugs test.

- Herald on Sunday

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