Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

New Zealand's Greatest Olympians - Number 10: Jack Lovelock

We're counting down New Zealand's 25 greatest Olympians. Today, middle-distance runner Jack Lovelock.
Jack Lovelock started New Zealand's love affair with the 1500m, which has continued to this day. Photo / Supplied
Jack Lovelock started New Zealand's love affair with the 1500m, which has continued to this day. Photo / Supplied

• Gold: 1500m, Berlin, 1936

Jack 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 two 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 also inspired one of the most famous pieces of sports commentary, with close friend and 1924 Olympic 100m champion Harold Abrahams (on whom Chariots of Fire was based) overwhelmed as Lovelock stormed to the finish.

"Lovelock leads! Lovelock! Lovelock!," Abrahams conveyed to the massive BBC radio audience. "Come on Jack, 100 yards to go. Come on, Jack. My God, he's done it!"

Born in the small West Coast settlement of Crushington, Lovelock excelled in numerous fields as a youngster. A talented runner, he was a champion boxer and dux at Fairlie Primary and Timaru Boys' High schools.

After taking a place at the University of Otago, he 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.

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."

Biography: Jack Lovelock

Attended two Olympics, 1932 and 1936;
His gold medal-winning run in Berlin is considered one of the greatest tactical races of all time;
The oak seedling he got for victory in 1936 was planted at Timaru Boys; High School and the tree is a protected national treasure;
Lovelock featured on a 1990 set of New Zealand stamps alongside legendary All Black George Nepia.

How we did it

This list was drawn up by expert Herald and Radio Sport journalists from our team covering the Rio Olympics.

It wasn't easy, partly because of the number of fantastic feats over the last century or so and partly because of the difficulty of comparing performances across sports and eras.

The first ground rule was that only gold medallists would be considered. That was tough considering the likes of Nick Willis (silver, 2008), Dick Quax (silver, 1976), Paul Kingsman (bronze, 1988) and Bevan Docherty (silver and bronze, 2004 & 2008) provided some of our most memorable Olympic moments.

We also agreed potential success in Rio wouldn't be taken into account. The list was also restricted to the Summer Olympics, otherwise Annelise Coberger, our only Winter Olympics medallist may have featured quite prominently.

Each member of the panel wrote their own list before we came together to thrash it out five at a time. It was a head-scratcher, but in a good way because it was a celebration of success.

List so far

No 25: Alan Thompson
No 24: Norman Read
No 23: Ted Morgan

No 22: Sir Russell Coutts
No 21: Paul MacDonald
No 20: Hamish Bond and Eric Murray
No 19: Rob Waddell
No 18: Bruce Kendall
No 17: Mahe Drysdale

No 16: Hamish Carter
No 15: Sir Murray Halberg
No 14: The 1976 men's hockey team
No 13: Sir John Walker
No 12: Ian Ferguson
No 11: Sarah Ulmer

- NZ Herald

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