What a difference a metre makes.

It is not only the difference between Olympic silver and gold but the gulf between a knight and a commoner.

The three Kiwi runners to have won Olympic gold medals and returned to live in New Zealand are Sir John Walker, Sir Peter Snell and Sir Murray Halberg. A fourth, Jack Lovelock, did not live in New Zealand after he won at the 1936 Olympics.

Dick Quax was little more than a hand's-reach away from the gold medal in a race described as one of the greatest ever distance races, an event over which hangs the spectre of blood doping.

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"You do wonder how life may have been different but I don't dwell on it," Quax, who is battling cancer, told the Herald.

"I'd be less than human if I didn't occasionally think if I'd been Olympic champion rather than finish a couple of metres back that things may have been different. I probably would have ended up with a knighthood and I don't even have an OBE or an MBE.

"You know, that much," says Quax, who turned 70 on New Year's Day, stretching his hands out wide.

The 5000 metres at the 1976 Montreal Olympics was a classic, the hectic finish - four men, one diving, two in black singlets - immortalised in a life-size sculpture titled The Last Meter.

A scale replica sits in the entrance way to the Howick home of Theodorus Jacobus Leonardus Quax, the Dutch-born athlete his parents called Dickie. The heads of the Kiwi runners are thrown back in maximum effort, the German athlete is literally throwing himself at the line. Just ahead is the Finn Lasse Viren, the defending Olympic champion.

Dick Quax finishes second to Lasse Viren in the 5000 metres at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Rod Dixon (689) is fourth. Photo: AP
Dick Quax finishes second to Lasse Viren in the 5000 metres at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Rod Dixon (689) is fourth. Photo: AP

"It's one of those memories that will last with me forever, said Quax. "I can almost remember the whole race. The memory of that last frantic lap is still very vivid, exactly how I felt, exactly what was going through my mind, exactly what I needed to do to put myself in a good position."

A special race

It was a special race for New Zealand because Quax and Rod Dixon were among the favourites.

Viren spent the race saving metres on the pole line and steadily wound the pace on during the last few laps.

"All hell broke loose in the back straight," recalls Quax. "I was still feeling really good. Dixon was in third or fourth. I did focus a lot on Rod, because I knew him well, knew how good he was, he was the fastest 1500m runner in the field.

Dick Quax, left, and Rod Dixon stalk Finland's Lasse Viren (in second) during the 5000m final of the 1976 Olympic Games. Photo / AP
Dick Quax, left, and Rod Dixon stalk Finland's Lasse Viren (in second) during the 5000m final of the 1976 Olympic Games. Photo / AP

"With about 120 metres to go I pulled in beside Rod. I had Rod boxed in. Lasse Viren was just in front of him. I then pulled up to Viren and with about 60 metres to go out of my peripheral vision I could see that he was just behind me and at that point I thought I was going to win. And then slowly but surely he moved ahead and I couldn't respond."

German athlete Klaus-Peter Hildenbrand pipped Dixon for the bronze medal.

The following year, 1977, Quax broke the record for 5000 metres, running 13:12.9 seconds in Stockholm , Sweden.

Record at risk

Quax's record may be scrubbed under a proposal by the European Athletics Council to sweep away world bests set before 1991.

The intent is good but the execution seems unworkable. The aim is to boost the credibility of world records by removing those set when drug testing was poor or non-existent. It was originally to be all track and field records before 2005, the year blood and urine samples began to be stored for future testing, but after an outcry it was pushed back to 1991, the year out-of-competition testing began.

Quax understands the rationale but would be unhappy if his record was dumped and believes other Kiwis who set world records would be too.

"In some events it certainly has merit but I would be pretty aggrieved if they scrapped my world record because I know it was not chemically enhanced and it was not done with blood doping.

"It was done through sheer hard work and what I term a technological advantage that New Zealand athletes had through the Arthur Lydiard system of training that we followed very carefully from the 1950s."

Dick Quax breaks the world 5000 metre record, Stockholm, 1977. A photo taken from New Zealand running legend and Olympic Silver medallist Dick Quax's scrapbook. Photo / Mike Scott
Dick Quax breaks the world 5000 metre record, Stockholm, 1977. A photo taken from New Zealand running legend and Olympic Silver medallist Dick Quax's scrapbook. Photo / Mike Scott

"I trained with John Walker. I know how hard he worked. I know how hard Peter Snell worked. No 800 metre runner had trained like Snell did."

Most physiologists were slow to accept Lydiard's method and that, says Quax, gave those who followed it an advantage.

Quax began to run the magical 100 miles per week in training while still at high school and later in his career pushed that to as much as 150 miles during the build-up phase of training.

"I didn't realise we were going through a revolution. It was just that everyone in New Zealand seemed to be doing that sort of training. I thought, 'OK, that must be what you have to do in order to do any good'.

"That kind of training had a lot of influence on Australians too; two small countries using a revolutionary training regime."

Quax, centre, running in the Auckland Domain in the 1970s with England's Dave Bedford, left, and an unknown athlete. From Quax's scrapbook. Photo / Mike Scott
Quax, centre, running in the Auckland Domain in the 1970s with England's Dave Bedford, left, and an unknown athlete. From Quax's scrapbook. Photo / Mike Scott

During the 1960s Kiwi runners won Olympic gold medals in the 800m, 1500m and 5000m and placed third in the marathon.

Records tainted by doping is a complex problem and Quax understands the temptation to wipe old marks in events such as the women's shot put. "Valerie Adams for example is very hard done by because I think she is the best natural shot putter that the world has ever seen and she will never hold the world record."

Valerie Adams was promoted following the disqualification for doping of Nadzeya Ostapchuk of Belarus, at the London Olympics. Photo / Andrew Cornaga, photosport.co.nz
Valerie Adams was promoted following the disqualification for doping of Nadzeya Ostapchuk of Belarus, at the London Olympics. Photo / Andrew Cornaga, photosport.co.nz

The spectre of blood doping

The 1976 Montreal 5000 metre result attracted debate about blood doping. The winner, Viren, had a phenomenal record at the Olympics but his form was otherwise patchy.

Viren won the 5000m and 10,000m at both the 1972 and 1976 Olympic Games and held the 5000m record five years before Quax lowered the time.

There was a lot of talk in 1976, Quax recalls, and "the Finns were the ones people seemed to be pointing the finger at".

Subsequent admissions by Finnish athletes - 1972 Munich Olympics steeplechaser Mikko Ala-Leppilampi, and Kaarlo Maaninka, silver and bronze at the 1980 Moscow Olympics - show that blood transfusions were used by some Finns during the 1970s.

Transfusions improve endurance by boosting the blood's capacity to transport oxygen - a practice that was considered morally questionable at the time but which was not banned until 1985.

At the time of the 1976 Olympics the fight against drugs in sport was in its infancy and amphetamines and steroids were seen as the enemy. Blood doping was at the cutting edge.

Viren emulated Lydiard's high-mileage regime and used altitude training camps in his preparation. Whether he also used blood transfusions is a question unlikely to be satisfactorily answered. Viren, who was later elected to parliament, has always said he did not.

At a press conference at the 1976 Olympics, Viren famously quipped via an interpreter that his only secret was "reindeer milk".

Dick Quax with Rod Dixon before the start of the 1976 Olympic Games 5000 metre final. Photo / AP
Dick Quax with Rod Dixon before the start of the 1976 Olympic Games 5000 metre final. Photo / AP

Quax: "We know from confessions from certain Finnish athletes that there was blood doping going on in the 1970s, and I was told by a Finnish official that he is aware of the hospital where [some] Finnish athletes were being blood doped.

"It was an option that would enhance performance but it wasn't illegal at the time."

The Finnish official confirmed to the Herald that he was told of the hospital where blood manipulations were done on athletes but said he did not know whether Viren was involved.

As a country, Finland has a poor record regarding doping, particularly blood manipulation. Several of the country's biggest Winter Olympics stars made admissions in 2001 after a medical bag packed with syringes, needles and drugs used to boost red blood-cell counts was inadvertently left at a service station near Helsinki airport. The bag belonged to the Finnish Ski Association.

Like father like son

Quax's son, Theo, 18, is following in his father's footsteps. He is among New Zealand's best emerging middle-distance runners. His goal for the summer is to post a time to qualify for the 1500 metres at the World U-20 championships in Finland in July.

Theo is coached by his father. Despite his ongoing battle with cancer, Quax can be found at trackside calling splits or riding a mountain bike as his son taps out the kilometres.

Quax, who has been an event organiser and promoter and is an Auckland councillor, has head and neck cancer which has spread to his lungs and brain but is responding to treatment. His illness hasn't changed his outlook, he says, but the future is not something he takes for granted.

"I have been battling cancer for about four years. It's tough but I'm not dying from cancer, I'm living with cancer. I've had surgery, quite a bit of radiation, I've had chemotherapy, I've gone through treatment with Keytruda, so I've pretty much run the gamut of treatments."

Lung and brain lesions have shrunk with treatment. In all, he estimates he has had 120 radiation treatments.

Quax, who has a daughter and two sons, is pragmatic by nature but his voice betrays his emotions when he speaks of milestones he would like to see.

"My attitude to life is pretty much the same as it always has been. You appreciate it a lot more. I want to see my son, Theo, run a sub-4 minute mile, make sure that he gets to a good school in the United States, further his education and further his athletics career.

Dick Quax, pictured with his son Theo, is against the ICC proposal to strip athletic records achieved prior to 1991. Photo / Mike Scott
Dick Quax, pictured with his son Theo, is against the ICC proposal to strip athletic records achieved prior to 1991. Photo / Mike Scott

"He's doing real well. He's a good runner. I'm very proud of him and what he has done so far. He's got really good speed and he's starting to develop his endurance very well too."

Quax's cancer was caused by the HPV human papilloma virus which most sexually active adults have. His luck has been rotten.

"In about 1 per cent of cases it turns into cancer. You get a bit unlucky to have that happen. Then, 80 per cent of neck and head cancer is cured - clear for five years. For about 5 to 10 per cent, it goes to the lungs which has happened with me, so percentages mean absolutely nothing to me any more."

The fastest kid in Claremont

Quax went to Claremont Public School in the town of Claremont, 10 kilometres west of Timaru. Named after the biggest farm in the area, it is on the road to Cave and Albury which are on the road to Fairlie and Tekapo.

"Timaru is where my family first landed from Holland. The school is no longer there [it was closed in 2004] and there are no Quaxes there either."

It is where Quax discovered he could run. "I think everybody runs at some stage. At school, even primary school, they have an athletics day. I remember I wasn't allowed to run the 800 metres because I was too young. It was suggested I go up against the school champion before the proper school event just to give him a bit of a race, and I beat him.

"It's hard to know whether running ability was in the family. My dad was a strong robust character. But he grew up in the Depression and lived in Holland during the German invasion so he didn't get much chance to play sport.

"One of the things that really turned me on to the sport was dad taking me to watch a big meeting in Auckland when I was 14.

"We were living in the Waikato then. We left late after milking cows and we got lost on the way to Western Springs and we arrived to see the last five or six laps of the 10,000 metres. It just made such an impression, the huge crowd, the black track and all these guys in their colourful uniforms."

Things got serious at Hamilton Boys' High. Lydiard's first book, Run To The Top, with its high-mileage philosophy, had just come out. "There were probably four or five in the school who were running about 100 miles a week as 16 and 17-year-olds and we were unbeatable in cross country because of that. I don't think anyone ever said to me that I shouldn't do that but whether it was wise to run that much so young, well, I wouldn't give Theo that much mileage."

The best race I ever ran

There are multiple highlights but a world record is the pinnacle.

"You have a career which goes for about 12 years and it starts off by winning the junior national championships, or a Commonwealth Games or beating [reigning Olympic 1500 metre champion at Mt Smart in 1970] Kip Keino and breaking the four-minute mile, running at the Olympics, breaking a world record, running my first marathon in the fastest debut ever.

"The Olympics, that was a great race but at the same time there is the disappointment that I didn't win it. I'm proud that I broke the world 5000 metre record because that is an Olympic record. There has only been three New Zealanders who have ever broken a world record for an Olympic distance: Jack Lovelock, Peter Snell and myself.

"World records are the pinnacle. If you run 100m or 5000m faster than anyone else has ever run in the world, on that day you have climbed a mountain that no one else has ever climbed."


Kiwi world record breakers (recognised by the IAAF):

Jack Lovelock, 1 mile, 1500m

Dorren Lumley, 100 yards

Yvette Williams, long jump

Marise Chamberlain, 440 yards,

Murray Halberg, 2 miles , 3 miles

Murray Halberg, Gary Philpott, Barry Magee, Peter Snell, 4 x 1 mile

Bill Baillie, 20,000m , 1 hour

Peter Snell, 880 yards, 800m, 1000m, 1500m

Kevin Ross, Tony Polhill, Richard Tayler, Dick Quax, 4 x 1 mile relay

John Walker, 1 mile, 2000m

Dick Quax, 5000m

Anne Audain, 5000m

https://teara.govt.nz/en/interactive/39915/athletics-world-records-set-by-new-zealanders