Melbourne, AustraliaA charismatic Czech, a boiling hot day in Adelaide, a German-born refugee who arrived in Australia on the eve of World War II – these were all influences on the establishment of the Emil Zatopek 10,000 metres which will be run for the 50th consecutive year in Melbourne on Thursday (8) night.
The Czech was the late Emil Zatopek, whom Australians Percy Cerutty, Les Perry and Bob Prentice met at the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games. Zatopek inspired the world with his great Olympic treble, and inspired the Australians with his willingness to engage with them as equals.
Cerutty, Perry and Prentice were all early office-holders in the Victorian Marathon Club (VMC), which set up the Zatopek 10,000 metres as its club championship in 1961.
The blazing hot day was 5 February 1955 in Adelaide. Competitors in the six miles at the national championships, led by World record holder Dave Stephens, refused to run at the scheduled 1pm start time. The temperature was over 40 degrees Celsius.
The race was eventually put back to 6pm. One of the objectives of the VMC became to get distance races run in cooler conditions.
The refugee was Fred Lester, the VMC secretary for 30 years. The Zatopek race was instituted during his time in charge.
Lester was famous for treating all athletes equally - absolutely equally. He once returned an Olympian’s Zatopek entry because it missed the cut-off by a few hours.
If several elements combined to establish the Zatopek 10,000 it took just one man - Ron Clarke – to elevate the race to a world-class event.
Two World records for Clarke in 1963
Clarke’s first two wins were nothing special, but in 1963 he set World records for six miles and 10,000m, the first two of what would become a personal tally of 18.
Clarke’s wife Helen had the family car that day, so he walked to the track from work and caught the train home where Helen was organising a farewell party for a close friend.
“I broke two world records tonight,” Clarke told her when he eventually arrived.
“That’s nice,” replied Helen. “Now make yourself useful and take this plate of sandwiches round.”
Clarke, who is now lord mayor of the Gold Coast, flew to Melbourne for a 50th anniversary dinner on Zatopek race eve. He recalled what those first records meant to him.
“I was very close to Les Perry when he and Fred Lester created the Zatopek,” Clarke told the dinner. “So I committed absolutely to the 1963 race and trained especially for it. I owe it to Les and Fred to be at the 50th anniversary.”
Clarke has won five of the 50 Zatopek men’s races run. Three others – Steve Moneghetti, race record holder Luke Kipkosgei and Andrew Lloyd – have won four times.
Event brought Australian distance running ‘back to the track’
Moneghetti is ‘Mr Zatopek:10’, if any man deserves that title. He has run the race 20 times in all and finished third as recently as 2003.
“(The Zatopek is) significant because it’s a stand-alone feature,” Moneghetti said. “To wrap a whole meeting around a 10km track race is a bit unusual.”
Moneghetti said that through the Marathon exploits of Derek Clayton, Robert de Castella, himself and Lisa Ondieki, Australia’s focus switched to the roads.
“The Zatopek race brought us back to the track,” Moneghetti told the dinner, “and I think you see the consequences of that with ‘Buster’ (Craig Mottram) and Collis (Birmingham).”
Kipkosgei’s influence can be seen from the race statistics.
Three of Kipkosgei’s four wins remain the three fastest times run in the men’s race. Four more of the next five fastest were run behind him.
In 1996, 1997 and 1998, Kipkosgei closed out the year with times that put him among the top-10 performers and performances.
He is not finished yet. Kipkosgei will run this year’s race and says he is in “sub-28” shape. He would need to be to take on 2010’s fastest man, Josphat Menjo, and Australians Collis Birmingham and Ben St Lawrence.
On the women’s side, Susie Power’s race record 31:26.34 was the fourth-fastest time in the world in 2001.
Andrew Lloyd, the other four-time winner of the men’s race, used the Zatopek 10,000 to make the transition from ‘fun runs’, as road races were known in Australia, to the track.
Lloyd, ‘the fun run king’, won in 1981, 1984, 1986 and 1987. His battles with Moneghetti were memorable, front-runner v kicker classics with first Lloyd, then Moneghetti, claiming the ascendancy.
The women’s race began in 1976. For three years the ‘winner’ was the fastest woman in the various grades. Joan Logan won two races on this basis then set an Australian record in winning the first stand-alone women’s race in 1979.
The 1991 women’s race was one of the best in Zatopek history as 1988 Olympic finalist Carolyn Schuwalow won in a national record. Behind her, Jenny Lund, Susan Hobson and Krishna Stanton became the second, third and fourth-fastest Australian women.
Final edition at Olympic Park
The Zatopek remains the benchmark for Australian distance running. Frequently, it is one of the world’s best. This year’s races are for the national championships.
Clarke, Lisa Ondieki, Bill Scott, Schuwalow, Mottram, Kerryn McCann, Birmingham and Power - all have run, and won, the Zatopek race. International winners include Kenyans Gabriel Kamau and men’s race record-holder Luke Kipkosgei, Sonia O’Sullivan (Ireland) and Galen Rupp (USA).
In a night redolent with history, the 50th Zatopek will be the last at Olympic Park. The stadium, which has seen the best of John Landy, Herb Elliott, Ron Clarke, Betty Cuthbert and Cathy Freeman over its time, will become a training ground for an Australian Rules football team.
The IAAF World Challenge meeting and the 2010-11 Australian championships will be staged at Olympic Park before its mid-2011 closure. Athletics is moving to a new complex at nearby Albert Park.
Len Johnson for the IAAF