Melbourne’s 55th annual Zatopek meeting on Saturday (5) kicked off with a strawberry party, in homage to the part played by Australian distance running legend Ron Clarke in establishing Oslo’s famous pre-meeting ritual.
There was plenty of cream, too, but Clarke, who passed away earlier this year, would have been most pleased with the extra dollop added by Eloise Wellings when she bettered the Olympic 10,000m qualifying standard and became the first individual Australian to clinch a place in the team for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
Wellings, 33, also became the first recipient of the Ron Clarke medal, struck by Athletics Australia as a perpetual trophy for the winners of the men’s and women’s 10,000m national championships.
Most years, in recent times, the championship has been decided at the annual Zatopek race and Wellings won her third Zatopek, and fourth national, title in 32:02.61, the second fastest time of her career over 25 laps of the track.
David McNeill, winner of the men’s race in 28:03.69, will also be in the Rio team as he achieved the qualifying time in the USA back in May.
It was McNeill’s second Zatopek win, having previously won in 2008 and it will be his second Olympic team.
Clarke, who loved his strawberries and cream, would have been doubly delighted.
The Bislett Games strawberry party, one of the most charming aspects of one of athletics’ most famous meetings, which is now also part of the IAAF Diamond League, had its genesis in 1966, the year after Clarke ran his fabulous 27:39.4 10,000m world record in a race which even the organisers tried to talk him out of running.
The following year, Clarke was back in Oslo. Race director Arne Haukvik invited him to dinner, his wife inquiring of Helen Clarke what she should offer for dessert.
“Strawberries and cream,” was the answer, so strawberries and cream it was, for the Clarke family and for the media representatives who had been invited along to interview Ron.
The function grew and grew.
For a long time it remained a garden party at Haukvik’s home but eventually it out-grew that venue and now it is staged at Oslo’s City Hall, with admission prized just below a ticket for the meeting.
The Clarke family home in Heathmont, in Melbourne’s outer eastern suburbs, was where Clarke returned to running as a senior after taking a break from the sport following a halcyon junior career.
Les Perry was one of his neighbours, and the 1952 and 1956 Olympian encouraged Clarke back to the sport.
It is an ideal location for running, but perhaps Clarke had an ulterior motive for purchasing there as it is just a short drive to Ferny Creek, which is not only his famous training venue but also close to the strawberry farms in the surrounding hills.
The Clarke medal, too, links back to Clarke and Zatopek:10 history.
The Victorian Marathon Club, founded by Percy Cerutty and with Perry and his 1952 Olympic teammates among its initial members, gained much from the inspiration of Zatopek in Helsinki.
Another famous Australian runner, John Landy, had observed the Czech's hard training and came back to Australia with a renewed drive and determination which ignited the chase to break the four minute barrier for the mile.
When the club established its annual 10,000m track championship in 1961 it was inevitably named after their hero: so was born the Emil Zatopek 10,000m.
The Victorian Marathon Club staged the race for 30 years before it was disbanded in the early 1990s but such was the prestige of the Zatopek race by then that it continued under the auspices of various organisers, and the Victorian and Australian athletics associations.
When Athletics Australia and Athletics Victoria wondered how to commemorate Clarke, the natural instinct to rename the race was quickly ruled out, given its history under the Zatopek banner.
So the idea of the medal came about, which will remain with the national title in the unlikely event the championship is celebrated at another event other than the Zatopek.
It is the only Australian national title to have a special medal struck.
Zatopek famously gifted one of his Olympic gold medals to Clarke, and now Clarke has gifted a medal to the winners of the race named in Zatopek’s honour.
Len Johnson for the IAAF