Obituary: Laszlo Tabori, middle-distance runner whose career was affected by the Hungarian Revolution

Hungarian-American athlete Laszlo Tabori (28) leads the field, followed by Michel Jazy (16) during the one mile race, at the Amateur Athletics Championships at White City stadium in London, 1960. (Photo by Ed Lacey/Popperfoto/Getty Images)
Hungarian-American athlete Laszlo Tabori (28) leads the field, followed by Michel Jazy (16) during the one mile race, at the Amateur Athletics Championships at White City stadium in London, 1960. (Photo by Ed Lacey/Popperfoto/Getty Images)
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Laszlo Tabori, athlete. Born 6 July 1931. Died: 23 May 2018, aged 86.

Hungarian athlete Laszlo Tabori who has died in the United States, aged 86, was one of the world’s top middle distance runners of the 1950s and early 60s.

The third man ever to run a four minute mile following Sir Roger Bannister and John Landy, he also set records at world, European, American and British level. Had it not been for the Hungarian Revolution, which occurred prior to the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and which effectively prevented his participation in the 1960 Rome Olympics, he would almost certainly have won a medal.

Here he is especially remembered for his outstanding ­performances in the summer of 1960 at the Rangers Sports at Ibrox and the Edinburgh Highland Games at Murrayfield. Surprising though it may sound now, at the time these were two of the top athletics meetings in Britain and ­regularly attracted top ­Olympic athletes.

Tabori was competing throughout Europe that ­summer, winning all his ­races. His first stop in Scotland was to compete in the mile at Ibrox on 6 August, with one press report noting how in training beforehand ‘he cut a colourful figure in a canary yellow outfit’.

It was hoped he might dip under the four minute mark against a quality field that included England’s former world record holder Derek Ibbotson, who had set a Scottish record there in 1958.

Hopes were high when he led at the bell in under three minutes but the anticipated challenge never materialised and he won comfortably in just over four minutes, the second fastest mile ever run in ­Scotland.

Two weeks later he ran at Murrayfield, having in the intervening period won the famous Emsley Carr mile in London, defeating Anglo Scot Mike Beresford, later to become the first Scottish sub four minute miler.

To assist with crowd ­management, 50 special buses had been laid on to ferry spectators to and from Murrayfield where he ran in the two mile event. The card was packed with top quality athletes including West Indian Olympic medallists Keith Gardner and George Kerr, the Indian athlete Milka Singh, known as ‘the Flying Sikh’, Empire Games gold medallist, the Pakistani Olympic team and 14 British Olympians.

Beforehand Tabori trained at New Meadowbank, ­commenting that the track was ‘a ­particularly good one’.

In what The Scotsman described as ‘one of the most stirring races for many years’, his main opposition was future European champion Bruce Tulloh, with the two running stride for stride till the last lap when despite Tabori’s final burst he was pipped at the post by his rival.

Both were given the same time, a new Scottish All Comers record and an American one for Tabori.

His final appearance in Scotland was in the mile at Rangers’ floodlit meeting a month later where, exhausted from his previous day’s racing in Dublin, he was edged into third by Scottish champion Graham Everett.

His name is always linked with two other legendary Hungarian runners, Sandor Iharos and Istvan Rozsavolgyi, whom he partnered to world records in the 4 x 1500m relay.

Initially he was in the shade of his compatriots until on 28 May 1955 in London, he became the third man to break the four minute barrier setting a European record and beating Chris Chataway and Brian ­Hewson, who also ran under four ­minutes, the first time three runners had achieved the feat in one race. Three months later in Oslo he equalled the 1500m world record, the ‘metric mile’.

Tabori was now one of the favourites for Olympic gold in Melbourne but the Hungarian Revolution caused him ­considerable difficulties in the build up, despite which he did well to finish 4th in the 1500m and 6th in the 5,000m. He commented later: “We competed but our mind was not there.”

Tabori chose not to return home because of the political situation and defected to the United States, initially sponsored by Sports Illustrated magazine. At the time,Tabori knew two words of English, one was ‘pancake’ and the other an expletive. ­Initially, he worked as a ­janitor while learning ­English in the evening and settled in the Los Angeles area, where he successfully resumed his running career. Hoping to compete in the Rome ­Olympics, he was not permitted as he was ­considered a ‘stateless person’ due to not yet having obtained US citizenship, a huge blow.

Born Laszlo Talabirsuk in Kosice, then in Slovakia, to Ferenc and Anna, he was the younger brother of Elizabeth and Marika.

He was brought up in ­Abaujszanto in Hungary where his father was station master. During the war he experienced hardship and developed survival skills. He used to joke that he ran his first four minute mile fleeing German and Russian soldiers. His first love was football but while doing military service his running talent was spotted and he joined Honved, the army sports club in Budapest.

In 1962, in California, he ­married Hungarian-born Kata Preszburger, whom he had met in the States, and the ­couple enjoyed more than 40 years together until Kata’s death in 2005. They had two daughters, Gabrielle and Ildiko.

Later, he married Laurie Kilchin and continued living in Los Angeles. After retiring from competition in 1962, he worked as a mechanical engineer and opened his own sports shop, at the same time coaching successfully, especially female marathon runners.

He was honoured to carry the Olympic torch for the Los Angeles Games and was a special guest at the London Olympics, having been previously given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the International Olympic Committee. He is survived by his wife, daughters and grandchildren, Mari, Nicolas and Izabella.