Obituary: Ron Clarke MBE

Ronald William Clarke MBE, runner, businessman and politician. Picture: Getty
Ronald William Clarke MBE, runner, businessman and politician. Picture: Getty
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WORLD record-setting runner whose final triumph was at the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games in 1970

Ronald William Clarke MBE, runner, businessman and politician.

Born: 21 February, 1937, in Melbourne, Australia.

Died: 17 June, 2015, in Southport, Queensland, aged 78.

Ron Clarke was one of the most famous middle and long-distance runners from the 1950s until his retirement from racing in 1970. He was known for setting at least 17 world records – he claimed 19 – but who was never able to convert his track dominance to an Olympic or Commonwealth gold medal.

In later life he was a successful businessman and became Mayor of the Gold Coast in Queensland, being instrumental in that city’s winning the right to host the 2018 Commonwealth Games in succession to Glasgow.

It was at the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh in 1970 that Clarke won the last of his four Commonwealth medals. Despite an interrupted training schedule, at the age of 33 Clarke insisted on competing at Meadowbank, coming fifth in the 5,000m behind the Scots duo of Ian Stewart and Ian McCafferty.

He had run the fastest time in the world for 10,000m that year but as so often happened to him, on a rain-sodden track he was pipped near the finishing line by an opponent who was slower on paper but better in the race on the day – in this case Lachie Stewart, the 27-year-old dental technician from the Vale of Leven in West Dunbartonshire.

Stewart said afterwards that he was sorry that it had been Clarke that he had to beat, and that shows the measure of respect in which Clarke was held by his fellow athletes.

Ron Clarke was born on 21 February, 1937, in Melbourne. He attended Essendon High School and then Melbourne High School. He came from a sporting family; his brother Jack played with the Australian rules football side Essendon, and was captain from 1958 to 1964.

His father Tom had also played for Essendon, and was later club vice-president, but he encouraged his son in his running at which he had begun to show great promise while still at school. By the ago of 17 he had already set numerous age group records. His running was set aside, however, as he went off to do his national service, being chosen to light the flame at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics as a consolation.

Almost incredibly, Clarke then stepped aside from serious running as he combined his studies to become a qualified accountant, while playing Australian Rules football. He was a more than passable player, too, and had it not been for a serious hand injury he might well have stayed in the game.

After marrying Helen in 1959 – she would be his strong support and they would stay together until his death – Clarke concentrated on his new accountancy job and went back to running, largely as the result of a house move that meant he had more time in his working day. He also began what became his tradition of running between 17 and 22 miles on a Sunday morning.

By late 1961 he was taking part in state and national championships and qualified for the Australian team for the 1962 Commonwealth Games in Perth, Western Australia. To his own surprise, Clarke won the silver medal in the six-mile event.

The following year he set national records aplenty, and decided he would try for the world record in the 10,000m.

Working out an unprecedented schedule of lap times, Clarke stuck rigidly to them and in an event named for the great Czech runner Emil Zatopek at Sydney, Clarke broke both the six miles and 10,000m record.

He was now favourite for the 10,000m at the 1964 Tokyo 
Olympics, but he could only finish third to gain his only Olympic record.

Afterwards Clarke confessed that he did not have the confidence to assert control of the race, and that would be a repeated problem for him.

In 1965, realising he needed more race experience, he set off on a round-the-world tour which involved a complex set of arrangements to preserve his amateur status. There then followed an extraordinary spell in which he broke 12 world records in 44 days, first of all lowering his own 5,000m record to 13 minutes 25.2 seconds, a massive 7.8 seconds off the mark.

The next record to go was the Three Miles – distances had not been standardised in metres then – which he destroyed at the AAA meeting in London, running eight seconds faster than his own world record.

The most extraordinary performance came in Oslo, where the narrow oval track suited him perfectly. Both the Six Mile and 10,000m record fell to him in the same race, the latter being the first time the distance was run under 28 minutes, and a whole 34.6 seconds faster than his previous record.

Clarke’s televised efforts were watched by millions and he took the BBC Overseas Sports Personality of the Year award for 1965, and was appointed MBE in 1966.

By the time of the 1968 Mexico Olympics, Clarke’s times for the 5,000 and 10,000m were so far ahead of anybody else’s that he was considered unbeatable.

But the altitude defeated Clarke – he lasted with the pace until 3,000m to go in the longer race before finishing sixth and collapsing after the line. His doctor, Brian Corrigan, realising Clarke was in extremis, vaulted the moat and raced to him to apply life-saving oxygen. Incredibly, Clarke competed in the 5,000m a few days later but was an also-ran.

He did eventually gain an Olympic Gold medal. Emil Zatopek was such a fan of Clarke’s that he gave him one of his own, the 1952 10,000m gold, saying it was “not out of friendship but because you deserve it”.

The damage he sustained to his heart in Mexico resurfaced and he effectively finished his career after Edinburgh.

Retiring from competitive athletics, Clarke became a successful businessman and moved to Queensland, a state he always admired.

He wrote some well-received books on his career and life philosophy. From 2004 until 2012 he was Mayor of the Gold Coast, and was awarded the Order of Australia in 2013.

Ron Clarke is survived by Helen and their two sons, Marcus and Nicolas, and his grandchildren. His daughter, Monique, died from breast cancer in 2009.