Australian athlete Merv Lincoln was a world class miler in the 1950’s who in 1958 became the second fastest ever over the distance, 3m. 55.9s, an accolade he retained for almost four years.
He won the US championship in 1957,was silver medallist at the 1958 Cardiff Empire[Commonwealth] Games and claimed his own national title in 1959. There is no doubt he would have collected many more honours had he not suffered the misfortune that his career coincided with two of the greatest milers of all time, fellow countrymen John Landy and the incomparable Herb Elliott. His rivalry particularly with Elliott was enthralling and created huge public interest.
Initially a promising tennis player at Melbourne University,Lincoln switched to track and first became noticed in 1955 when he ran very well against the famous Hungarian Sandor Iharos.Selected for the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, he was hindered by injury and could only finish 12th in the final, Landy coming in 3rd. He ran six times against world record holder Landy but never beat him.
With Landy retiring, the way seemed clear for Lincoln to assert his dominance in the Australian Championships of 1957, only to be usurped by the 19-year-old Elliott. Afterwards Lincoln commented ‘I got the greatest shock of my life ,Elliott looked as fresh as a daisy at the end. ‘However two weeks later he achieved his ambition of running a ‘four minute mile’ at Melbourne University track..He later remarked,’It was a beautiful day for running,no wind,and a packed crowd. I flew home over the last lap and then my time was announced,3m 58.9.” Pacemaker was a young Ron Clarke,later multiple world record holder.
In Los Angeles that summer he scored a notable success at the ‘Miracle Mile Run’ at the Coliseum Relays meeting in front of a 44,000 crowd before going on to set a record winning the US National title. Meanwhile Elliott’s career was also progressing to the point where by 1958 he had gained the upper hand,relegating Lincoln to second place behind him in the American Championships and the Empire Games. The latter was to serve as an hors d’oeuvre for the wonderful mile race at Santry Stadium,Dublin a month later.
Local favourite and Olympic champion Ron Delany was pitted against Aussies Elliott,Lincoln,and Albie Thomas,Kiwi Murray Halberg and others. It seemed the whole of Dublin wanted to see this race as the city’s traffic was gridlocked and over 20,000 crammed into the 17,000 capacity stadium.It did not disappoint. Lincoln moved into the lead in the 3rd lap maintaining it through the bell till Elliott pulled away to win, shattering the world record with Lincoln also beating it, finishing second in 3m 55.9. The race yielded five sub 4 minute miles,the first time ever. Afterwards Lincoln,reflecting on his inability to better Elliott said to Delany,”I might as well take up tennis!”
Although there were a few narrow defeats, the closest was in a race in Perth when both Elliott and he were given the same time but the judges favoured Elliot. Their rivalry was built up by the media who often referred to Lincoln as the ‘eternal second. ’It was also stoked by their coaches, Franz Stampfl and Percy Cerutty, two occasionally antagonistic and very different individuals with distinct coaching methods. Lincoln’s coach, Stampfl,stated,”Wherever Elliott goes, Lincoln will go too,as his shadow, till he defeats him.” However,Lincoln never did beat Elliott but could take consolation that no one else ever did either.
He was never bitter about being second to Landy and Elliott. He once stated,”What I think is important is what you feel you got out of it and what it did for you as a person. It was a privilege to run against them.”
Born in Leongatha south of Melbourne to a family in modest circumstances, he was mostly brought up in Wodonga in north east Victoria where in 2000 he ran with the Olympic torch prior to the Sydney Games and where he is commemorated through the Lincoln Causeway. His youth was marred by illness which he fought against with characteristic determination. An aunt secured him a scholarship leading to his studying at Melbourne University and becoming a teacher. In 1959 he married Dawn Tangambalanga with whom he enjoyed a long marriage .
He returned to Melbourne University to undertake a PhD in accountancy and insolvency risk after which in the early 1980’s he set up his own investment analysis business, Lincoln Indicators. This grew to be a very successful company employing many. In 1997 he retired as managing director, son Tim replacing him.
Lincoln was highly regarded in all walks of life. Some years ago, Landy remarked, ”All in all, Merv is a great guy.”Elliott recalled,”The closest I ever came to losing a mile was against Merv when I beat him by inches in Perth, after the judges conferred for five minutes. He was a fine athlete and a fine bloke. ”A wake is to be held for Lincoln next week at the Melbourne track where he ran his first sub four minute mile.