WHEN Ron Clarke, who has died at the age of 78, was hailed as Australia’s greatest-ever athlete yesterday, the Scot who denied him his last chance of a gold medal repeated the words of consolation he’d offered at the finish line: “I’m really sorry to have done this to you because you were my idol.”
Lachie Stewart stunned the running world – and most of all Clarke – when he triumphed in the 10,000 metres at the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh. It was one of Scottish sport’s most thrilling and joyous days, but it ruined Clarke’s dream of finishing his career atop a podium after proving himself to be the undisputed champion of world records.
Stewart was in the dark room of his camera club in Dumbarton when The Scotsman told him of Clarke’s passing. “I’m sad to hear about that because Ron was a hero of mine, as he was to every athlete who was around at that time,” he said. “I remember seeing him in the Games Village in Edinburgh in the lead-up to our race. I didn’t speak to him – I didn’t think I was worthy! It’s not that Ron was aloof but he definitely had an aura, a bit like that of a film star. Everyone admired him because of everything he’d achieved. He just kept piling up all those records.”
In all, Clarke set 17 world records, 12 of them coming during an astonishing 44-day tour of European tracks in 1965.
“He was brilliant at running against the clock,” added Stewart. “If you look back at those races, I bet you’d find that the guy who came second was 20 or 30 seconds behind. Ron would just clear out the rest of the field.
“He ran magnificent times but when he was up against someone who was capable of staying with him until the end of a race then he didn’t always give of his best.”
Such a man in 1970 was Stewart, who celebrates his 72nd birthday next Monday. Perhaps if the great Aussie had access to the old cine film which our man was yesterday transferring onto DVD then he could have detected the threat Stewart might pose him. The footage shows the Vale of Leven prodigy competing in a Clydebank-to-Helensburgh road race, an event somewhat further down 1966’s athletics itinerary than that year’s Commonwealth Games in Kingston. Clarke returned to Australia with two silver medals, to add to the one he collected from the ’62 Commonwealths and the bronze from the ’64 Tokyo Olympics.
Jamaica’s intense heat had been a problem for Clarke. Two years later at the next Olympics he was unprepared for Mexico City’s high altitude and came close to blacking out in the 10,000m. Virtually unconscious, he staggered to the finish in sixth place. Scotland’s capital was to throw a snell wind and lashing rain at him – and Stewart.
“I first met him the year before Edinburgh down at White City. We didn’t speak to each other – he won’t have known who I was,” added the Scot. Clarke must surely have noted the name when Stewart finished second behind him in a 5,000m, although on the opening day of the Friendly Games, running on Meadowbank’s revolutionary synthetic “tartan track”, he was powerless to withstand Stewart’s sensational sprint finish.
“Just over 200 metres to go and the world record-holder leads!” roared the BBC’s Dave Coleman. But the commentator’s next words would be: “And it’s Stewart who comes away!” The glory his, Stewart tendered his apology to Clarke. “He smiled but I could tell he was gutted.”
As the three medalists – England’s Dick Taylor took bronze – discussed the race afterwards, The Scotsman’s John Rafferty noted that the other two having lost, and especially athletics aristocrat Clarke, seemed the bigger story for the pressmen.
“If one were to judge by their faces,” wrote Rafferty, “Clarke and Taylor might have dead-heated for gold. Stewart, obviously, had the bronze.” “It’s true, most of the questions went to the other guys,” said Stewart. “They were the big names, I was only a wee Scot. Then I got asked why I’d taken up running. ‘Because I got fed up going to the pictures’, I said, which got a laugh. ‘Why hadn’t I made a break during the race?’ someone wondered. ‘Because I wasn’t invited’, I said.
Stewart reckoned Clarke and Taylor had been “in cahoots” to try to kill off the rest of the field. Meadowbank mythology has it that somewhere on those final four laps, the Englishman warned Clarke about Stewart’s speedy finish. “And Ron’s supposed to have replied: ‘Uh-oh, another sitter’. But at least Dick knew what I could do. During his commentary David Coleman had said that none of us was particularly fast. If he’d done his homework he’d have known I’d never been beaten over the last 100m.”
In the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Clarke carried the torch into the stadium during the opening ceremony – then, without a ticket for the 103,000 sell-out, took the bus to his uncle’s house to watch the first races on TV. In Australia’s national championships that year, he tripped during the 1,500m and was accidentally spiked by John Landy who stopped to help him – an act of sportsmanship that many would claim has never been surpassed.
Clarke was eventually presented with an Olympic gold – one of four won by Emil Zatopek, with the Czechoslovak legend telling him: “Look after this, you deserve it.” Opening the package in a toilet at Prague airport, he burst into tears. A former Gold Coast mayor, he played a leading role in bringing the next Commonwealth Games to Queensland. “He was a great man,” added Stewart.