Brian RoeFEW athletes have made such a diverse impact on their sport as the great Ron Clarke, who died aged 78 on Wednesday.
During a period of much sporting success for Australia in the 1960s, the lanky distance runner became a national hero because he oozed greatness, even though the ultimate measure of achievement at the time, an Olympic gold medal, eluded him.
His 17, 18 or 19 world records – depending on how pedantic you want to be – were set in the space of just under five years. Some of the times remain competitive today despite massive improvements in shoes, tracks and, of course, pacemaking skills.
Clarke was to have been a guest at the 50th anniversary celebrations of the famous Bislett Games in Oslo two weeks ago but he was too ill to attend.
The organisers wanted him there because they believed he, more than any other athlete, ensured their meet grew to become the iconic event it is.
For as much as the Australian was famous for breaking record after record, he was above all an entertainer.
With track and field an amateur bastion in every sense, few athletes saw the point in putting on a show. They were intent simply on trying to win or produce a new personal best – and if that happened to be interesting for someone else, so be it.
Clarke, however, got the other side of the story.
As Arne Kvalheim, the Bislett president observed earlier this month, “he sold an enormous number of tickets for us”.
Bislett is an alliance of Oslo’s athletics clubs. They have been the beneficiaries of a hugely successful meeting, born out of Clarke’s fabulous 10,000 metres world record of 27:39.4 set at a competition on their track a year before their first edition.
Clarke was successful at everything he turned to – on and off the track, including in the twilight of his life an eight-year stint as mayor of the Gold Coast.
But he also wanted his sport to be successful.
He penned columns in the media, commentated on radio and television and was a prolific writer of books. Just about everyone involved in Australian athletics in the 1970s had a copy of his book, Successful Athletics.
Clarke never held back. That book, for example, had 40 short, sharp lessons on every event in the sport.
In the preface, he explained that he wanted the book to be read and enjoyed without the scientific mumbo-jumbo. He thought the latter was just plain confusing.
The book also contained a section on the “for and against” of a young athlete having a coach.
He was opinionated but even more passionate. He found countless ways to try to make athletics in Australia more successful, through working for the leading shoe company of the time, setting up a chain of new-age gymnasiums and eventually the training centre at Runaway Bay, complete with it eco-housing for the visiting athletes.
He advised and helped countless Australian athletes and coaches behind the scenes.
Regardless of the outcome of the debate on whether he or Herb Elliott is our greatest male runner of all time to date, Clarke’s formidable list of complementary achievements off the track sets him in a class of his own.
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