Alastair Aitken
Alastair Aitken
Alastair Aitken's
Interviews and

John Whetton (Interview 1964 & 69 updated) April 2015

JOHN WHETTON, was never quite a household name in the way Roger Bannister & Derek Ibbotson were or Coe, Cram and Ovett, for that matter but, to my mind, he was one of the World’s Greatest Tacticians over the One mile/1500 in athletics history.

Regarding the British Milers Club. He ran in three British Milers Club City Charity mile races at Motspur Park. In 1965  he was 4th in 4:4.06; 1966 1st in 4:09.4 with Ray Roseman 2nd in 4:11.4 and in 1968 he was 2nd in 3:59.5 behind John Boulter (3:58.6). Not many know that if you fast forward to when he was 42, he ran 2:22 in the London Marathon.
Going back again to when he did the mile. His fastest was 3:57.8 on the White City cinders.

                    KING OF THE BOARDS

John Whetton never lost a 1500 or mile race indoors in Europe and also added another good result to his many victories indoors by winning the prestigious Wanamaker Mile in 1965, at the Millrose Games in New York, USA (4:05.4).
He was European Champion over 1500 in 1966, 67, and 68. AAA’s Indoor Champion over the mile in 1963, 64, 65, 66, 67 then, when it changed to 1500, he also won that in 1968.
         It was when he went to study at Manchester University he benefited greatly from training hard with Ron Hill. In fact they both gained a lot from each other. Speed endurance & long distance work came together for them.
It was while John was at Manchester he was able then to run close to some of the best cross-country Internationals in races. Take the British Universities cross country championships for one example. In 1963 in the snow at Coxstie Green, Brentwood, the first six home were 1 Tim Johnston (Cambridge) 34.49; 2 John Farrington (London) 34.49;, 3 Mike Turner (Cambrdge) 35:24; 4 Ron Hill (Manchester) 36:41; 5 John Whetton (Manchester) 36:53 and  sixth  international steeplechaser, John Jackson (Liverpool) 37:03.
         As a racer he started to show his great skill, as a tactician in the World University Games in Porto Alegre, Brazil in August 1963. He won in 3:49.5. Mamoru Morimoto of Japan had won the 800 Final in 1:48.1 and was the favourite for the 1500 Final. John said “On Paper” in the race I should have finished fourth. The race was a bit too slow up to the bell. On the last lap we were all in a bunch and I found myself out in Lane 4, going into the first bend and able to use my kick to advantage.”        
In the early 1960’s he considered Rotherham’s, Alan Simpson, was physically a better runner than him but nevertheless, they both won AAA’s Outdoor titles. Simpson in 1963. 64 and 65 and Whetton in 1968. It was in 1966 that Alan Simpson broke the UK mile record twice with 3:56.6 & 3:55.7.
         After Manchester Uni John had a post graduate course at Loughborough. He met coach Geoff Gowan and Robbie Brightwell, both had good advice for him but one must realise that John Whetton was his own man and not expressly coached by anyone but learnt things very quickly from such men.

OLYMPIC 1500 FINAL AT TOKYO On October 19th 1964:- 1 Peter Snell (New Zealand) 3:38.1; 2 Josef Odlozil (Czechoslovakia) 3:39.6; 3 John Davies (New Zealand) 3:39.6; 4 Alan Simpson (Great Britain) 3:39.7; 5 Dyrol Burleson (US) 3:40.0; 6 Witold Baran (Poland) 3:40.3; 7 Michel Bernard (France) 3:41.2; 8 JOHN WHETTON (Great Britain) 3:42.4; 9 Jean Wadoux (France) 3:45.4.
John Whetton:- “There were those who, when the team way announced, said ‘How on earth did Whetton get into the team? – I qualified through the heat and semi-final, and of course this was great, and at the same time it was a great shock to many that I had come from nothing early in 1964 into the Olympic Final; I was still unrecognised, even though I had won the World Student Games title.’
         “In Tokyo I was still a fairly young runner, and considerably weaker physically than I am today (1969) The semi-final was extremely fast, and I ran my fastest time to date - 3:39.4 - to qualify for the final. Two days later I had still not recovered from the semi-final; I was sluggish and very tired, and the last thing you need when you feel like that is to be bumped in a race.
“Just after the bell the field was altogether, and I had Peter Snell on my inside, blocked; Snell said ‘Can I come out’ putting his right arm in front of me - naturally I did not say either ‘yes’ or ‘no’, I continued my own race - and he barged me, knocking me back into lane three, this is where he got out for his breakaway, his ‘lucky break’, and went on to win the race. Having gained my balance, I was going back to join the pack when Micehl Barnard of France did the same thing, knocking me back into lane three, and so I felt somewhat dizzy and of course lost a lot of energy at that point and, just coming into the back-straight I got tangled-up with Alan Simpson, and this then put paid to my remaining energy which I used to merely keep my balance so I only finished eighth, but not too disappointedly”

JOHN DAVIES OF NEW ZEALAND spoke to me in London in 1966 and gave his personal perspective on that event.
“For some reason I felt elated that it was a guy like Josef Odlozil who had beaten me into third place in the Tokyo 1500; pleased that such a nice person had got the silver medal. A strange feeling perhaps, and a strange attitude that many would undoubtedly criticise.”
“That was the race that had given me most satisfaction. There I felt I had at last achieved something worthwhile, especially as I went there never thinking that I would gain a medal. The New Zealand press had already written me off saying “He will be a very lucky man to make the final line-up”, but I at least knew there was a good chance of me getting into that elite bunch. The semi-final was a bit of a nightmare to me, ending up a sprinter’s race. But, low and behold, though I regarded myself then as being far from a sprinter type, I ended up out sprinting the ‘known’ middle distance ‘sprinters’. Clocking 3:41.9 for third placing. When it came to the final line-up, I had already thought a great deal about the impending fight, and placed myself fourth, behind Snell, Burleson and Baran.”

The next big one for John Whetton was the Olympics in Mexico and this was the result AT MEXICO on the 20th of October, 1968 1 Kipchoge Keino(Kenya) 3:34.9 (An Olympic record). 2 Jim Ryun (USA) 3:37.8; 3 Bodo Tummler (West Germany) 3:39.0; 4 Harald Norpoth (West Germany) 3:42.5; 5 JOHN WHETTON (Great Britain) 3:43.8; 6 Jacques Boxberger (France) 3:46.6; 7 Henryk Szordykowski (Poland) 3:46.6; 8 Josef Odlozil (CZE) 3:48.6; 9 Tom Von Ruden (USA) 3:49.2; 10 Ben Jipcho (Kenya) 3:51.2; 11 Andre De Hertogue (Belgium) 3:53.6.
     Here John talks about JIM RYUN and what he thinks happened to him in the race
“Ryun is undoubtedly one of the greatest milers that have ever lived. In 1968 he had undoubtedly lost the confidence he once had, following his illness. I am convinced that the result might still have been the same, more especially at altitude where he thought it was impossible to run any faster than 3:39.0 for 1500 metres. If Ryun had showed the same tactics that I did in going with them - then he would have won and beaten Keino hands-down, With 300 yards to go in that race Ryun was still behind me - but by that point Keino was close on just 200 metres from the line.”

European Championships Final in Athens on the 18th of September, 1969, and I can remember the barmy, warm atmosphere, after coming away from the beach to the Stadium.
1 JOHN WHETTON (GB) 3:39.4; 2 Frank Murphy (Eire) 3:39.5; 3 Henryk Szordykowski (Pol) 3:39.8; 4 Edgard Salve (Bel) 3:39.9; 5 Andre De Hertoghe (Bel) 3:40.9; 6 Jean Wadoux (FR) 3:41.7; 7 Pavel Penkava (CSR) 3:42.7 8 Francesco Arese (Italy-who won in 1971) 3:41.7; 9 Pekka Vasala (Finland, the 1972 Olympic Champion) 3:44.1 and 10 Vladimir Pantyeley (SU) 3:45.0.
John Whetton “Not being amongst the favourites there will be no great expectations of me, and I’ll just run my normal race.’
           “Szordykowski was the man I thought would win. Arese would be second, but I was not sure of third. People said that Murphy would be the man to watch. During the early part of the race, when I felt that there were far too many in the race, things seemed to be going very well for me.’ Just keep relaxed and let things happen; for heaven’s sake don’t you be the one to make things happen; I said to myself. The race unfolded. At about 600 metres from home I started to move, and think about racing seriously then, at the bell, still hugging the inside curb, I moved up on the inside of someone into third place behind Murphy and Arese; Szordykowski was by my side. Down the back-straight with Murphy sill in the lead, Szordykowki had moved into second place and Arese now was next to me. I wanted to go, and could not hold myself - but I could not get out, Arese was still next to me.”
“I thought there is nothing you can do, just hang on’ and, going round the top-bend, feeling really good, completely relaxed and not tying-up when, suddenly it happened -Arese (I think) moved out and enabling me to nip through into a very commanding position - right behind Murphy. Just before we came off the bend I moved out slightly myself onto Murphy’s shoulder just waiting to pounce and, as I hit the straight -Bang! - I let everything go, and went away into the lead. ‘Good Heavens’, Me! I’m going to win! And all I could think about when coming down straight was ‘Keep your form; keep that cadence going; don’t try and lengthen your stride; keep your arms going full range’ - and it all went perfectly for me. I had that fear about thirty yards from the finishing line that Frank Murphy who I could just see, was going to get me, but no, I just managed to hold him off to the tape. I honestly think that, if the race had been 10 yards further - I would not have won. The important thing however, was that I had done the right thing at the right time; my race was 1500 metres not 1510 metres. Naturally I was very happy with what perhaps was the greatest tactical race of my life.
The type of training John was doing that year:- Sunday: in the morning I go to Loughborough and do a quality session in the forest - running up hills at a really fast pace; fartlek.
Monday. In the morning a fartlek session of about 40 minutes, and then in the evening quality work again, but at a much faster pace, racing pace on an all-weather track on Nottingham College campus
Tuesday: A fairly long, hard run of about 50 minute’s duration -no longer.
Wednesday: 16x440 yards (70.0 secs) in flat shoes, with 220 yards jog recovery (Less than 1 minute) - or 20x220 yards fairly fast with 110 recovery.
Thursday Fartlek –for 45 minutes.
Friday Rest.
Saturday race –cross country.
“During the summer months I still maintain the fartlek sessions but, of course, with an improved quality. for example  5-6 x 300 metres as fast as possible, with a  5 minutes’ rest between each one, as  well as  the usual stuff that athletes in Britain are continually having stuffed down their throats - 12x200 metres (26-27 secs), 8x400metes (60.00sec) etc. Still, however, the whole basis of my training is fartlek. I would advocate fartlek too for any type of distance, including long distance competition.
“Fartlek can help a great deal for cross country racing, at least in my case case it has.”
           Athletics is not all about racing but having enjoyable runs too. Something I have done in lovely settings in various places like Portugal, Italy, Virginia Water, Hampstead Heath, and Sydenham Hill Woods etc and so, it is interesting to know what real enjoyment is for John Whetton:- “ My favourite type of running is Fartlek. I don’t like training on a track nor running on roads - to me this can both be very, very boring. Personally I like to feel that I am part of the environment. If I am enclosed by trees and bushes, I somehow feel part of it, and of course there is always the point that, when training in woods or forest land, the running can hardly be boring since the environment is changing continually - maybe short trees, tall trees or no trees, soft grass or pine needles. Now and again you will scare a rabbit out of its hole, or suddenly find a pheasant swooping down close to you. All this adds interest to one’s training session, and takes one’s mind off hard work and, honestly, I feel that if I cannot think about aesthetic things in training I would become bored”
“Were I to think about athletics all the time I would want to pack it up, and I have felt that sometimes. The answer is to take your mind off it, and that is why if I have something beautiful, and stimulating to think about I want to continue, that is why I enjoy Sherwood Forest so much. Without the forest I think I would have finished running a long time ago.”
I think that is a wonderful balanced outlook and he added something else “I am greatly interested in music and photography, and being a very sociable type of person I like to go out and enjoy myself with my friends. (Have a beer)  I don’t insist on going to bed at ten 0’clcock, if I want to I’ll stay up to 1-0’clock. I think it does a lot of good to have a night out once in a while and forget all the tensions of being an athlete. When you recover you are refreshed and your mind is re-charged ready for more athletics.”

It all began for John at Brunts Grammar school. His Father represented Nottinghamshire at cross country and belonged to the same club, Sutton in Ashfield.
         “It all began when I was 12 years old. I disliked football intensely and was regarded as a weakling. One day I noticed some of the older boys running round the school fields and, thought I would have a bash at cross-country that day, I hung up my football boots for good and went for the first run. A week later I had a race over a 2 mile course, to my surprise beat several boys at least 3 years my senior. (He went on later at 17 in 1959 to win the English Schools in a new record time of 1:55.6). It was interesting to see his motivation for running so early on:- “I think primarily one takes part in athletics because one can do it. It all begins in school really; at least it did in my case. It was something I could do. I was hopeless at football and other sports, and at that time I was quite an insecure person with something of an inferiority complex. Athletics gave me a lot of pleasure not least because it gave me some supremacy over the other boys in class. From there it grew, so that I was able to express in one form superiority over others and, deep down, I think that has been the prime reason for being an athlete”

Talking to John in 1969 he then said “I am a lecturer in Physical Education at Nottingham College of Education. Basically by trade, having been a biology graduate from Manchester University, I am a biologist, but then I followed up with a graduation in Physical Education at Loughborough College. I always intended marrying these two closely related subjects together and, after five years I was able to do this at Nottingham where, as a lecturer in P.E. I also take responsibility for anatomy and physiology, in addition to covering athletics, swimming and general theory in P.E. It is a most interesting job for me, which I find stimulating. Apart from the work at College it involves me in visiting schools and supervising students on teaching practice – student who are advanced to degree level, which means that I too have to continually work to keep apace with the frontiers of knowledge. I am very satisfied here. Needless to say, however, the tremendous encouragement I have received from Janet, my wife who, like an international athlete’s wife has had to put up with a great deal since we were married.”

Alastair Aitken

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