Alastair Aitken
Alastair Aitken
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Interviews and

The most outstanding sub-4 minute miler in history (October 2019)

Sir John Walker From  New Zealand Bows Out

The most prolific miler in history, to my mind, would be Sir John Walker, from New Zealand. He ran 3:58.8 in Victoria in 1973 and 3:54.57, when winning in Auckland, New Zealand in 1985. That was his 104th sub four minute mile that he did. At the end of his career, when in his late 30’s and, as he approached 40, he was still running 1500’s, as fast as ever, and his prolific streak ended after 135 sub 4’s!
He was the first to ever break 3:50 for the mile with 3:49.4 in Gothenburg on the 12th of July 1975.
In 1976 he took Michel Jazy’s 2000 record off the books, slicing no less than 4.8 seconds off it.

I think John Walker’s best competitive years were in 1974; 75 and, in 1976. In the latter he was unbeaten at 1500/One mile all year and, won the 1500 Olympic Final in Montreal.
It appeared after that, problems with leg injuries and stomach cramps started to play a part and he had to drop out in one important race, which was in the very first World Cup 1500, in Düsseldorf in 1977, when Steve Ovett won very convincingly in 3:34.05. But, John always, a fighter, never gave up and got a silver medal behind Steve Cram in the 1500 in the  Commonwealth games in Brisbane in 1982 (1 Steve Cram 3:42.37; 2 John Walker 3:43.11 3 Mike Boit from Kenya 3:43:33)   (Dave Moorcroft won in 1978 in 3:35.8). Also one must say John Walker came 3rd over 800 in 1:44.9 in the Christchurch, Commonwealth Games, back in 1974 and another fact, not to be forgotten was, that he broke the 1500 World Indoor record back in 1979 with a time of 3:37.4. Steve Scott, the American runner, did run a lot of sub 4 minute miles and was World class but not an Olympic Champion like John; and, John battled with two very good Irish runners indoors Eamonn Coghlan & Ray Flynn besides Scott too.

I had so much pleasure in watching John accelerate, with his withering last 300, as he built up the momentum to the finish, in a mile race, at Crystal Palace, beating a World-class field of 1500 runners. His ’All Black’ kit, flowing hair and powerful stride from the 6ft Newsreader, was something one could never forget. Then there was the other two talented New Zealanders around at the time, Dick Quax and John’s friend Rod Dixon. The latter finished third in the Munich Olympic 1500 of 1972 and, a lot later won the New York City Marathon in 1983.An extraordinary double! act.
Sir John George Walker KNZM, CBE
Not all of John’s life was a bed of roses by any means. He got Parkinson’s disease in the 1990’s and, in September 2019, he had to retire from his work as a Councillor for Auckland, New Zealand. The reason was it really became far too difficult for him to carry on. He had done a marvellous job. It was due to him Auckland’s’ children got free swimming pool entry and free lessons, so, they could learn to swim and, there were other things he achieved as councillor of course. When we met several times in England, John struck me as someone who did not suffer fools gladly and, he was always a direct, courteous and a clear thinker with a sharp wit. He was so popular in New Zealand; they built a statute of him in bronze. Obviously it must have been modelled from an action shot when he won the 1976 Olympic 1500, wearing his Olympic race number on ‘494’ that statue can be seen at Manurewa town centre, NZ. That was the place he was born, on 12th of January 1952.

His wife Helen has been such a support for him and his daughter Caitlin assisted him to the lectern for his short but final speech before he bowed out...
‘Anyone could be forgiven for shedding a tear, when he talked at his retirement do, as he thanked people who had helped him in his darker days.
“To the Councillors who have helped me out of my chair and, brought me tea and coffee. Thank you, thank you. You know who you are”

About where he was born in, New Zealand
“I was raised in Manurewa and it seemed the perfect way for me to repay my home town for the love and  support that I had received as a child and then during my long running career.”

He made some interesting observations about other Great athletes in 1976’ he respected. One is Peter Snell, of course a fellow New Zealander. Kuts, Ryun. And Zatopek. He said something to me about another athlete in 1985
‘I think Sebastian Coe is the most majestic runner I have ever seen, anywhere in the World. If you can compare an athlete to a thoroughbred he has certainly been it. He is not running badly right now.”
Arch Jelly, John Walker’s coach commented that John was good at all sports. He was good at tennis and badminton. John came to Arch at 19 really when he started training seriously. He got stuck into it with obvious results.

John Walker said to me “My first race was when I was 10 years old running in primary school I won it and everything started from there but I never really got interested or concentrated on running till I was about 17 or 18.
When we first met in 1976. I asked him what it is about athletics he liked most.
“First of all I love racing that is prime. Secondly being able to travel as much as I do and, thirdly, meeting so many interesting people.
Naturally I think athletes are very good sort of people because they are clean living, they all enjoy the same sort of thing and it is a very healthy sort of a life. It is good to feel really fit. It is a sport that depends purely on the individual, he’ll get as much success as he put in, naturally you have to be born with some sort of talent and I think a lot of people are, whether it is playing a piano, running or whatever. I think you have got to have the ingredients there to start with. I think I was very lucky to have this as my father was a runner and I have virtually inherited it from him. But I still had to work upon it and it has not been easy, though maybe I have had it a little easier than some other people”

I pointed out to John that he ran 3:38.0 for the 1500 in 1973 before the Commonwealth Games of 1974. Would he consider that his breakthrough race?
“I suppose it was, because I was against Jipjo Dixon and I beat Wottle and a lot of others, so that was the starting point but unfortunately I had not had sufficient experience before the Commonwealth Games.’
However that 1500 race at Christchurch was a very fast race and both Filbert Bayii and John Walker in second place, beat the previous World best by Jim Ryun (3:33.1) with 3:32.16 & 3:32.52 but John did go on and beat Filbert Bayii the next time they met.
Looking back to what John thought, in 1976 and which races did he consider were his greatest races at that stage of his career?

“I think breaking the World record last year for the mile and running Under 3:50 would have to be the greatest that ever happened. The world record was virtually a time trial and probably another great satisfaction was running 3:32.4 for 1500 and missing the World record by two tenths—but that was also a great disappointment of course. Those were time trials virtually running against the clock if I was to think back to my greatest race, the Olympic would be one of them, because to beat the whole lot of them would have to be stand out experience.
He then made an interesting comment about his stay at the Olympic “I think when sitting in the Olympic Village for 2½weeks, facing four walls and criticism from reporters and finally you go out there, you run, then you win, naturally it is going to be a hell of a relief. It is all over; four years of really hard work. It is everything that a Person has dreamed about, winning the Olympic gold medal; that's it, it’s all finished.
(31/7/76 1 John Walker (NZ) 3:39.17; 2 Ivo Van Damme (BEl) 3:39.27; 3 Paul-Heinz Wellmann (FRG) 3:39.33; 4 Eamonn Coghlan (IRL) 3:39.51; 5 Frank Cement (GBR) 3:39.65; 6 Rick Wohlhuter (USA) 3:40.64; 7 David Moorcroft (GB) 3:40.94; 8
Graham Crouch (Australia) 3:41.80)

Alastair Aitken

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