John Walker, a giant amongst middle distance runners, faces the fight of his life

featured, Other Sports, track and field

You may not believe it but back in the 1970s athletics meetings attracted as many spectators as rugby matches in New Zealand.

Big crowds cheering on their heroes, not Sid Going or Bryan Williams, but athletes including Dick Quax, Rod Dixon and the greatest of them all, Sir John Walker. When you make something fashionable everyone wants to take part and that is exactly what happened with the international running boom in the 70s. New athletic events were created including the Round the Bays which attracted 80,000 entrants, jogging becoming the trendy thing to do.

Legendary athletics coach Arthur Lydiard stimulated the jogging phenomenon by making running commonplace around the world. His methods were adopted by many coaches including Arch Jelley who went on to coach John Walker. Walker himself stated that Jelley was the most significant factor in his success.

I would contend that Walker was the greatest athlete New Zealand has produced and the best middle distance runner the world has seen. His career spanned nearly twenty years and his list of feats is quite staggering. His top three would be breaking the 3:50.0minute barrier in the Gothenburg mile, winning gold at the 1976 Montreal Olympics and becoming the first man to run 100 sub-four-minute miles.

Walker states that the Olympic Gold was his best as records can be broken but a gold medal cannot be taken from you. He also rates his run in Norway 1976 as “the best race of his life”, breaking the world record in the 2000 metres by 5 seconds.

New Zealand's John Walker (694), Great Britain's Steve Ovett (375) and West Germany's Thomas Wessinghage (448) in action (Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images)

New Zealand’s John Walker (694), Great Britain’s Steve Ovett (375) and West Germany’s Thomas Wessinghage (448) in action (Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images)

Sir John George Walker KNZM, CBE was born 1952 in Papakura, South Auckland and attended Manurewa Normal School and Manurewa High School. He ran everywhere including to the local tennis club, school and a shop for his father. As with many schools in New Zealand the cross-country event was great motivation for aspiring runners, with Walker coming to prominence.

Then at the age of seventeen he had to make a choice between tennis and athletics and chose the latter. He surprised many by borrowing running gear at a meet in 1972 and beating noted middle distance runner Dick Quax. In 1972 he missed selection for the Munich Olympics by the slimmest of margins and also became the national 800m champion.

John Walker’s race with Tanzanian Filbert Bayi at the 1974 Christchurch Commonwealth Games was a thrilling event with both athletes breaking the 1500m World Record. When Walker came close to Bayi’s shoulder at the bend it looked like he had him, but Bayi battled on and took gold. The great race brought Walker to international attention with a personal best bronze medal in the 800m also featuring.

As with many sportsmen one particular year defines them when they were at their greatest, 1975 was Walker’s year. Eight sub-four-minute miles was a phenomenal achievement but it was capped off by his brilliant mile run at Gothenburg in front of 11,000 fortunate spectators. For your viewing pleasure, one of the great sporting highlights.

The crowd went wild as he came around the final bend with his long hair flowing, black singlet prominent and tall frame powering to the finish. It still gives goosebumps 50 years later!

He knew by the crowd noise he had broken the world record but was not aware he had gone under 3:50mins, not until a Kiwi journalist Ivan Agnew showed him a stop-watch with the time. He only had himself to beat as all other contenders were left in his wake, which shows how motivated he was to break the record. Peter Snell, a challenger for Walker’s title as New Zealand’s leading middle distance runner, described Walker’s run as, “the last great mythical barrier for milers.”

Steve Ovett, the great British runner, called Walker a pioneer and said he did more than anyone to popularise athletics in Europe. “I looked up to John Walker and I can’t say that about many people,” said Ovett.

Walker’s life changed after Gothenburg and at events around Europe he was feted as the rock star of athletics and media attention was intense. He always possessed the ability to be comfortable with the media and spoke well.

It was relief that was felt after John Walker won gold at the Montreal Olympics as he became the hot favourite to win after Bayi pulled out after the African boycott. Confidence in him was dented after he was eliminated from the 800m, and supporters had all fingers and toes crossed for his victory in the 1500m. The pace was slow from the start with no chance of a world record, but as Walker says, people only remember who won the gold medal.

He did not want the 800m runners to get a break on him, so he exploded from the 300m mark hoping he would blitz the field. He did, only just, as he tired from about 20meters out and grimly hung on. I remember thinking at the time, don’t ease down too much as they are just behind you John! He knew he had won though and was ecstatic at the victory. He summed it up by saying he was not expected to go under 3:50 for the mile but he was expected to win the gold medal at Montreal.

It is amazing to think that after 1976 he still competed for another 14 years, but he had reached his pinnacle at the Olympics and as he said, his career was virtually over then as the gold medal capped off his career.

In 1985 he became the first man in history to run 100 sub-four minute miles, his old rival Steve Scott insisting they had an arrangement that they would reach ninety-nine apiece and then race for the 100. Walker denied this agreement had taken place.

He remarkably wanted to be the first 40-year-old to run a sub-four-minute mile but injuries disrupted his plans. Achilles tendon issues made the first ten minutes of his training run absolute agony. He ended his career with an incredible 135 sub-four minute runs.

John Walker was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1976 and was knighted in 2009 for services to sport and the community. He served as a local body councillor after retiring, but retired from public life in 2019. His last years as a councillor were a struggle after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1996.

There was a mixed reaction to John Walker in New Zealand with many admiring his running ability but his outspokenness annoying a few. Some Kiwis like their sportsmen to be humble and modest, any signs of boastfulness is usually not approved of. It was different overseas where he was extremely popular and admired.

John and his wife Helen have a great love of horses and this transferred to them operating an equestrian store and Walker said that breeding race horses and watching them race was his biggest thrill.

Sir John Walker was like Bjorn Borg in that he always had a calm, serene look on his face and never “raced angry.” He is a towering New Zealander, respected and highly regarded around the world. I wish him well with his battle with Parkinson’s Disease.

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