“There was Paavo Nurmi, the greatest of the generation of Flying Finns, Emil Zatopek, who shattered notions about training and racing hard, Abebe Bikila and Kip Keino, the vanguard of the east African revolution. And there was Clarke. Clarke showed that distance runners could race hard, race often, race anyone and everyone, but mostly that you could run a hell of a lot faster than had previously been thought possible.” – Len Johnson, “The Man Who Changed the World“
In the history of distance running, Ron Clarke is undeniably one of the giants. And this is remarkable because every account of his competitive career relates that he never won a major championship. Indeed, he seems to have been the role player in the famous moments of other runners. When Billy Mills won Olympic Gold in Tokyo in 1964, it was at the expense of Clarke who had pushed the pace from early on but ended up with bronze as Mills flew to victory. When John Landy cemented his reputation as one of the finest sportsmen in Track and Field by helping a fallen runner in a mile race, that runner was Clarke. It was to Clarke that the immortal Emil Zatopek gifted his Olympic 10K Gold Medal won in the 1952 Games, saying that Clarke deserved it.
There was something about the way Clarke approached running that earned him immense respect among runners, even if his lack of championship victories led some to call him a loser during his career.
In a quote I can no longer find or remember exactly, he responded to his critics by saying that the only real tragedy was when fear of losing kept young athletes from even trying. Ron Clarke was someone who redefined what trying meant. As Len Johnson wrote, he raced often and always hard. In the 1964 Olympics, he competed in the 5000, 10,000, and marathon. He repeated that feat in the 1966 Commonwealth Games.
In 1965 and 1966 he set numerous world records in distances from 2 miles to 20,000 meters. On July 14th, 1965, he ran what might be the most remarkable 10,000m in history at Bislett stadium in Oslo, Norway. Without rabbits or challengers for most of the race, Clarke lowered his own world record by an astonishing 36 seconds, from 28:15.6 to 27:39.4. It was and is the largest improvement in the 10K record ever recorded, and he did it virtually alone.
That record was part of a remarkable summer in which he set 12 world record in a span of 44 days.
In the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Clarke again failed to medal. He finished sixth in the 10,000m, a race in which he is said to have almost died from altitude sickness (he always said he didn’t remember anything of the last lap, and collapsed after the race). Nevertheless, he competed in the 5000m later in the games.
Some will always see Clarke as a breaker of records, not a winner or races. But I think his lasting legacy will be that he was a runner of races, a man who gave his all every time he stepped on the track. In that pursuit, he had few equals.