John “Jack” Edward Lovelock: Champion Distance Runner

John “Jack” Edward Lovelock: New Zealand, as thoroughbred racing fans are well aware, has produced a seemingly disproportionate share of stayers, many of them achieving legendary status.

The list is long, so the only two names we will mention are Phar Lap and Carbine. Thirty-three Kiwi bred horses won the Melbourne Cup in the 55 times the race was run between 1947 and 2001. Case closed.

Another New Zealand stayer, this one of the human variety, dominated the mile in the 1930s. He won the Gold Medal in the 1500 metres at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and his story has been somewhat obscured by the exploits of one Jesse Owens who emphatically, if not necessarily intentionally, shot holes in the Nazi myth of Aryan superiority.

That man was John “Jack” Edward Lovelock. The son of English immigrants, he was born 5 January 1910 in the town of Crushington, not far from the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island.

He was fairly well accomplished as a schoolboy, earning roles as dux and prefect for his leadership in several sports and academics. He crossed to the eastern side of the island to attend Timaru Boys’ High School as a boarder in 1924, establishing school records in athletics and providing leadership in other aspects of school life as well. He moved on to study medicine at the University of Otago and earned a prestigious position as a Rhodes Scholar at Exeter College at Oxford from 1931-1934, graduating as a licensed doctor.

He found time from his studies in 1932 to establish the record for the British Empire in the mile. He took part in the 1932 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, but he could not earn a medal, in fact, he ran only seventh in the final of the 1500 metres. At the time, the man who would eventually eclipse many of Lovelock’s times, Roger Bannister, was three years of age.

In 1933, Lovelock would set the world record for the mile, posting a time of 4:07.6. It would take 21 years before Bannister would eliminate those last 8 seconds from the time it took for a man to run a mile. Lovelock himself may have been amongst the group who felt the sub-four-minute mile was beyond human physical abilities. Lovelock’s record time would be equaled later that year when he lost narrowly to the 1932 Olympic Gold Medalist, Luigi Becalli, at the International University Games, held on Becalli’s home turf in Turin, Italy.

The following year, he won the gold medal in the mile at the British Empire Games in London, covering the distance in 4:13. His was one of just two, the other being a bronze, which the Kiwis would claim in those games.

The Berlin Olympic Games in 1936 would stand out as the highlight of Jack Lovelock’s career. The years betwixt 1932 and 1936 were fertile ones for the mile and 1500 metres. Records had been established and bettered on many occasions by a cadre of athletes from around the world, including Glenn Cunningham of the United States, Sydney Wooderson from Great Britain, Phil Edwards of Canada, and Lovelock’s nemesis, Luigi Becalli. Lovelock was the captain of the New Zealand Olympic contingent.

Lovelock, his considered opinion being that he was capable of just one supreme effort over the course of the year, devised a tactic for the final race in the 1500 metres that caught the exceptional field unawares and helpless to respond.

Lovelock had the reputation of being a strong finisher, saving his kick for the final straight. In the final, he took off not long after the completion of the third lap. Cunningham, sometimes given the nod as the greatest American miler of all time, tried valiantly to catch Lovelock, so valiantly in fact, that he broke the previous world record for the event by running a 3:48.4, but Lovelock bettered him in establishing his own world record of 3:47.8, half a second faster. For some idea of the accomplishment, consider that Lovelock needed to run only a 4:00.6 in heat two in order to qualify for the final and go on to win the gold medal. Another New Zealand product, Wotan, attracted attention by winning the 1936 Melbourne Cup after jumping at 100-1.

Jack Lovelock was 26 by this time, not necessarily old by distance runner standards of today, but given that training methodology of those times consisted mainly of advice to not smoke cigarettes or drink beer on the day of a race, well, not until after the race, at any event, he would have been aware that the end of his racing days was nigh. He competed once more when the government of New Zealand sent him on a trip to Princeton. He lost that race to one of the other finalists from the Berlin Games, the American Archie San Romani.

Not long after concluding his running career, Lovelock would find his medical skills valuable as a major in the Royal Army Medical Corps during World War II.

He was married in 1945 and had two daughters. The family left New Zealand for New York in 1946. Late in December of 1949, when dizziness, a residual effect of a fall from a horse in 1940, struck him whilst he was waiting for his train, he fell onto the track and was killed by a train. He would not live to see age 40, nor the fateful day in 1954 when Roger Bannister would emphatically answer the question of whether or not it was possible for a man to run the mile in under four minutes, a moment he would have thoroughly enjoyed.

The memory of Jack Lovelock survives to this day. More than a few streets, sports fields and bars bear his name. Books detailing his life and exploits, a play and a movie have immortalised him.

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