The IAAF is saddened to hear of the death of Yugoslavia’s Franjo Mihalic, the 1956 Olympic marathon silver medallist, who died on 14 February at the age of 94.
Born in 1920 in Kutina, Mihalic played football in his youth before later trying his hand at cycling. His introduction to athletics was almost accidental after entering the Workers Sports Games in Zagreb having never trained as a runner. Out of 200 participants, he finished second to an experienced athlete; a performance that convinced him to take up the sport properly.
After just a few months of training, he set his first national records in the 5000m and 10,000m. He would go on to set 25 national records across the course of his career, three of which (20,000m, one hour and 25,000m) still stand as Serbian records.
One of Mihalic’s early successes came in 1951 at the age of 31 at the Mediterranean Games where he won the 10,000m silver behind Alain Mimoun. One year later, he made his Olympic debut and finished 18th in the 10,000m.
But his first major triumph occurred at the 1953 International Cross Country Championships, the precursor of the IAAF World Cross Country Championships, where he won the gold medal by the comfortable margin of 10 seconds.
The greatest achievement of his sporting career, so he says, came in 1956 at the Melbourne Olympics, where he took the silver medal in the marathon. He fell during the race and finally caught up with the lead pack five kilometres later, after which his great rival Mimoun made a decisive move and one that Mihalic was unable to cover.
His was the last Olympic medal won by a Yugoslav track and field athlete.
Two years later, Mihalic won the Boston Marathon, beating defending champion John J Kelley by almost five minutes on an unusually warm day. “I regret being born too early,” Mihalic was quoted as saying in 2000. “When I won the Boston Marathon in 1958, all I got was a gold medal. Today the winner gets thousands of dollars and a car. I regret not being 25 years old today.”
At the age of 40, Mihalic contested his final Olympics, finishing 12th in the marathon, just 23 seconds shy of his PB. One year later he won his third title at the prestigious Cinque Mulini cross-country race.
Although he officially retired in 1966, he continued to compete in road races until his late 70s. After injuring his knee and being ordered by doctors to give up running, he took up race walking and went on to win three gold medals at the Masters Balkan Games, the last of which was won when he was 85 years old.
Even in his late eighties, Mihalic continued to walk three kilometres every day from his Belgrade home to the Partizan Stadium, where he volunteered as an athletics coach.