Australian distance runner Ron Clarke (Getty Images) © Copyright
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Former world record-holder Ron Clarke dies

The IAAF mourns the death of the famed distance runner Ron Clarke, who has died at the age of 78.

Clarke died in a Gold Coast hospital after a short illness on Wednesday morning. He was 78.

Among his lifetime achievements, he was a successful businessman, an environmental crusader, the mayor of the Gold Coast for eight years, a philanthropist and a devoted family man.

But it is as a runner that Clarke is best known. He was an athlete who literally changed his event.

Clarke showed in the 1960s that distance runners could race hard, race often, race anyone and everyone, but mostly that you could run a lot faster than had previously been thought possible.

His assault on performance barriers was stunning: in his halcyon days Clarke took almost 40 seconds off the world record for 10,000m between December 1963 and July 1965 – 36 seconds in one race – and 18 seconds off the world record for 5000m between January 1965 and July 1966.

Clarke came to record-breaking early, setting world junior records during the build-up to the Melbourne Olympic Games in 1956.

In a memorable race in January of that year, in which John Landy ran the first sub-four minute mile on Australian soil, Clarke set a world junior mile record.

He was subsequently hailed as a potential champion but his Melbourne Olympic chances were dashed by his compulsory national service falling due that year.

The consolation prize was that he was chosen to carry the Olympic torch on its final leg around the Melbourne Cricket Ground and to light the Olympic flame.

After 1956, Clarke’s running stagnated and he then put his sporting career on hold while he acquired his accountancy qualifications and established himself in working life; marrying Helen and starting a lifelong partnership which endured better even than his record-breaking running abilities.

17 world records

Returning to the sport in 1961, Clarke quickly re-established himself.

His first of 17 official world records was set at 10,000m (and six miles en route) in the 1963 Emil Zatopek 10,000m in Melbourne. Clarke often joked there were so few people there that he knew most of the crowd.

A sequence of prolific records followed but major championship gold eluded him. Clarke won an Olympic bronze medal over 10,000m in Tokyo in 1964 and silver medals at three miles at the Perth Commonwealth Games in 1962, at three and six miles in Jamaica in 1966, and at 10,000m in Edinburgh in 1970.

Frank Shorter, the US athlete who won the 1972 Olympic marathon and was second in 1976, spoke once of the impact Clarke had on him.

“Ron Clarke was my idol. I grew up seeing Ron Clarke in the dark blue singlet with the V on it – to me that was the symbol of running."

As for Zatopek, he gave Clarke one of his gold medals. Slipping it into the Australian’s hand as he was about to board a flight out of Prague in 1968, Zatopek said simply: “You deserve this.”

If that is what Emil Zatopek thought, who is anyone else to quibble?

Many tributes have already been made to Clarke.

"He was a great star in the sport of athletics and a wonderfully kind and generous man," said his compatriot and early rival John Landy. "I extend my deep condolences to his family and friends.

“He held every world record from the two miles to the one hour run and no athlete in history has ever matched this feat. Ron Clarke, by his running feats, inspired Australian distance runners and, in a world sense, demonstrated the potential athletics achievements possible," added Landy.

"Today is a very sad day for athletics in Australia, with news of the passing of legendary runner Ron Clarke after a battle with illness," said Athletics Australia president David Grace.

"Ron will forever be a legend of our sport and we are grateful for his extensive contribution to the sport of athletics, as well as to public service during a life that should be celebrated."

Clarke is survived by his wife, Helen, and sons Marcus and Nicolas. A daughter, Monique, pre-deceased him.

The IAAF wishes to pass on its deepest condolences to his family and friends.

Len Johnson for the IAAF