26 Jul 2016

Jack Lovelock's Berlin triumph

3:12 pm on 26 July 2016

Golden Moments - Jack Lovelock won New Zealand's first Olympic gold medal for athletics in Berlin in 1936 in the 1500m and ensured his athletics immortality when, in front of Hitler, he ran in world record time.

John Lovelock relaxes in the Olympic Stadium during the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

John Lovelock relaxes in the Olympic Stadium during the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Photo: WikiCommons

Lovelock ran a brilliant tactical race. It was, he recorded in his meticulously-kept diary, "the most perfectly-executed race of my life".

In the final, he took the lead with 300m remaining - almost unheard of in those days - and established a sizeable lead over American ironman Glenn Cunningham that he never relinquished, eventually winning in 3min 47.8s.

The race has gained in fame because of the frenetic and almost comically biased ("C'mon Jack, c'mon Jack…My God, he's done it!") BBC radio commentary of his friend Harold Abrahams (who was, in fact, Jewish).

Through the mid-1930s, Lovelock ran a succession of great races, taking on and beating the other leading milers of his time.

As well as his Olympic success, he won the gold medal in the 1934 London Empire Games one mile race. He was the New Zealand team captain at those Games.

He was one of only a handful of runners to have set world records for both the 1500m and mile.

Jack Lovelock relaxes in the Olympic Stadium during the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

Jack Lovelock Photo: WikiCommons

He remained a rather aloof figure and was an intensely private person.

Lovelock grew up in South Canterbury, attending Timaru Boys' High School. He played a variety of sports with marked success. Besides athletics, he shone most as a boxer.

He gained a Rhodes Scholarship and left New Zealand in 1931 to study medicine at Oxford University. The move was the making of him as an athlete and five years of increasingly impressive running culminated in his famous gold medal at Berlin.

He made a government-sponsored return visit to New Zealand after the 1936 Olympics, and was fêted wherever he went as he toured the country, visiting schools, making speeches and doing demonstration runs.

Then it was back to England to further his medical career.

In 1940, he was thrown from a horse during a hunt and lay unconscious for an hour before he was discovered. Though he recovered, he suffered double-vision, blinding headaches and occasional dizziness for the rest of his life.

During World War II, Lovelock joined the British Army and was stationed in Northern Ireland, working in the field of physical medicine.

He and his American wife moved to New York, where Lovelock was assistant director of physical medicine at the Manhattan Hospital for Special Surgery.

Jack Lovelock

Jack Lovelock in flight. Photo: Photosport

On December 28, 1949, eight days before his 40th birthday, he began having dizzy spells and telephoned his wife to say he would be coming home early.

He was standing on the platform of a subway station in Brooklyn when he suddenly pitched forward on to the tracks and was struck by an oncoming train, dying instantly.

Was it an accident, or was it suicide? It was the final mystery in a life of much accomplishment.

Lovelock has been a continuing source of fascination, as much for his enigmatic personality as for his brilliant running, and he has been the subject of at least four biographies.

He was inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 1990.

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