Down Under Is Down to Just Walker

They came from half a world away and people thought they were half kangaroo and half caribou. Running came so naturally to them, you were surprised they didn't have antlers.

They came from a long line of hardy people who had left Mother England, sometimes by prison ship, and wrested a living from a hostile environment. A few thousand people had a whole continent to themselves.

They were fierce fighters who would sing at the drop of a hat or the pour of a beer. They seemed to have no nerves and no fear, and they won wars for Mother England and the respect of the world for themselves. Long before "Crocodile Dundee," the world learned not to mess with or take lightly anyone from the continent Down Under bearing a bayonet or a knife, or a boxing glove, golf club, tennis racket or just a pair of spiked shoes.

There was a period there when they all but took over the Olympic Games, at least in middle-distance running. First, there was the great John Landy, the second man in history to run the mile under 4 minutes. John was a picture runner who did his best work against a clock. If it ticked, John beat it. If it talked, he was in trouble.

After him came the magnificent Herb Elliott, who could run against man or machine, and Murray Halberg; then New Zealand's great runner, Peter Snell, and Bill Baillie; and then, Ralph Doubell, Ron Clarke, Rod Dixon.

The public generally made no distinction between Aussie and New Zealander, although there is a great difference--nearly 1,000 miles of ocean, for one thing. But north of the Equator, they were regarded as the same fast animal.

John Walker just might have been the best of them. Aloof, irascible arrogant, John marched--or ran--to his own drummer. He set the world record with almost contemptuous ease--he was the first man under 3:50 in the mile--and then left it there while he concentrated on something he did better than any other mile runner--winning races. He won more of them than any other runner.

He won his gold medal his own way at Montreal--by running blistering heats and then leaving the track nuts gnashing their teeth while he shifted to a slow, tactical win in the final. "The trick in the Olympics is to win," John Walker told them coolly. "And that's what I did."

If he was the best of them, Walker might also have been the last of them. The music then seemed to stop for the flying wallabies from the underside of the planet. There was the boycott of '80, but in '84 the black singlet of New Zealand and the white and red of Australia, so long dominant in the Games, were not only missing from the finish lines but the starting lines as well.

What had happened? How could the countries that had been turning out world-class milers, half-milers and 5K stars like cookies from a mold have suddenly lost the recipe?

John Walker, who is here to run in the feature mile of the Sunkist Invitational on Friday in the Sports Arena, is typically truculent.

"The same thing that happened to American milers," he snaps. "Greed, laziness, unwillingness to sacrifice. Fondness for sitting in front of the video 16 hours a day. Partiality towards the automobile.

"Who wants to go out on a hill in the rain and wind and run 20 miles when he could be home with a sweet and a warm fire? Who wants to work hard for anything? I think they want to win an Olympic medal in a lottery. Or maybe the government will give it to you."

Walker thinks the African runners are in the position the Anzac runners were 30 years ago.

"They run for the pure joy of running," he says. "They're impervious to the pressure. Eventually, the meet promoters will get to them. The money will spoil them. It spoils everybody."

It probably made less of a dent on this black label John Walker than most other runners. In an era when top runners were ducking each other, John Walker ran against everyone everywhere. "John will run against anything that doesn't bite," an Aussie journalist once told a promoter.

John Walker is still running. At an age--36--when some people are beginning to have trouble walking, Walker is still running 3:50 miles and finishing in the money in 5K races.

"I'll tell you something strange," Walker says. "I can probably run as fast today as I ever could. I'm only fractionally slower. The difference is, I'm not as strong. It takes a longer time to recover after a race. You're as fast as you're ever going to be at 19. But you get stronger as you get older. You're still fast at 30. It's the strength that gives you trouble."

Will the Aussies and New Zealanders make a comeback? John Walker is dubious.

"The motivation is lacking," he concedes. "But the good part is, the money is there. And the sports medicine is there. Some runners today make more in a race than I did in a season. And some runners are trying to find a win in a bottle or a pharmacy."

If the money and the pharmacopeia had been available in his day, would John Walker have done differently?

Walker grins. "I would probably have done the same thing," he admits. "Gone out and beat everybody just for the hell of it."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World