When Box Hill Was A Village

 

"WHEN WINNING WAS EVERYTHING"

 

When I was a boy growing up in Box Hill, Victoria, in those days just after World War II, the one thing that captured the imagination of all of us boys and young teenagers was the idea of excelling in sport.

 

Sport was King. There were teams for every kind of sport and we spent much of our time training for one team or another.

 

Some people concentrated on one sport and developed tremendous capacity in that one sport. My closest mate, Ziggy, and I decided that we wanted to be good in every possible team competition. Fortunately we went to State schools and then the Box Hill Boys High School in which sport was an important part of the curriculum. With 900 boys in the school, and the former Australia test cricket captain, Bill Woodfull, as our Principal, sport was the answer to every problem of discipline and motivation.

 

In the early 1950's when I went to high school every single night was spent in training. A couple of afternoons a week we would play in one or more teams. There were cricket and tennis teams for our particular house at school which was compulsory for all students. The love for both tennis and cricket has never left over all of those years. I can still remember the long summer nights of practising bowling against a single stump, or else practising one serve after another on an empty tennis court.

 

Swimming was an important part of our school sporting life and every student had to compete. We compete in our forms, we competed against other houses and we competed against other schools. Enjoyable times were spent in the Box Hill Baths and I competed in freestyle, breaststroke, backstroke, four by 110 medley, as well as in the diving from the one metre and three metre boards. While I was in the house teams for cricket and tennis, for six years I made the school swimming team. The photographs show us standing in abbreviated swimming trunks with arms crossed over hairless chests.

 

Australian Rules football was the dominating code. Box Hill had many church teams in the Saturday football competition and the Box Hill "Adelphians" for which most of the young fellows from the Box Hill Church of Christ played, was known far and wide for its rough and often dirty play. When Box Hill Firsts won their way into the Victorian Football Association, a second string competition to the famous VFL, the Box Hill team played with spectacular lack of success. We went through one and a half seasons before we won our first match!

 

I was to play Australian Rules football for my house and school and then, years later, start a football club when I was thirty and turn out again for a few seasons training each night with the young lads, playing in the back pocket where I had least to do.

 

In the late 1940's and early 1950's, soccer arrived in Box Hill with the coming of the refugees and immigrants from Europe and Great Britain at the close of the War. The Box Hill incinerator was demolished and a soccer ground was built which was called "Wembley Stadium"!.

 

It was un‑Australian to play soccer, but some of our new Dutch friends and English kids knew how to play it and when the school decided to commence a soccer team I lined up with all the other kids who had unpronounceable surnames from Spain, Italy, Greece, Holland, Yugoslavia and Great Britain. They taught me the elements of the game and soon I was there on the wall in another school photograph representing the school in the soccer club. At the same time our English schoolmaster, Mr. W.A. Halliday, formed a rugby club and rugby union took our interest. So on another night of the week I learnt the skills of rugby union. In my senior years at high school I represented the school and the Box Hill community in rugby union.

 

But the sport I loved as a boy and as a teenager more than any was athletics.

 

At Sunday School picnics I discovered that I could run fast. A few teachers encouraged that and by the time I was twelve years of age I was already training in athletics. People were warning my mother not to allow me train so much as I would burn myself out and develop a bad heart. From the day I had my first race at high school in Form 1 and won, I was to run every day of my life for the next six years, training every night, running in winter cross‑countries and in summer athletic competitions. Every year I would represent the school in the inter‑school championships, set a number of records that would stand for many years over a wide range of distances, and run in some of the championships conducted for juniors throughout our State.

 

Only those people who grew up in Melbourne during the early 1950's with the expectation of the Olympic Games in 1956 can understand the drive that was inside all of us who loved our sport. We had one chance to represent Australia and over the next few years we were going to do all we could to get into that 1956 Olympic team. Teachers voluntarily added an extra hour and a half to their school day when, after school every night, they would train us on the school ovals. Older men became voluntary coaches and took young lads aside while we repeated starts a hundred times or else practised hurdling, pole vault, shot put, long jump and all the other track and field events.

 

At the age of 13 I joined the Box Hill Amateur Athletic Club under the leadership of Reg Barlow and under the guidance of that incredible coach Percy Wells Cerutty and the mystery European coach who came to make champions of us all, Franz Stanfl. We threw ourselves with eagerness into every sporting opportunity.

 

Every night after school and frequently every lunch hour we would put on our spikes and track suits and pound round the oval, 220 yards fast sprint, followed by 100 yards walk and recovery, followed by another 220 yards fast sprint, followed by 100 yards walk and recovery. Whenever there was a pause, it was to take up a discuss or a javelin or a shot in order to improve our skills.

 

Every Saturday in summer we would be picked up in a group of battered old cars and utilities and driven into Melbourne's various athletic parks to compete for the sake of Box Hill.

 

Box Hill colours were brown and gold and we wore light grey singlets and shorts. We wore a white horse, symbol of our city, on our chests.

 

The days would come when Box Hill would have the biggest number of athletes of any athletic club in Australia and produce more athletic Olympic champions than any other club in our nation's history. But in those early years when the club began there were only a few of us to uphold the honour of Box Hill.

 

The competition on the Saturday held an unbelievable schedule by today's standards. My main events were sprints and later the half mile and mile, but it would be nothing to compete in a 440, 880, several field events including the high jump, long jump, hop step and jump, shot put, discus, javelin and then finish off the day with a 440 high hurdles or a 5,000 metre steeplechase. Every single club member would take part in eight or nine events in a day and we would all come home absolutely exhausted.

 

But stamina, speed and expertise soon meant that some of us were winning medals and representing the state in our age groups. While still at school I was competing every year in the All Schools Championships and in the Victorian Track and Field Championships. There were fast athletes from around the state and frominterstate.

 

Two young men were making a profound impact in the same age group as myself ‑ Herb Elliott in Western Australia and Ron Clarke in Victoria. Both of these fine Australian athletes were running faster times than the rest of us and as 1956 approached many of us realized that although we might represent our state, they were the young men who would represent Australia. Both became world champions.

 

In all my years of running I found great friendships and a healthy sport totally devoid of corruption or immorality.

 

The names of the Australian greats whom we watched every week became legend among us. None was greater than that of John Landy.

 

Every second week during 1952 and 1953 I would watch Landy attempt to break the four minute mile. There were powerful runners in those days like Les Perry, Dave Stephens, the former world six mile record holder ‑ "The Flying Milkman" as we called him, Herb Elliott, Geoff Warren, Neil Robins, Merv Lincoln and Ron Clarke. But there was no one in those heady days of the 1950's to measure to the stature of John Landy. He became the world champion miler in 1954, the man who had run a mile faster than any other man in history. He would be the man who was beaten in the "race of the century" in the 1954 Commonwealth Games mile at Vancouver by Roger Bannister. I listened to that race in the early hours of the morning as it was broadcast to Australia. I wept as Landy looked back over his inside shoulder on the home turn as Bannister passed him on the outside to sprint onto the tape and victory.

 

While other men may have won gold medals no one was faster week after week in the world over the mile and three miles than John Landy.

 

Ron Clarke already held the Australian and World Junior Mile record. As we came close to the Olympic Games everybody was looking to John Landy to set a new world record. He had a lonely, tantalising struggle with the world mile record and each fortnight he would come within a second or two of a new world record.

 

The mile was always run in the late afternoon when the heat of the day had gone and the crowds built up to watch the best that Australia had to offer struggle for a new world time. The greatest race I've ever seen in my life was at the 1956 National Championships in Melbourne. I was still an under‑19 and had run the fastest sub‑junior half mile in Victoria. We had free admission to the championships and I was along the side fence inside a crowd of 22,000 people when the entrants lined up for the start of the 1956 National Mile Championship. The Governor, Sir Dallas Brooks, was there. Everyone knew that John Landy had not only the championships in his grasp, but with a good fast start in the early part of the race would easily set a new world record. We were all wanting Landy. Before the race even began Landy received the greatest reception I have ever heard.

 

When the gun went off the young men each representing their states sped to the first turn and at the end of the first lap Robbie Morgan‑Morris had completed the first quarter mile in 59 seconds, followed by Ron Clarke, Alec Henderson, John Plummer and then John Landy. The time was right on target for a world record and Landy was up with the front runners. At the half mile Robbie Morgan‑Morris was still leading and the time was two minutes two seconds. At the start of the third lap young Ron Clarke and Landy moved forward at a cracking pace. Landy had only to go with him and a new world record would be in his grasp. Then occurred an event which is etched into my mind so clearly that I can see it being replayed as if in slow motion. I can never think of the event without my eyes filling with tears.

 

Clarke was moving to the lead and as they came into the corner on the third lap John Landy was on his shoulder when Alec Henderson tried to squeeze between the two runners and the inside edge of the curb. In doing so Clarke, with his sharp spikes, clipped his heel. Clarke sprawled forward onto the cinder track while Henderson was knocked onto the inside arena. Landy leaped in the air over the falling body of Clarke in front of him and as he did his sharp spikes tore into the flesh of Clarke's shoulder. The whole field either jumped over Clarke or ran round him. The crowd which had been chanting "Landy, Landy, Landy, Landy" with every stride suddenly responded with an enormous gasp.

 

Landy then did the most incredibly stupid, beautiful, foolish, gentlemanly act I have ever seen. He stopped, ran back to the fallen young Ron Clarke and helped him up to his feet, brushing cinders from knees and checking his bloodied shoulder. Clarke was all right. He said to Landy "Keep going, I'm all right. Run! Run!". Landy had forgotten everything. The Australian mile title, his bid for a world record, even the approaching Olympic Games in a spontaneous gesture of sportsmanship and gentlemanly behaviour.

 

Clarke got to his feet and together Landy and Clarke set off after the other runners. They were 60 yards behind the rest of the field which had kept on running and the crowd did not expect them to continue. Mervyn Lincoln, John Plummer and Alec Henderson were leading the pack. Clarke and Landy set off on that last quarter mile as if they were in a 100 yard sprint. The crowd was delirious with shouting and with every stride Landy hauled in the front runners. He quickly ran round the rest of the field, came into the home straight and leaving Clarke behind came with the most powerful finish I have ever seen in my life. He stormed down the track and in the last ten yards passed Henderson and Lincoln to win the Australian Championship in four minutes, four seconds.

 

I doubt if there has ever been a reception given an athlete in all of history as those 22,000 people gave Gentlemen John Landy that day. The cheers and the applause would not die down. It continued minute after minute as Landy completed a victory lap. There was no question he could have set a new world record that day. Stopping and going back, picking up Clarke and then running back over his tracks had cost him eight or ten seconds. But it also unleashed in him a finish that was beyond anything that we had ever seen before. We had seen the greatest mile race in history.

 

There used to be people who felt that John Landy was just a methodical runner who could run against the clock and because he had been beaten by Roger Bannister, had no kick or fast finish. But that day we saw a finish the like of which has never been seen before or since in a National Championship.

 

Landy was to go on and set new world records and become one of our great heroes at the 1956 Olympic Games but nothing compares with the race that summer night in the Melbourne Olympic Park in the summer of 1956 when he stopped, picked up young Ron Clarke and forgot himself into athletic immortality.

 

As the years have gone by I have occasionally  met that quiet gentleman, John Landy, and reminded him of that day when we saw one of the great moments of Australian sporting history.

 

I have witnessed many sporting competitions since, both Olympic and Commonwealth Games and other world championships but I have never witnessed a moment like that which belongs to Gentleman John.  It was no wonder that he was to become the Governor of Victoria.

 

Yet I would never have dreamed those highlights of our sporting life would have come my way when I was a boy, and I walked home up Devon Street, opposite the cow paddock, to No. 55 Birdwood Street, Box Hill, a great city which was only village, were the adults were kind and where the children grew up responsibly

 

Gordon's running shoes and medal from the 1950s