In January 1992, my wife and I almost changed our round-the-world itinerary to divert from the South Island of New Zealand to the North. The reason? In Auckland, John Walker was going to try to become the first vet (over 40) to run a sub-four minute mile.
In the end, we didn’t – and neither did he, succumbing to injury before the attempt could be made.
He was already the first man under 3:50, and the first to run 100 sub-4s, in addition, of course, to his Olympic gold at 1,500 in Montreal 1976. (For such a small country, New Zealand has an amazing history in the Olympic 1,500 with Jack Lovelock in 1936 and Peter Snell in 1964 winning gold in addition to Walker, with other medals for the likes of John Davies, Rod Dixon and Nick Willis.)
Walker was something of a popstar runner in the mid-70s, his long blond hair (which Mrs Wardale no doubt remembers!) contrasting with his all-black NZ racing uniform. He and the other flying kiwis – Rod Dixon, Dick Quax – toured Europe in those years, seemingly winning races and breaking hearts at will. I remember an article entitled, “Why Walker runs better on a lager,” which somehow encapsulated the group’s work hard, play hard approach.
Walker had burst onto the scene in the Christchurch Commonwealth Games of 1974, winning 800 bronze and then breaking Jim Ryun’s world record of 3:33.1 in the 1,500 with 3:32.5 – the only trouble was, Filbert Bayi of Tanzania had got there three-tenths sooner, leaving Walker with the silver.
He continued to impress and to dominate the longer event, running that 3:49.4 mile in Gothenburg in 1975. In Montreal, he was favourite but still had to deliver. He had got food poisoning before the 800 and did not advance from the heats. In the 1,500, he kicked from 300 out and just held on as van Damme, Wellman and Coghlan came at him.
1977 saw the end of his dominance as Steve Ovett destroyed him in the World Cup. Walker actually dropped out with 100 to go, and still cannot explain why. The rise of Ovett and Coe saw him move up to 5,000, with limited success, and the 80s saw him turn his attention to accumulating a century of sub-4s – and winning one last medal – a silver behind Cram in the 1982 Commonwealths.
He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1996, but still seems to lead an active life, being a city councillor in Auckland and running an equestrian shop with his wife, Helen.
John Walker’s time at the very top of the miling tree was fairly short, but the memories of him from the 1970s – his frequent racing and usual winning, his refreshing attitude and his liking for a beer – will live forever.