Racing Past

The History of Middle and Long Distance Running

Articles / 1950s

Pirie v KutsOlympic 10,000, Melbourne, 1956Great Races # 11  This epic 1956 distance race featured a classic struggle between a front runner and a fast finisher. Although the race was an Olympic final, there were only two runners in contention almost from the gun. Vladimir Kuts and Gordon Pirie were so much better than the other competitors that their duel took place well ahead of the field, despite the erratic pace that evolved through tactics. It was the first distance race of the Games. Sandor Iharos of Hungary, a former WR holder and thus a favorite, didn’t make it to the start line—the obvious reason being the recent Soviet invasion of his country. His absence meant that there were two clear favorites: Vladimir Kuts (29) of the USSR, who had broken Iharos’s WR just a couple of months earlier with a 28:30.4 clocking, and Briton Gordon Pirie (25), who had a best 47 seconds slower than the WR of Kuts but had by far the better finish.

Pyotor Bolotnikov

7th February 2011

PYOTR BOLOTNIKOVb. 1930-2013 Pyotr Bolotnikov was a worthy successor to his countryman Vladimir Kuts. This tough Russian competitor set two WRs for 10,000 and won Olympic and European gold medals. Bolotnikov’s tough childhood formed his personality. He lost his mother at 4, and then lived with his stepmother in the Urals while his father and his brothers fought in World  War 2. After his father and a brother were killed in action, Bolotnikov left his stepmother and went to live alone in the family house in Krasnaya Mordovski. The house had been boarded up, but Bolotnikov opened it up and set about making a living. In 1944 he enrolled in factory training and eventually qualified as an electrician.

Roger Bannister

7th February 2011

Profile: Roger Bannister b. 1929  Roger Bannister’s name is synonymous with the four-minute mile. Why was he the first to break through this psychological and symmetric athletic barrier of four laps at a minute each? There were certainly some before him who were physically capable of running a mile under four minutes. Of course conditions had to be right and there had to be some pace-making help, but there also had to be the strong belief that it was possible. This strong belief was surely lacking in some of the early attempts—by the likes of Andersson, Haeg, Santee and Landy. That the four-minute mile was a psychological barrier can be seen in the veritable avalanche of sub-fours in the years immediately after Bannister’s epic run.

Ronnie Delany Profile  b. 1935  Irishman Ron Delany’s development from a 17-year-old 2:04 half –miler to a 21-year-old Olympic 1,500 champion can justly be called meteoric. Of course, he had natural ability, but there were other ingredients in the mix. He had an inner strength that is rarely found in a teenager. This mental focus enabled him to train hard and to race brilliantly. He was also fortunate in obtaining an athletic scholarship to train under Jumbo Elliott at Villanova University in the US. Over two years Elliott trained and raced him to perfection, instilling in him the belief that he was a miler and that he could win at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. And Delany did just that against a stellar field of experienced runners. Rarely has a middle-distance runner reached the very top so quickly.

Stan Eldon

30th April 2012

Stan Eldon Profile b.  1936 The British distance-running scene was already at a pinnacle in the mid 1950s, with such stars as Pirie, Chataway, Ibbotson and Sando. So when Stan Eldon suddenly appeared on the scene in 1958, it was quite a surprise to see him challenging these top runners with such assertive front-running tactics—and more often than not beating them. Seldom has a runner appeared on the scene with such aggressive tactics. The press took notice of this courageous newcomer who tried to run the stars into the ground, playing up the fact that he was a policeman.

Vladimir Kuts

13th February 2011

PROFILE: VLADIMIR KUTS1927-1975 (Note:  Some of the available material on Kuts was clearly tainted by cold-war propaganda. Some details I’ve used might not be completely correct.)The son of Ukraine factory workers, Kuts joined the Red Army at 16 when his town was invaded by the German army. He was on the way to artillery school when his train was bombed. He was long thought dead. When the war ended in 1945 he joined the navy and started running. Once his ability was noticed, the well-known coach Leonid Khomenkov took him under his wing.Vladimir Kuts was on the international distance-running scene for only a few years, but in those years he was the undeniable world leader. A fierce and tough competitor—like Lovelock he was also a boxer—he had nevertheless one Achilles heel: he could be beaten on the run-in. Still, he retired with two Olympic golds, a European gold and five WRs. He broke the 5,000 WR four times, improving it from 13:57.2 to 13:35.0 over three years. His 13:35 WR stood from 1957 to 1965.

Wes Santee Profile

19th October 2015

Wes Santee came so close to breaking the four-minute Mile. He had been hoping to be the first to break this tantalizing barrier. Then after Bannister ran 3:59.4 in May of 1954, the gifted Kansan hoped to be the first American to do so. Despite many attempts he was still trying in 1956 when he was banned from competition for life over expense violations.  The ban came in the Olympic year of 1956, when he was just 24. His brilliant running over the three previous years had made him a favorite for the Olympic 1,500 title in Melbourne. He had dominated American miling, winning nearly all his races by large margins and setting records galore, including a 1,500 world record. He was also very successful over 800/880, running the great Mal Whitfield to many close races and getting very close to the world record himself. But the chance of Olympic glory was denied him.

Woldemar Gerschler

14th February 2011

Although the Second World War and its aftermath interrupted his coaching career just as it had begun to flourish, Woldemar Gerschler established himself as one of the world’s leading running coaches in the 1950s. Above all, Gerschler was an innovator; using physiology to a greater degree than previous coaches, he developed a very specific training regime that became known as interval training. Frank Horwill, one of England’s top coaches from the 1960s, wrote that Gerschler was “30 years ahead of him time.” (Horwill, Athletics Weekly, 1982) Gordon Pirie described Gerschler in a similar way: “His approach to training distance runners was well ahead of its time.” (Pirie, Running Fast and Injury Free, p.10. As well as being an innovator, Gerschler successfully trained world-class athletes like Harbig, Barthel, Pirie, Hermans, Moens and Barris.