Pssst all summer

Graham Couch. Photo: Sandy Scheltema”Car looks like a hot rod! It’s got swag. Pum-ped!” – Australian for-mula one driver DANIEL RICCIARDO likes the look of his new Red Bull ride.
Nanjing Night Net

Paul Daffey looks back at some of the moments that shaped Australian sport.

What Forty years since Graham Crouch ran in the 1500 metres final at the 1974 Commonwealth Games.

When and where February 2, 1974, in Christchurch, New Zealand.

The legacy His name was etched into legend as part of a historic race.

These days the Commonwealth Games are considered a bit of a picnic by international standards. But not so long ago a Commonwealth Games event was likely to feature several of the best competitors in the world.

The 1500 metres at the 1974 Commonwealth Games was a case in point: it featured Olympic medallists as well as European and African champions, not to mention two runners from New Zealand, which was then one of the leading middle-distance nations in the world.

The three Australians were Graham Crouch, David Fitzsimons and Randall Markey. Crouch, an accountant from Ballarat, was the top-ranked among the Australians. He was to play a large part in what is widely regarded as the greatest 1500 metres race in the history of the event.

In 1968, Crouch was a 20-year-old runner with the Ballarat East High School Athletics Club when the powerful Box Hill club recruited him to run in Melbourne. Crouch continued to live in Ballarat, where he worked at the family business, a Four Square grocery store in Pleasant Street. He ran around Lake Wendouree and up Mount Buninyong. He ran in the Nerrina and Creswick state forests, but it was the advice from renowned Box Hill coach Allan Barlow that made the big difference. In late 1968, Crouch made his inter-club debut with Box Hill in B-grade. At the end of the season he was national mile champion.

Crouch made his international debut at the Pacific Conference Games in Japan in late 1969. He ran only reasonably, but it was his experience of running alongside Olympic stars Ralph Doubell and Ron Clarke that filled him with belief. Crouch ran in the Australian titles early in 1972 confident that he could earn a ticket to the Munich Olympics. He narrowly lost the 1500 metres to South Australian Chris Fisher. Although he had run a qualifying time during the season, he was left out of the Olympic team.

Late in the 1973 northern season, Crouch had just finished running in the Pacific Conference Games in Canada when a highly anticipated mile event was held in Stockholm. The race featured Ben Jipcho from Kenya and Filbert Bayi, a member of the Tanzanian air force, whose boldness created a magnificent frisson wherever he ran. He was a front-runner who dared his rivals to catch him. In those days, the first 800 metres of mile events were generally run in two minutes. In Stockholm, Bayi ran the first 800 metres in one minute, 52 seconds, which put a break of almost half the straight on those who ran through in two minutes. Jipcho overhauled him to score a famous victory.

When Crouch learnt of the 800-metre split his path was clear. He had to train for the next six months with the purpose of being able to stick with Bayi early in the race. “The whole concept of how a race was run was changed,” he said. “I had to be able to run 1.52 for 800 and keep going.” His increased training intensity included more trips from Ballarat to Melbourne to do track sessions with Box Hill teammates.

During the lead-up to the event, Crouch believed he could win a medal. Given the quality of the field it was a belief that suggested a deep well of confidence. When asked to describe the source of that confidence, Crouch thought for several seconds before suggesting it might be because he’s small. (He’s 168 centimetres.) “Maybe it taught me to battle … I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve always been one to have a go.”

The field included Bayi, Jipcho, fellow Kenyan Mike Boit, England’s Brendan Foster and New Zealand pair John Walker and Rod Dixon, who between them had won several Olympic and Commonwealth medals, some from earlier events in Christchurch. Crouch was the Australian champion. “I knew it was going to be hot. And I wanted to beat them,” he said.

Bayi went out as expected. He was five metres ahead after 200 metres and 10 metres ahead after the first lap. A man not much taller than Crouch, he ran with a low knee lift. The Kenyans seemed extravagant by comparison. Bayi went through the 800 in 1:51.8, right on his expected split, and was 15 metres ahead. Crouch was not on his heels, but his training had enabled him to be with the chasing pack. It was panning out as he expected.

Bayi took several looks over his shoulder as he approached the straight for the bell lap. He was still five metres ahead. The chasing pack was jostling for position. Dixon emerged to lead the chase, ahead of Walker and the Kenyans. Crouch, at shoulder height to some of the runners, was on their heels. The BBC commentator described him as “the little Australian”.

The chasing pack sprinted down the back straight before Walker led the charge from 200 metres. Crouch was set to make his move on the medal positions when Boit hit the wall at the 150-metre mark. “All of a sudden he died,” Crouch said. He dropped back on to Crouch, forcing him to lose a few steps in momentum.

In the home straight, Walker closed within a metre of Bayi but with 50 metres to go the Tanzanian fought back. To the astonishment of onlookers, he moved clear of Walker before breasting the finishing tape a couple of metres ahead. Walker, who until these Games was largely unknown, finished second, with Jipcho fighting on for third. Dixon, after a look over his shoulder, held on for fourth, while Crouch came in fifth.

The times were extraordinary. Bayi, with 3:32.16, had broken American Jim Ryun’s world record by almost a second. Walker had also broken the world record. Crouch, with 3:34.42, had broken the Australian record that Herb Elliott had set at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. In all five runners broke their country’s national records. Crouch, in finishing fifth, had run the seventh-fastest time in history. “I was satisfied with my time,” he said. “But I didn’t run to finish fifth.” He later struggled to watch the medal presentation, believing he should have been up there.

Crouch went on to make the final at the 1976 Olympics and still maintains a close interest in athletics. He’s on the board at Athletics International, a body that brings former Australian athletes together and sponsors current ones. He spends summers in Australia, doing contract accounting work, and spends a few months of the northern summer in Europe. Throughout Europe he’s asked about his experience in the 1500 metres in Christchurch. “You can go to a lot of places in the world that aren’t Commonwealth countries – and they know about Christchurch,” he said.

Numbers up

6329 credentialled members of the media at the Super Bowl this year, each one uncovering truth and telling a different part of the story, said NYU journalism lecturer Jay Rosen on his @jayrosen-nyu twitter account this week.

3.5 million ticket requests from 199 countries in the World Cup’s second sale phase. Said FIFA’s man in charge Thierry Weil: “With a little more than three million tickets available at the 12 stadiums, the requests are at least 10 times more than the inventory we have available.”

What they should do …

… is have sporting administrators take a leaf out of much maligned public transport authorities and ensure Senior Card holders get through the gates at the lowest price. Why not offer an admission discount commensurate with pensioners and the disabled? Racing, pacing, chasing, footy, hit and giggle codes, bikes and cars could benefit with increased crowd numbers from Baby Boomers who often baulk at steep admission prices. Given this small incentive this demographic with time on their hands could ensure return business to boot. Win, win. – RICHARD WORLAND. Manifold Heights

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