THERE ARE JUST 10 MEN in the history of distance running who have set World Records at both 5000 and 10,000 meters. Any good track fan will be very familiar with Paavo Nurmi, Emil Zátopek, Vladimir Kuts, Ron Clarke, Lasse Viren, Henry Rono, Haile Gebrselassie, Kenenisa Bekele. And perhaps you’ll remember Sándor Iharos from Mihály Iglói’s remarkable Hungarian training group in the mid-’50s. The tenth is obscure, the Finn Taisto Mäki, who had a very brief time in the sun in ’39.
One thing that should strike you in reading this book about these 10 giants of the sport is how amazing the ’50s must have been for the European track enthusiast. While the current WR in the men’s 5000 is more than 15 years old (Bekele, May 2004, 12:37.35), for a 17-month period from May ’54 to October ’55, the WR was broken 7 times (1 unofficially), by 4 different runners—Zátopek, Kuts, Chris Chataway and Iharos. It was a period of great experimentation and advance in training methods, codified by coaches like Iglói and Woldemar Gerschler.
The author, one-time distance runner Richard Amery, is a coach, and editor and contributor to the Australian technical periodical Modern Athlete and Coach. My first thought on receiving the book was “Do I want to read about these folks again?” But Amery’s accounts of their development, competitive careers, and post-career successes and tribulations are so excellent that it all reads like a novel. And you get fun facts like Bekele and the Dibaba sisters—Tirunesh and Genzebe—all hail from the same small town in Ethiopia, Bekoji. A small town of 17,000 producing 3 athletes accounting for 10 Olympic gold medals.
Another fun fact: Roger Bannister’s mile breakthrough and subsequent Miracle Mile victory over Landy was not enough to earn him the BBC Sportsman Of The Year in ’54. That award went to Chris Chataway for his 5000 WR of 13:51.6, a remarkable victory over Kuts which had great exposure on British television.
These 10 did not run alone, and they certainly did not win every race they entered. Accordingly, their competitors are a big part of the book: Ville Ritola, Gaston Reiff, Gordon Pirie, Billy Mills, Kip Keino, Daniel Komen, Paul Tergat and many more. The reader is very much immersed in the history of distance running from Nurmi to the present. Though most of the protagonists also achieved multiple Olympic laurels, some for one reason or another did not. Clarke’s only Olympic medal was a bronze in the Tokyo 10K. Mäki, Iharos and Rono never even got to run in an Olympics.
Not all of the 10 were successful after their running careers ended. Kuts (dead at age 48), Iharos, and Rono had serious problems with alcoholism. Interestingly, Mäki’s job until retirement was with the Finnish state alcohol company.
The book is available from Book Depository for $30.84 and on Amazon for $27.50.