‘My God, he’s done it! Jack! Come on! –Commentator Harold Abrahams at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

By Roger Childs

The Tokyo Olympics have come to an end and it has been a fantastic two weeks of exciting entertainment. One of the last track races is traditionally the 1500m run for men. This time it was a first for Norway with Jakob Ingelbrigtsen winning comfortably. 

New Zealand’s Nick Willis, running in his fourth Olympics made it to the semis, but getting to the final was a race too far. However, he remains a part of a proud record of seven Kiwi medals over the distance – more than in any other event in the history of the Games. 

It all started in Berlin in front of a crowd of 120,000 including Adolf Hitler, in 1936.

The legendary Jack Lovelock

In the 1930s the mile and the metric equivalent the 1500m were popular events in men’s athletics and huge crowds would turns up to watch the very competitive races. Lovelock had been seventh in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, but was better prepared for Berlin. There were 12 in the final and this field included a number who had beaten Lovelock in the Games four years earlier. 

The New Zealander regarded American Glen Cunningham, Luigi Baccali from Italy and Swede Eric Nye as his toughest competition. Baccali had won in Los Angeles and Cunningham had been fourth. 

Cunningham took the lead with just over two laps to go and increased the pace, however Lovelock was close behind. Tactically the big sprint for the finish in the 1500m usually began with 200m to go and the New Zealander sensed that the field was anticipating that this would happen once again. He contemplated taking the lead at the beginning of the bell lap, but Nye was between him and the American. However there was still time to spring a surprise. 

I felt the tension of the field relax and realized sub-conscientiously perhaps, that everyone was taking a breather – ready for a hard last 200m. So at the 300m mark I struck home, passed Cunningham and gained a 5 yard break … It was as usual, a case of catching them napping and for all practical and tactical purposes the race was over 300m from home.

So it proved – Lovelock kept up a steady pace, pushed hard in the front straight and finished 10m ahead of Cunningham and 15m ahead of Baccali. I finished in perfect form, relaxed & comfortable. 

Lovelock’s dramatic surge famously caused the BBC radio commentator, 1924 sprint gold-medallist Harold Abrahams, who was a friend of Lovelock, to forget his broadcasting etiquette: ‘My God, he’s done it! Jack! Come on! … He wins! He’s won! Hooray!’ Lovelock’s time of 3 minutes 47.8 a new Olympic and world record.

More medals

On 21 October 1964 New Zealand champion Peter Snell crosses the finish line to win the gold medal in the Olympic 1500 metres event at the Olympic stadium in Tokyo.

Peter Snell had an unexpected 800m win in the 1960 Games in Rome and at the Tokyo Olympic four years later he was regarded as the best middle distance runner in the world. He duly comfortably completed the 800m /1500m double and amazingly, given the intense competition, Kiwi John Davies picked up a bronze medal in the longer race. This is the only time New Zealand has won two Olympic medals in the same event.

On to the Munich Olympics in 1972, Rod Dixon from Nelson won bronze in the 1500 metres. Unfortunately, the All Blacks playing the Springboks in apartheid South Africa disrupted the Montreal Olympics four year later, as most African countries boycotted the event. 

Two years before at the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, New Zealander John Walker was just beaten by Tanzanian Filbert Bayi in the 1500 metres with both runners breaking the world record. Bayi unexpectedly took the lead virtually from the start and had a big lead by the end of the third lap. Walker closed the distance, but not quite enough finishing one second behind!

Sadly, the boycott of the Olympic Games in Canada denied the two great middle distance athletes the chance to meet again and Walker won a rather hollow gold medal in a close race which lacked Bayi and other competitive African runners.

The remarkable Nick Willis

Nick has just competed in his fourth Olympics and with two medals to his credit is the only New Zealander to be on the podium twice in the 1500m. In Tokyo last week, at the age of 38 he did make the semi-finals, and this was an appropriate last hurrah for the Lower Hutt athlete. 

Back in Beijing in 2008 he finished third in the 1500 metres, but this was upgraded to silver after “winner” Raschid Ramez from Bahrain tested positive for drugs. Interestingly it was announced 10 years later! that the Kenyan Asbel Kiprop, who was given the gold medal, had tested positive for the performance enhancing EPO drug. So theoretically, Nick Willis should have been declared the winner.

In London four years later he finished a disappointing 9th in the final, but then in the 2016 Rio Games at the age of 34 he came from behind in the front straight to come third in the 1500 metres.

It all started in Berlin with Jack Lovelock winning gold. Then 80 years later Nick Willis took bronze in Rio de Janeiro to give New Zealand its seventh medal in the blue ribbon 1500m event.