Going the distance, Roger Robinson

Conquerors of Time
Lynn McConnell
SportsBooks, UK£10.00,
ISBN 9781899807888

January 5 was the centenary of the birth of Jack Lovelock. A cake was cut at Timaru Boys’ High School, and a plaque was unveiled at his unlikely birthplace, the literally-named Crushington, where his father was then a goldmine battery superintendent. From that dot on the Inangahua River, Lovelock went on to become Rhodes scholar, Oxford icon, world-record breaker, paragon of Olympic champions, published author, medical researcher, and in the course of 100 years a near-mythic figure. In New Zealand and overseas, he has a long history of fascinating writers (and, in the case of Leni Riefenstahl, a film-maker) who are not specialists in sport, but have been intrigued by the mix of science and artistry in his running, and of mischief and mystery in his personality. He even made the cover of New Zealand Books. In that Summer 2009 issue, scholar David Colquhoun, who splendidly edited Lovelock’s journals (As if Running on Air, 2008), dealt with the confusions of fact and fancy that have grown up, which I will not revisit.

With Conquerors of Time, the only fanciful thing in the book is the title. That comes from a poem about a Lovelock race by the great American journalist Grantland Rice, in days when there was nothing inappropriate about a sports journalist breaking into rhapsodic poetry. Lynn McConnell quotes the rapture and lyricism inspired in eye-witness writers by Lovelock and his 1930s rivals, but his own narrative is plain, no-frills, and assiduously researched.

An experienced New Zealand sports journalist and author (Mils Muliaina: Living the Dream) and historian (Galatas 1941), McConnell brings both skills to the job of looking beyond Lovelock, to the whole era from 1932 to 1936, when an unparalleled generation of one-mile runners transformed the public perception of sport, its media presentation, and its place in Depression-era culture.

You may think you have heard only of Lovelock, but if you ever sang along with Cole Porter you got the point of this book – “You’re the top/You’re a Roosevelt smile/You’re a Bonthron mile ….” That’s Bill Bonthron of Princeton, defeated arch-rival in some of Lovelock’s greatest races. Told he had broken the world record in second place in 1933, Bonthron replied “Aw, nerts! He beat me.” By 1936 Bonthron was world record holder for the Olympic distance of 1500 metres, but couldn’t even make the American team for Berlin– that’s how good and how deep this generation was.

They were also a novelist’s Christmas in their range of personalities and dramatic life stories. I always thought of Bonthron as the quintessential Princeton boy, big, handsome, crewcut, patrician, and tactically gormless, but McConnell tells me that his father came from a family of Scots fishermen who finally tired of their men dying at sea and moved to the Ontario goldfields. He tells better than it has ever been told how Glenn Cunningham came to suffer horrific burns as a seven-year-old – the shrivelled skin on his legs is visible even in photographs of him chasing Lovelock in the 1936 final.  His brother died. McConnell adds the strange detail that the other top Americans also suffered childhood injuries, Bonthron electrocuted when he fell out of a tree onto wires, and Gene Venske shot by a teenage friend while out hunting. He carried 31 pieces of buckshot in his legs as he, too, chased Lovelock in Berlin.

Most colourful of all was the Italian, Luigi Beccali, Olympic champion in 1932 and third to Lovelock and Cunningham in 1936. David Groves has provided McConnell with some molto vivace translations of Beccali’s operatic Italian: “Oh it was glorious. Nice to win, yes. But oh, such fun! A grand race! A wonderful race! The most fun I ever had; never such pleasure for Luigi before.”

And McConnell takes these stories through to their conclusions. Beccali, who had moved to New York in 1937, was conscripted into the American army in WWII, serving in Iran. In the McCarthy era, his wife’s family restaurant in New York, where he occasionally helped as a waiter, was occasionally patronised by the Rosenbergs. After their arrest as spies, despite having been a supporter of Mussolini and open opponent of Communism, Beccali and his wife were deported back to Italy for a year.

Canadian Phil Edwards (who sometimes represented his native British Guiana), the only black runner in the 1936 1500 final, overcame repeated racism to become a distinguished specialist in tropical diseases. Cunningham, the unsmiling introvert from a Kansas settlement as tiny and remote as Crushington, earned a PhD, became a spokesperson for Prohibition, and set up a series of ranches where children in trouble with the law could learn (free) to care for animals and each other.

Bonthron rose in Price Waterhouse. Lovelock became assistant director at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. Sydney Wooderson returned to athletics after the war, won the European 5000 metres, but was dropped from carrying the Olympic flame into the London stadium in 1948 because he was too skinny-looking. “We couldn’t have had poor little Sydney,” said the Queen.

McConnell visited all the families and discovered treasure. “Didn’t Grandfather have some boxes of stuff in the attic?” wondered Bonthron’s family, fortunately still living at Princeton. The materials of sports history are that vulnerable. McConnell used resources like the Amateur Athletic Foundation Library in Los Angeles, but even in America much is being dumped as generations pass.

Ageing sportspeople in New Zealand have things that could be vital to preserving our culture for study. The statues of Arthur Lydiard and Peter Snell are very nice, but I’d like to see some money used to preserve their scrapbooks, journals and letters. Fortunately, archival salvage work has begun, at the Alexander Turnbull Library as well as within the sport of athletics.

Although the book’s race narratives are good in their straightforward way, its originality and importance are in this background biographical material. McConnell mostly lets it speak for itself, but there are wider conclusions to be drawn. One that struck me is that none of this unique generation of elite athletes came from the privileged backgrounds we associate with 1930s Olympic sport, except Lovelock’s Oxford mentor Jerry Cornes. “Poor” is the word that recurs. With Cunningham and Venske it could be dirt-poor. “I haven’t any money,” Lovelock told his training partner Harold Pollock at Otago University in 1930, as motive for bidding for a Rhodes. Beccali really wanted to be a race cyclist but couldn’t afford a bike.

It’s one of the mysteries and attractions of distance running, that most demanding of sports, that so many of its best exponents come from such beginnings, even in a constrained era like the Depression. It speaks eloquently for human aspiration, the desire for excellence or success in terms unrelated to money or power. Don’t suspect under-the-table payments, which were rare and trivial until the 1960s. When Venske wrote a Saturday Evening Post article, he was told by the American Olympic committee that he had to give the fee to “a worthy cause” – them, for example. Venske had the cheque framed.

The book’s international scope is refreshing, but I should end with Lovelock. His daughter Janet, in a tribute sent to Timaru Boys’ High School, subtly sketched his personality: “He … was quiet, very thoughtful … He was happy and well liked, for he had a certain charm which attracted people to him … Yet there was mystery about him, unpenetrated even by those who knew him best.”

Mystery, again: McConnell serves the legend well, but his will not be the last word.


Roger Robinson is Emeritus Professor of English at Victoria University and in April received the USA’s 2009 Excellence in Running Journalism Award.


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