John Walker Profile

Athletics: ‘I’d give up all my medals and records for my health’
The Interview - John Walker: A debilitating disease is slowing down one of the world’s finest runners. Simon Turnbull talks to the ‘Flying Kiwi’ ahead of his big London reunion
03 August 2003

Athletics: ‘I’d give up all my medals and records for my health’
The Interview - John Walker: A debilitating disease is slowing down one of the world’s finest runners. Simon Turnbull talks to the ‘Flying Kiwi’ ahead of his big London reunion
03 August 2003

It is 30 years now since John Walker first came to London. He didn’t quite conform to the accepted norm back then either. “Yeah, that was the AAA Championships in 1973,” he reflects, putting his feet up by the phone after a long day behind the counter at Stirrups, the equestrian-supply shop he runs at his farm in Manurewa, South Auckland. "I happened to knock four athletes over and they disqualified me. I paid my £1 and protested grievously, stayed disqualified and like a brash young 20-year-old said I’d never run in England again as long as I lived.

“I ate humble pie and ran there 87 times. It became like a second home to me.”

The New Zealand legend will be back in his second home as a VIP guest at the 50th-anniversary celebration of the Emsley Carr Mile at the Norwich Union Grand Prix meeting at Crystal Palace on Friday night. The “Flying Kiwi” won’t be breaking any rules this time. He will, however, be flying in the face of convention. For nine years now the man who pushed the world mile record through the 3min 50sec barrier has been slowed by the creeping debilitation of Parkinson’s disease. He has refused to let it bring him to a stop.

“Considering what I’ve got and how long I’ve had it, I’m actually remarkably well,” Walker says, without a hint in his quiet, cheery voice to contradict his claim. "There’s a lot more worse off than I am. I still work 14 hours a day running the shop. I also do council work four or five nights a week. And I look after the kids and go to football, and play golf and do a bit of tennis. I just get on with life.

“I think that’s probably the difference between myself and a lot of other people who have got this disease. Because it’s debilitating, a lot of people just give up and sit around and watch TV and just get depressed. But I believe you’ve got to keep the brain occupied. I get up and get out of bed every morning and go to work.”

Not that Walker can easily get on with his daily life. Like all Parkinson’s sufferers, he struggles with such menial physical tasks as putting on his shoes and tying his laces. He gets frustrated and overwhelmingly tired at times. He says he would willingly give up all of his medals and his world records for his health. “But I take three tablets a day and that helps to keep me going,” he swiftly adds. “It’s just one of those things.”

When Walker last visited Europe, five years ago, a Belgian doctor told him the illness might have been caused by a trauma he suffered at birth or by being exposed to chemicals and sprays at his farm. “It could be either or,” he says. “No one really knows. But I believe they’ll make a huge breakthrough one day with stem-cell research. I think that’s the future for a lot of people.”

The future for Walker is not so bright. He can expect his condition to worsen as the effect of the dopamine he takes three times a day gradually diminishes. For the time being, though, at the age of 51, he is as much of an inspiration as he was at the peak of his running powers, quietly getting on with his life in his beloved Manurewa, with his wife, Helen, and their four children: Elizabeth, 24, Richard, 19, Tim, 15, and Caitlin, 12. As well as running the family shop, he sits on Manukau City Council. “I’m chairman of the community development committee,” he says. “It keeps me pretty busy.”

It was ever thus. Few athletes were busier on the European circuit than the tall Kiwi with the flowing blond hair and the flowing long-legged stride. He became the first man to clock up a century of sub-four-minute miles, running his first in Victoria, British Columbia, in 1973 and his 129th and last at Gateshead in 1990. He was also the first miler to break 3min 50sec, running 3:49.4 in Gothenburg in 1975 - the year before his most famous victory, in the Olympic 1500m final in Montreal.

It says much for his modesty that Walker says he is “privileged” to be invited to the 50th-birthday celebrations of the Emsley Carr Mile. The race was inaugurated in 1953, in memory of Sir Emsley Carr, former editor of the News of the World, with the express intention of encouraging athletes to break through the four-minute-mile barrier. The Emsley Carr Mile Trophy is a book, bound in red Moroccan leather and now running to its second volume, which lists the result of every race and the signature of every competitor. The list of past winners includes Walker, Kip Keino, Jim Ryun, Filbert Bayi, Steve Ovett, Sebastian Coe, Hicham El Guerrouj and Haile Gebrselassie.

El Guerrouj, the holder of the world mile record, will be chasing a fourth successive win in the event at Crystal Palace on Friday night. Walker won just the once, at Gateshead in 1987. It was not his most memorable mile race in Britain, though. That was the Rediffusion Mile at Gateshead, three weeks after his Olympic triumph in Montreal in 1976.

“It was a windy, horrible day and this 19-year-old kid had a 40m lead on me with a lap to go,” Walker recalls. “I was thinking, ‘Gosh, is this guy going to come back?’ and I remember writing a letter back home to my coach saying, 'I nearly got beaten tonight by a young guy and I don’t even know who he was - somebody by the name of Sebastian Coe. Thank goodness the wind blew him backwards or he would have beaten me. Little did I know the impact this Sebastian Coe was going to have on the world after that.”

A week later the young Coe broke four minutes for the first time, running in that year’s Emsley Carr Mile at Crystal Palace. Walker was to finish behind Coe in the Briton’s three world mile record runs - in Oslo in 1979 and in Zurich and Brussels in 1981. He also finished down the field in Steve Cram’s record run in Oslo in 1985. “Shows you how long I was around,” he says.

“That was a new era, when the Brits came through,” Walker continues. “You have your time and day and I was lucky, I had four years at number one in the world. It’s probably more than most ever get. And I remained in the top 10 for the next 10 years. The best will always move on and a new era will come along. I was just fortunate that I made the most of my time and my place.”

Walker continued to compete at the highest level until 1990, when he made the final of the 1500m at the Commonwealth Games in Auckland. He always attributed his longevity to his ability to switch off from the pressures of the circuit. He made a point of drinking and socialising after every meeting. “That’s something I noticed when I was in Europe five years ago: that it’s changed so much,” he says. "The athletes were so serious. I guess that’s what professionalism has done to the sport. They sort of stayed in, quiet, and ate breakfast and lunch and dinner on their own, or with their agents. It’s probably changed for the better in a lot of ways. I mean they don’t have to run as many races. They earn a lot more money. They don’t have to suffer the indignity that we did: lining up for 500 bucks outside the meet-promoter’s door at 2am while he had dinner.

“But I think the crowd related more to us because we signed autographs for hours on end, we drank and ate with the meet promoters, we mixed with the athletes and partied afterwards. It was a way of life. I think a lot of sports have lost that. It’s a shame, because all sports need personalities and heroes that the kids can relate to.”

Not that the budding young sportsman in the Walker household is having much difficulty relating to the burgeoning new hero in New Zealand sport. Tim Walker plays on the wing for St Kentigern High School in Auckland, a position once occupied by Joe Rokocoko, the rugby union hat-trick hero of the All Blacks’ 50-21 walloping of the Wallabies last weekend.

“We’re on a roll,” Walker Snrº says, his patriotic blood stirred by mention of that Sydney slaughter. “We’ll win the World Cup. You can still say that England are the favourites - or the second favourites, as I call them. But this All Black team have grown 10 feet since they lost to them in June. They’d only been together for a week back then, but now they’re absolutely dynamic. And they’ll get better and better and better. I think they’re unbeatable.”

Much the same was said of John Walker when he was at his peak, striding clear of the rest in his All Black vest and shorts. They held a tribute function for him in Auckland in April and called it the “Mr Invincible” Dinner. Even serious illness, it seems, cannot get the better of him.

Biography: John Walker CBE

Born: 12 January 1952 in Papakura, New Zealand.

Major medals: Olympic 1500m gold, Montreal 1976. Commonwealth 1500m silver, 800m bronze, Auckland 1974. Commonwealth 1500m silver, Brisbane 1982.

World records: Mile: 3:49.4 Gothenburg 1975 (broke Filbert Bayi’s record of 3:51.0). 2,000m: 4:51.4 Oslo 1976 (broke Michel Jazy’s 4:56.2).

Milestones: Ran 129 sub-four-minute miles. First: 3:58.8 Victoria, British Columbia, 1973. Last: 3:57.02 Gateshead 1990. First man to run 100 sub-fours: at Mount Smart Stadium, (now the John Walker Stadium), Auckland 1985.
4 August 2003 19:28

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