His first Olympic appearance at the age of 19 was also going to be the most memorable. On November 22nd, 1956, the young Australian middle distance runner Ron Clarke had the honour to light the cauldron at the opening ceremony of the Melbourne Games. In order to make the flame more visible to TV viewers, the organizers had added an extra portion of magnesia to the torch. "It was pure fireworks I was carrying with me", Clarke later remembered. When he lit the flame over Melbourne Cricket Ground, the blaze burnt his face and T shirt (picture: Fairfax Media via Getty Images).
On the track, Clarke was on fire rather late, with the first of his 17 world records coming in 1963 when he was already 26 years old. Before the 1956, he had broken the world junior record for the mile and finished second at the Australian trials. But officials considered Clarke to be to young and instead picked John Landy to run at the Games. Landy finished third in the 1500 meters at the Olympics behind surprise winner Ron Delany from Ireland. Clarke had to sit and wait.
By the time of the 1964 Games, Clarke was considered the favourite to win the 10,000 meters and also entered for the 5000 meters and the Marathon. But it was not going to be. On the home stretch of the 10,000 meters, Clarke was first passed by Tunisia's Mohammed Gammoudi. Then American Billy Mills sprinted past both to capture a sensational gold medal while Clarke had to settle for third. After this shocking defeat, he also played no major role in his other events, finishing ninth in both the 5000 meters and the Marathon.
His defeat in the 10,000 meters was typical for his major problem in championship races: Clarke lacked tactical flexibility, he always was the front runner which often resulted in poor finishing sprints. The fans loved him for his courage, but other runners capitalized on Clarke's main weakness and won the titles that eluded the great Aussie forever.
Nobody expected that his best chance for gold had already gone in Tokyo. Four years later, in the thin air and altitude of Mexico City, the African athletes took over long distance running with Clarke having no chance to fulfill his Olympic dream. He finished fifth in the 5000 meters and sixth in the 10,000 meters. At the finish of the 10,000 meters, Clarke collpased due to lack of oygen. "I was frankly worried that he might die", team physician Brian Corrigan said afterwards. When Clarke had to undergo heart surgery in the 1980s, he blamed the long-term effects of the races in Mexico (picture: The Australian).
Clarke retired from athletics in 1970, went on to work for Canon Corporation and as a TV expert and was elected mayor of his home town of Gold Coast in Queensland. Clarke died on June 17th, 2015.