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Lovelock, John Edward

by Roger Robinson


One of the most celebrated of all Olympic champions, John Edward (Jack) Lovelock was born on 5 January 1910 at Crushington, near Reefton. He was named after his father, John Edward Jones Lovelock, an energetic though ailing English immigrant, who was then superintendent of a goldmine battery. Jack's mother was Ivy Evelyn Harper, and he had a sister and brother. The family subsequently moved to Greymouth, Temuka and Fairlie. There, employed as manager of the Mount Cook Motor Company, John senior died in 1923, when Jack was only 13.

It has been surmised that this early loss was the source of Lovelock's drive to achieve, but he had already been dux of Fairlie primary school and won a Junior National Scholarship. After attending Fairlie District High School he was sent in 1924 as a boarder to Timaru Boys' High School where he developed the intellectual and sporting strengths that characterised his career. He became head prefect and dux and won a university scholarship, while also becoming the school's best boxer and cross-country runner and discovering extraordinary talent as a middle-distance runner. At 17 he devised a systematic programme of training, and at his final school sports in 1928 set an outstanding trio of records.

At the University of Otago in 1929–30, Lovelock studied medicine and progressed to national level as an athlete. Helped by Dunedin coach Bill Dryden, he became known for ideas such as practising precise pace judgement and using photography to perfect his fluid and springy running style. Beaten for the 1929 Otago one-mile championship by J. G. Barnes (later mayor of Dunedin), he won the title in 1930 and 1931 and twice ran in the New Zealand championship final, finishing third in 1931.

Lovelock was never to win a New Zealand title, as he gained a Rhodes Scholarship in 1930 and entered Exeter College, University of Oxford, in 1931. There he benefited from the company of Jerry Cornes, president of the Oxford University Athletic Club and a world-ranked miler, and the advice of Bill Thomas, who was redefining notions of the upper limits of hard training.

Lovelock also met Arthur Porritt, an earlier New Zealand Rhodes scholar and Olympic medallist, later governor general, who was practising in Britain as a surgeon. Porritt became a lasting friend and adviser to Lovelock, whom he described as 'intensely private'. This reticence was dropped only in the diaries that Lovelock now began to keep. These articulately detail the intellectual and emotional aspects of top-class racing and training, as well as scrupulously recording medical and nutritional observations.

Lovelock's athletic progress was astonishing. On 26 May 1932 he set a new British and British Empire record for the mile, 4 minutes 12.0 seconds, thereby becoming the fifth-fastest miler in history. Two weeks later he broke the world record for the rarely contested distance of three-quarters of a mile with a time of 3 minutes 2.2 seconds, which made him a leading contender for the 1932 Olympic Games at Los Angeles. Inexperienced at international level, he could finish only seventh in the 1,500 metres final as the top places went to Luigi Beccali (Italy) and Cornes. Lovelock vowed in his diary 'to square my account with Beccali & Co'. A year of perfectly judged preparation then produced, on 15 July 1933, 'the greatest mile of all time'. Lovelock defeated the powerful young American Bill Bonthron on his home track at Princeton University; both went under the world record, Lovelock's 4 minutes 7.6 seconds breaking it by almost two seconds.

In 1934 Lovelock ended his undergraduate career at Oxford as president of the University Athletic Club and moved to St Mary's Hospital Medical School, London. On the track he compiled three important one-mile victories at London's White City stadium: the English (Amateur Athletic Association) championship, another tactical defeat of Bonthron, and New Zealand's only gold medal of that year's British Empire Games, won in a style described as 'melodious prose'.

Meanwhile, however, the world records for 1,500 metres and one mile had fallen to Americans, Bonthron and Glenn Cunningham, and Beccali was also running fast times. With such a vintage of athletes, and major sports events now beginning to be broadcast live and filmed for newsreels, public interest in international one-mile racing had risen to a new level. American entrepreneurial flair assembled what was termed 'the mile of the century' at Princeton on 15 June 1935. In order to alleviate the pain caused by a knee inflammation and a swollen achilles tendon, Lovelock injected himself with a vaccine prepared by Alexander Fleming. Wearing, as usual, the New Zealand uniform of black with large silver fern, he outmanoeuvred Bonthron, Cunningham and Gene Venzke. His diary wryly records the 'terrific enthusiasm' of the crowds: 'I was mobbed by "Kind" but thoughtless enthusiasts'.

A year later it was German spectacle that provided the setting for Lovelock's finest moment. Though the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games were staged with theatrical grandeur, their abiding images were not Nazi symbols of the Übermensch but a humble black sprinter, Jesse Owens, and a frail-looking New Zealander. All Lovelock's main rivals for the 1,500 metres possessed greater basic speed. Lovelock's asset was his ability to sustain a pace close to his maximum and yet accelerate for an unpredictable period at the finish. He could have been supreme over 5,000 and perhaps 10,000 metres. Becoming aware of this, he experimented with longer distances and dithered even in Berlin about whether to contest the 5,000 as well as the 1,500 metres. At the last moment, at Lovelock's request, Arthur Porritt, the New Zealand team manager, made the decision. It was a wise one, leaving Lovelock fresh. He did, however, need an injection for pain in his knee.

The 1,500 final on 6 August 1936 was a race of powerful surges dominated by Cunningham, with Beccali poised to repeat his sprint of 1932. Then, still 300 metres from the finish, Lovelock surprised them with a decisive acceleration. Years later he spoke to the young Roger Bannister about the need 'to choose the moment for the unexpected finish'. The move played his greatest strength to perfection and neutralised his opponents' superior speed. Lovelock won, four metres clear, in 3 minutes 47.8 seconds, a world record by a full second, with Cunningham also under the old time. It was the first time an Olympic 1,500 metres winner had broken the world record since 1904 (only Herb Elliott of Australia has done it since, in 1960). It put the four-minute mile realistically within sight, and was New Zealand's first Olympic gold medal in athletics.

Yet the race was better than its statistics, widely acclaimed as the greatest ever, and on film it still sustains that kind of praise. The BBC commentator, Harold Abrahams, broke every broadcasting rule ('My God, he's done it! Jack! Come on!') and writers searched for phrases to describe Lovelock's genius, his alluring mix of frail grace with the sudden destructive strike.

There was one more mile of the century, in 1936, which Lovelock lost to the rising Archie San Romani, who had been fourth at Berlin. He went on from America to tour New Zealand as a guest of the government but hated the demands of public appearances and disappointed some audiences. He declined an offered appointment as national director of sport.

Returning to England, Lovelock graduated MB, ChB and practised in London, specialising in rheumatism, while also doing some freelance journalism and broadcasting. In the Second World War he served in the British Army as a medical officer on the home front. A fall from a horse while hunting in 1940 left him with severely damaged vision and a propensity to dizziness.

On 26 March 1945 in London, Lovelock married Cynthia Wells James, an American employed as a secretary at the American Hospital, and who also served in the Office of Strategic Services. They had two daughters, Mary and Janet. In 1947 they moved to Brooklyn, New York, where Lovelock worked as assistant director of physical medicine and director of rehabilitation at New York Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan. On 28 December 1949, suffering from influenza and dizziness, Lovelock fell beneath a New York subway train at Church Avenue station, Brooklyn, and was killed instantly.

Obituaries and all subsequent accounts have sought to define the artistic quality of Lovelock's running, meticulously crafted yet also inspired. His almost mythic status was confirmed at Berlin. It seems probable that no single event had been experienced through live commentary by as many people as listened to the radio that day. Coverage in newsreels and print journalism was extensive and the race is a major sequence in Leni Riefenstahl's classic film, Olympia. The story continues to gain from its highly charged context – 1930s Oxford, Anglo-American encounters, the new force of the media, Hitler's Olympics. Lovelock's own fey reticence has challenged writers to reconcile such a private enigma with such public accomplishment, while his sudden and early death exerts its usual fascination. A special recent New Zealand interest focuses on the ambivalence of the expatriate colonial, absorbed into English society yet ineradicably, and in Lovelock's case very publicly, a New Zealander.

From this potent mix have come two biographies, both making telling use of Lovelock's diaries, and a recent group of semi-fictional works: James McNeish's Lovelock, a television docudrama, and a stage play, David Geary's Lovelock's dream run. While these have included speculation about fascist sympathies, obsessive perfectionism or hysterical suicide, they nevertheless testify that Lovelock continues to attract the 'terrific enthusiasm' that so amused him in America, and reduced the urbane voice of the BBC to the schoolboy babble of 'Lovelock wins! Five yards, six yards. He wins! He's won! Hooray!'

Links and sources


    Colquhoun, D. ed. As if running on air: the journals of Jack Lovelock. Nelson, 2008

    Harris, N. The legend of Lovelock. Wellington, 1964

    Lovelock, J. E. Papers, 1924–1948. MS-Group-0012. WTU

    Tobin, C. Lovelock: New Zealand's Olympic gold miler. Dunedin, 1984

How to cite this page:

Roger Robinson. 'Lovelock, John Edward', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998, updated January, 2002. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 July 2024)