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Thursday, 26 November 2015

Memories Are Made of This - Death of a Good Guy 2: Champion of Everything

Yes, it's the same bloke! Appearing in The Canberra Times on February 5, 1989, more than eight years before I arrived here! This photo illustrated part of a series of articles on health and fitness Norman Harris wrote and which were syndicated by London's The Independent. The series was developed from Norman's 1982 book, The Sports Health Handbook. As with rock 'n' roll, I was constantly a good few years behind Norman!
At the very moment my friend Norman Harris dropped down dead in a street in Richmond, London, last Friday (quite close to where, 40 years earlier, he and I used to sit together in the Press Box at Twickenham rugby stadium) I was in Canberra, Australia, busily trying to find Norman on the Internet, so I could get back in touch with him. I did find a postal address in Hexham, on Wesley Cottage Shield Street, Allendale, but not an email address, so it was going to have to be a typewritten letter. Too late, she cried! More of that exceedingly spooky coincidence later ... 
Peter Snell beats Keith Forman of Oregon University to win for New Zealand
the 4 x one mile relay "Test" and world record attempt at Trafalgar Park in Nelson
in early January 1963, one of the most memorable sporting events I have ever seen.
In his book about Oregon coach Bill Bowerman (creator of the Nike running shoe), former
champion US athlete Kenny Moore quotes Bowerman on how close Forman came to
holding Snell off. That's not my 52-year-old recollection of how it happened.
Snell put in a blistering sprint at the end of the back straight, and went past Forman
as if Forman had been hit by a shotgun. By the way, Bowerman picked up the jogging craze in New Zealand at this time and took it to the US - the word "jogging" having been coined by Norman Harris.
Writing a tribute to my old friend yesterday recalled many very special memories. Among the myriad of things I admired about Norman as a journalist was his indomitable grit and persistence in getting a story. On May 24, 1976, I was sitting in a hotel room in what I regarded as "the end of the earth", Palmerston North in the Manawatu in New Zealand, when, unexpectedly, the phone rang. It was Norman, calling from London, 11,632 miles away. How he had succeeded in tracking me down to that room, at that time and on that day, in that place, I shall never now know. It wasn't like me to stay put in the one spot for very long. Maybe Norman just got lucky. But with Norman, it usually had a lot more to do with exceedingly good planning, organisation and execution.
Norman Read wins the 50km walk in Melbourne in 1956.
We both worked for the sports section of London's venerable The Sunday Times, Norman as a staff member and me as an Irish "stringer" (a well-paid and fulfilling gig for which I'm sure I had Norman to thank). The Sunday Times was planning a colour magazine special edition leading into the Montreal Olympic Games in July of that year, and Norman had determined it should include a lengthy feature on Norman Read. Read was an Englishman who, denied the chance to represent Great Britain and Northern Ireland at the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, switched allegiance and stunned his countrymen, both old and new, by winning the 50km walk gold medal for New Zealand. Twenty years later, Norman Harris had in mind a "Where is he now?" piece. He knew where Read was (in New Plymouth) and put me in contact with the walker for an interview. I remember it as one of the best poundings I ever gave my Olivetti Lettera 32 portable typewriter - the story ran to some 1300 words, as I recall. Of course, Norman Harris had arranged for it to be cabled to London.
In Palmerston North, 1976
It was one of many assignments that I was happy for Norman to send my way. Over a period of almost 20 years, our paths crossed frequently, and I never found him anything other than gracious, humble, helpful and friendly. If only I could say as much for many other journalists I worked alongside, especially in the mid-70s. I like to think that in small ways I was able to return the favours: a lift to the airport here, a tip-off on a possible story there. When I returned to Australia and re-married, my well-to-do English mother-in-law asked what I wanted for Christmas. I told her an annual subscription to The Sunday Times, so I could keep abreast of Norman's writings. Not once was I ever less than impressed by anything he wrote.
Norman's father (Norman always called him "Father") was intensely proud of his son's writings but never overtly so. My dad was a little different, in that he took the attitude "Until you start earning money from it, I'll take you to any event, and arrange for you to meet any person who will assist you in achieving your ambition." Thus I got to meet Norman Harris for the first time, at a little stadium called Trafalgar Park in a cathedral city called Nelson, on January 5, 1963. I was not yet 15, but already an avid reader of Norman's athletics stories.
Fantastic image of 1964 Olympic Games 1500m bronze medallist, the late John Davies,
trying to shake off Oregon's Dyrol Burleson in Nelson. Burleson, sixth behind Herb Elliott in the 1500m at the 1960 Rome Olympics, was scheduled to run the last leg against Snell, but in an unsuccessful tactical move, switched places with Forman. Burleson thought he could give Forman a start on Snell - bad move! He had underestimated Davies' ability.
The event was an international track and field meeting of which the high point would be an unusual match race, a 4 x one mile "Test" between world record holders Oregon University and former world record holders New Zealand (which had broken the record at Santry Stadium in Dublin in 1961). The first "Test", at Eden Park in Auckland, had turned into a farce after Oregon's lead miler, a Canadian called Vic Reeve, tripped on a small flag post and fell as he rounded the last bend entering the home stretch on the first leg (these flag posts were not used in America). So a second "Test" was organised for the end of the tour, in Nelson, and my dad drove me there and back in a day (with my brother Ron and rugby friends Neil McAra and Brian Vieceli). It was a wonderful afternoon, capped by a marvellous, unforgettable race. The teams, far more concerned with winning than times, went nowhere near the world record, but what an incredible contest of wills! It wasn't the first time I'd seen Peter Snell run (that was in Greymouth in 1961), but boy I'd never seen anyone move that fast and that smoothly at the end of a mile (and only once since, in the form of John Walker at Belfield in Dublin in 1977). 
One of Norman Harris' special heroes, world long distance record breaker Bill Baillie,
leads off for New Zealand in Nelson against Canadian Vic Reeve.
Even at this point, our hearts were pounding with the intense excitement!
Among the tensely packed crowd of 13,000 at Trafalgar Park that day were two young locals, future champions John Dixon and his brilliant brother, the then (also) 14-year-old Rod (Olympic 1500m bronze medallist in Montreal and New York Marathon winner). In early 1969 I was sports editor of the Nelson Evening Post (at age 20!) and was at Trafalgar Park one evening when John and Rod attempted to break four minutes for the mile on that grass track. A few weeks later I was at the Recreation Ground in Greymouth when John Dixon erased Peter Snell's West Coast half-mile record, which I'd seen Snell set (in fact I held the finish tape) on the War Memorial Ground in Greymouth in 1961. Small world, small coincidences that stick in the memory!
Me, right, watching John Dixon run at the "Rec" in 1969. 
Trevor Sweeney is at the mike on the left.
Gary Philpott ran in the New Zealand 4 x one mile relay team
which set a world record at Santry Stadium in Dublin later that same year.
The great Murray Halberg, long past his best miling days (he had raced in
the Mile of the Century against Roger Bannister and John Landy in Vancouver
in 1954, with Baillie, and in the Melbourne Olympics 1500m final, with Neville Scott,
as well as against Herb Elliott in Elliott's world mile record performance at
Santry Stadium in Dublin in 1958). 
Here is Halberg in Nelson running the second leg of the relay against
Archie San Romani Jr. Archie's dad had been a champion middle-distance athlete
in the Jack Lovelock era before World War II, and set a world 2000m record
of 5min 16.8 in Helsinki in 1937. It stood for five years.
Above, the Oregon team of 1962-63 - from left, San Romani, Reeve, Burleson and Forman. Below, the New Zealand team in Dublin in 1961, from left, Philpott, Halberg, marathoner Barry Magee and Snell.
Snell wins a half-mile at an empty White City in London in June 1961.
Daylight was second, third, fourth and fifth.
I arrived at The New Zealand Herald sports department in Auckland in late 1967, almost two years after Norman had decamped for England. He was eight years ahead of me in age and probably a decade ahead of me in just about everything else (except for his writing, which I could never match). He even wrote of The Canberra Times long before I did! He found the soothing delights of Skibbereen in Ireland before me. Wherever he'd been, it seemed I followed, although more often from coincidence than design. Those coincidences came to haunt me last week when I went looking for where Norman was. My next port of call in this search was going to be a good mutual friend, Ron Palenski in Dunedin, but it was too late at night to be bothering Ron. The next morning Ron let me know Norman was dead. 
Back in the 70s, undaunted by the gap between us, I kept on pursing. I had long since decided that Norman's was the path to follow for a would-be Fleet Street sportswriter. In late 1972 the BBC flew me to London twice for interviews for a job with its Overseas News Service sports unit. Each time I took the opportunity to call in on Norman at Gray's Inn Road, and my happy ties with The Sunday Times started there. I also saw Norman during the 1972-73 All Blacks rugby tour, but fortunately wasn't at Peebles the day he was clobbered by Keith Murdoch (otherwise I'd have probably got involved, and also come off second-best). Norman did tell me what happened, but not the sanitised family-friendly version now found online. There was, Norman said, another reason Murdoch wanted into that hotel room.
Norman and I caught up again during the 1974 All Blacks tour and twice at the Crystal Palace track in London in 1975, once on a sunny Saturday afternoon (May 31), the other time on a warm Friday evening (August 29). I was in Nottingham covering the world rowing championships at Holme Pierrepont when John Rodda of The Guardian suggested he organise press passes and we jump into his red Mini, drive down to London, and watch New Zealander John Walker and Rod Dixon run in a mile event, after the rowing semi-finals had finished. Walker was Snell's successor as the world's greatest miler, the first man to run under 3min 50sec (in Gothenburg on August 12). 
This Walker-Dixon tour of 1975 led to Ivan Agnew's book Kiwis Can Fly. I had worked with Ivan in Greymouth from 1965-67, and the last time I had seen him was in the Press Box at Carlaw Park in Auckland during an Australia-New Zealand rugby league Test in June 1971, which I covered for The Australian. Lo and behold, I walked into the Press Box at Crystal Palace in London that August 1975 evening, and found myself sitting beside Ivan and in front of Norman!
John Walker, left, and Rod Dixon, centre, beaten by Filbert Bayi of Tanzania in a world record time in the 1500m final at the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1974. The bloke who ran last in this race was Randall Markey,  a fellow former West Australian journalist and a close friend of mine. He took a scholarship to Oregon University and now works in Canberra. Gee, it is a small world!
One regret I have is that Norman was still not writing athletics in New Zealand when my friend Dave McKenzie came along and won the 1967 Boston Marathon in record time, then ran 2hr 12min 25sec (still a very fast time) in Fukuoka. Dave, who was a printer at The Greymouth Evening Star when I started there as a cadet reporter in 1965, ran in two Olympic Games marathons, in Mexico City in 1968 and Munich in 1972. He'd have been perfect material for one of Norman's in-depth books about the running obsession, like his work on Neville Scott. Norman spoke on Radio New Zealand about distance runners being totally self-absorbed while competing. Dave loved horse racing, even more than running (his favourite story of mine was about the Melbourne Cup, not about him!), and Harry Van Looy, a Dutch immigrant and marathon runner who died in the 1967 Strongman mine disaster, often surmised that Dave thought of himself as Phar Lap when he ran marathons. It's a notion into which Norman would doubtless have delved. By the way, Dave had a very close friendship and rivalry with another Runanga runner, English cross-country champion Eddie Gray, who was a cousin of Ivan Agnew. Did I say it's a small world?
Dave McKenzie, wearing the "G" for the Greymouth Amateur Athletic Club,
breaks clear of the pack and heads for his win in a record time of 2hr 15min 45sec 
in a wet and windy Boston Marathon in 1967.
In everything he did, of course, Norman was as professional as they come. He prided himself on that. So it was a bit sad to read in his 2010 autobiography Beyond Cook's Gardens: A Writer's Journey that, 26 years after the event, he was still smarting about the one great gaff in his 55-year career. It happened at Lansdowne Road in Dublin on February 4, 1984, when a desperate Wales beat Ireland in a rugby union international. Norman had been meticulous in his planning to cover the match, yet he missed the identity of the Welsh try scorer. He got No 13 instead of No 12 (or was it the other way around?). In the excitement and the confusion, he turned for confirmation of his assumption to an off-duty Irish journalist, and got the wrong nod. Reading this, I felt awful, but at the same time kind of grateful I'd ceased covering Irish rugby five years previously, and was no longer sitting alongside Norman in the Lansdowne Road Press Box. It wasn't my fault Norman got the wrong man into his newspaper's first edition, and was left lamenting it for more than a quarter of a century, but I still hated reading that it happened.
Good friends were always only too willing to help Norman, because he was always a good guy. Toward the end of his life, Christopher Martin-Jenkins got him the gig of covering Durham county cricket for The Times, which he continued until 2013. That was merely one last favour. He was fully entitled to that.


Gordon Tillman said...

Robert I don't know where you dig up all of the great old photographs for your articles, but I sure do enjoy seeing them.

Joe V said...

Alas, it is unfortunate that you didn't have that chance to reconnect with Mr. Harris. Your recounting reminds me of an old friend who passed before I could talk to him one last time. But what a great writer he was! Thank you for all the work that goes into fine articles such as this.

~Joe Van Cleave

Richard P said...

I am sorry that you lost a friend.

Love that picture of you in '69, though!

Unknown said...

Hi Robert
Thanks for a wonderful article
My dad was Trevor Sweeney and it’s so wonderful to see a pic of him and a mention!
My daughter is doing a school project and didn’t believe me that my dad knew all these great athletes!
I’d love more pic’s of him if u come across more! Kimberlee Sweeney