May 21, 1956
With the Olympics returning to Australia in 2000, John Landy has again been called to the service of his country. In February 1998, Landy, a former world-record holder in the 1,500 meters and the mile—the second man to run the latter distance in less than four minutes—was named to the board of the Australian Sports Drug Agency, his country's watchdog against the use of illicit performance enhancers. The banned drug that most scares the 69-year-old Landy is erythropoietin (EPO), an anemia medication that increases production of red blood cells and is almost impossible to spot in drug testing. The drug was at the center of last summer's Tour de France scandal and threatens to cast a shadow over the Sydney Games.
This isn't the first time Landy has helped Australia prepare for the Games. In May 1956 he was sent by his homeland's Olympic organizers on a two-week tour of Hawaii and California to fan American interest in the Melbourne Games. The trip was reported on the front pages Down Under, and Landy was besieged by American reporters at every stop.
At the time, Landy's worldwide fame was closely connected to Roger Bannister's. Just 46 days after Bannister's May 6, 1954, shattering of the four-minute barrier, Landy, who many had expected to be the first miler under four minutes, surpassed Bannister's record by 1.4 seconds. Their August '54 showdown at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver had the buildup of a championship prizefight, garnering such headlines as THE MILE OF THE CENTURY and DUEL OF THE FOUR-MINUTE MEN. A capacity crowd of 32,000 roared as Bannister, using his patented kick on the final stretch, caught Landy from 15 yards behind and won in 3:58.8. Today Landy plays down the rivalry with Bannister. "Four minutes was not a psychological barrier," says Landy. "Someone was going to break it. If there hadn't been a war, it would have fallen 10 years earlier."
After a stint teaching grammar school science, in 1989 he became the chairman of the Wool Research Corporation, and later served as chairman of the Australian Meat Research Corporation. Landy has written two books on natural history: Close to Nature and A Coastal Diary. He lives in Melbourne with his wife, Lynne, and has two grown children. Landy says his two most memorable races were his loss to Bannister in Vancouver and a crushing defeat in the Melbourne Games 1,500 at the hands of Ireland's Ron Delany. (Landy won the bronze medal.) Still, he says, "I may have lost the two biggest races of my running career, but the sport has been a big part of a very rich life."