SI Vault
John Underwood
June 21, 1965
France's Michel Jazy, who set records in the mile and 5,000 meters last week, prefers racing the clock at home to meeting tough foreign competitors like Peter Snell and distance man Ron Clarke
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June 21, 1965

The Big Three Are Miles Apart

France's Michel Jazy, who set records in the mile and 5,000 meters last week, prefers racing the clock at home to meeting tough foreign competitors like Peter Snell and distance man Ron Clarke

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Michel Jazy, that famous French recluse, ran a mile in 3:53.6 last week, an astounding achievement even for a man who has taken on some of the finest clocks in the world. When they heard of this world record in Toronto, Peter Snell of New Zealand and Ron Clarke of Australia indicated they would like to get at Jazy in the worst way. The expectation, therefore, was that Jazy would now go on vacation for a month. He races the best clocks, not the best people.

Snell especially is eager for a meeting with Jazy because, until the word trickled out of France by radio, television, telephone, newspaper, special courier, wire service, pony express and Frenchmen shouting across the Channel as loud as they could that Jazy had done this thing, Snell was suffering from the funk a great competitor naturally falls into when he has reason to believe that he has run out of competition. He was, as it turned out, unnecessarily concerned. Not only did Jazy lower Snell's mile record, Canada's Bill Crothers beat him in the 880 not many hours after he had learned of the first disaster. Ron Clarke, who has become the best distance runner in the world, fared better. He won his three mile race in Toronto and he has a higher regard for Jazy—whom he has met and considers very much a part of the international running scene—than does Snell. But Clarke, too, would like to meet the Frenchman mano a mano again.

The incidents that brought all this ardor to a head—not active, eyes-flashing, shoe-pounding ardor, you understand, but that understated, tight-smile, outback-British kind that is more ominous—occurred over a 48-hour period and some 3,200 miles apart. For the awesome, black-shirted Peter Snell, winner of three Olympic gold medals, it was one of those two-day adventures a man might wish himself into if the alternatives were a snowslide or a flaming warehouse. Snell, at 26, with no more heads to break, is committed to a retirement schedule that takes him through July. He was in Canada with Clarke for a meet with a strong international field, the kind Jazy does not ordinarily mix in, and was off seeing Niagara Falls on Wednesday when Jazy and three co-conspirators—his pacers—got together in Rennes on a cool night on a track surrounded by weeping willows. "Well orchestrated" was a way to describe Jazy's mile run, but when he finished he was convinced he had not beaten Snell's record (3:54.1). So he complained, prematurely, "This track is rotten." The promoters, he intimated, had not handled things right although he had forewarned them that he would "attempt a great coup in Rennes." Then the announcer exploded, "Three minutes fifty-three-and-six-tenths seconds, a new world record." And Jazy jumped about like a madman, hugging and kissing his teammates and shouting, "Let the party continue!"

The French have been predicting that Jazy would do this thing for years. He has been a hero—toasted, boasted, glass-enclosed—since the end of the '50s, when it became evident he was the first Gallic distance runner since Jules Ladoum�gue who could run a thousand yards without oxygen. Ladoum�gue held the mile record 34 years ago. Deservedly, a French carnation was named for Jazy—a nonwilting, bright-red specimen. For he is a fine runner, an excellent runner—perhaps anyone's equal.

If Jazy has a fault, it is that he is not naturally blessed with the equanimity of a Snell or a Clarke. Defeats are not defeats, they are national tragedies. Once when he lost in a little town in the southwest of France, he raged. "I thought I had been invited to give an exhibition," he said. "Instead it was a fierce fight.... Had I known I would never have come." All his records—the latest, a European record for the 5,000 meters set two days after the mile mark—have been set in France, mostly among friends. He has run against the world's best, but almost always he has lost the important race. At the Rome Olympics in 1960, he was second to Herb Elliott at 1,500 meters. In 1962 he lost to America's Jim Beatty at a mile in his only U.S. appearance. At Tokyo, where he moved up to 5,000 meters because of the competition at 1,500 (Snell), he was fourth to America's Bob Schul. The loss there was like "a strike of a hammer. I thought for a long time I would not recover," he said later.

Snell, who until last week had seldom had to recover from anything, was awakened at his hotel in Toronto on Thursday morning by a long-distance call from a correspondent who wanted to know: "What do you think of Jazy beating your record?" Another call or two (he told a L'�quipe reporter that "I can't wait to put my shoes on again. We must have a race, Jazy and I") and Snell was sufficiently weary of the question to seek isolation for the rest of the day in a private fiat as the guest of Sir Leon Gotz, the New Zealand high commissioner to Canada.

It was dusk in Toronto when he went out to race Bill Crothers. The meet, drummed up by a Canadian beer company, had drawn a surprisingly rich field of distance talent—Snell, Clarke, Schul, Crothers, Billy Mills—and since Crothers is Canadian, the crowd of 20,000 was especially aware of the 880. Crothers is a 23-year-old pharmacist from nearby Markham. Although he had lost to Snell in Tokyo and on three other occasions, they had become friends. On Tuesday they golfed together at The Willows, Snell shooting 90, Crothers 96. "But what did that matter?" asked Crothers' coach, Fred Foot. "Lately Bill has been able to withstand a much more rigorous training program than ever. He is miserable, despondent, moody, discouraged. I think he will win."

The first 440 yards were Snell's undoing. The pace was too slow. Running third, his time was around 55.6. Crothers, right behind him, was not pressed to stay up and, according to Snell, the Canadian "is a superior sprinter—a 440-880 man, whereas I am an 880-mile runner." To tire Crothers, Snell had to make a longer sprint, and before the last turn he surged ahead. Crothers, who had been boxed in until then, quickly forced a gap and flowed through, hard on Snell's right shoulder. At first, at the head of the straightaway, Snell thought he was clear. "I knew what Bill could do, but I thought I might make it anyway." Then, as Crothers closed, he realized he would not—his legs were rubbery. (They did not look rubbery, of course; when he runs Snell always looks like he just filled the tank and put in all new spark plugs.) Fifty yards from the string, Crothers passed him and won by two yards. Crothers' time was a rather tedious 1:48.4, but that did not concern the crowd, which was cheering wildly. Arthur Lydiard, Snell's coach, was moved to say, "What a great thing it is for Canadian track."

It was, of course, not so great for Peter Snell. But he stayed on till the end of the meet, carefully, meticulously answering questions for this knot of reporters and that. He talks softly, with long, thoughtful pauses, and he plucks absently at his black sweat suit as he thinks them over. Why had he not accelerated in the stretch as he usually does? "I, uh [pause], put out all the effort I had at my disposal." Would he like another go at Crothers? "Uh, I would [pause], but I am more interested at this stage in Jazy." Was he surprised at Jazy's record? "No, it is something I have expected for a long time, but, uh [pause], not necessarily from Jazy. It is a record that should be lowered, but, uh [short laugh, smile], I hoped to lower it myself." What if Jazy refuses to meet you? He has not been too eager to meet you, has he? "Uh [pause, smile], it has not appeared so, no."

Snell said his schedule called for him to run in Walnut, Calif. and San Diego and Helsinki, London, Dublin, Prague, Oslo, Berlin and twice in Sweden in the next six weeks. "I, uh, am sure he [Jazy] has the same invitations." He said if he had to lose in the 880 he was "glad it was to Crothers. He is a nice bloke." But he said he understood Crothers would be going to Europe next month, "and, uh [smile], I will be there."

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