SI Vault
Edwin Shrake
August 30, 1965
'Go,' they yell to their hero, and this summer in Europe France's brilliant Michel Jazy has responded with record-breaking bursts of speed that are among the most dramatic sights in sport
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August 30, 1965

Vas-y, Ja-zy! And He Went

'Go,' they yell to their hero, and this summer in Europe France's brilliant Michel Jazy has responded with record-breaking bursts of speed that are among the most dramatic sights in sport

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"An athlete is like a pregnant woman," he said. "I take the food I want. I drink my aperitif and my whiskey. I drink two glasses of wine with my food, smoke cigarettes if I wish. If I feel like eating sauerkraut, I'll eat it. If I'm hungry I'll eat several plates. There's no reason why a runner must live like a monk."

In August 1956 Jazy joined the air force and did 27 months of military service while continuing to run. He set a French record for the 1,500 meters in 1957, the same year he married blonde Irène Denis, a secretary from Paris. Out of the military at the end of 1958, Jazy faced the problem of earning a living. His employers at a printing plant had no sympathy with his absences or his training schedule. They made him work overtime. To the rescue came Gaston Meyer, editor in chief of the French daily sports newspaper L'Équipe. Convinced Jazy could be a champion, Meyer gave the young runner an afternoon typographer's job, which enabled him to train in the mornings. Domesticity suited Jazy perfectly. "Married life did me a great deal of good," he said. "There is nothing like regular habits and a home to give an athlete that essential stability. It has been my great luck to marry a woman who is intelligent and reasonable and encouraging and also understands how dear to my heart racing is."

The world began to notice Jazy in 1960 in Rome. "If I had tried to keep up with Elliott that day I would have dropped in a heap and they would have picked me up with a shovel," he said. But he was all at once a runner to be watched. In Versailles on June 28, 1961 he was a member of the French 6,000-meter world-record relay team. In January of 1962 he went to Los Angeles to run the mile against Jim Beatty and lost the race by a few inches. "I assure you I am not seeking an excuse for my defeat," he said, "but it was the first time I was running on an indoor wooden track. Furthermore, the meet organizers didn't hold up a sign indicating what lap it was. Over the loudspeaker I couldn't hear the English numbers. I heard, 'One, two, sree, four, five, seex,' but what comes after seex? I attacked with only one and a half laps to go and that was too late."

Jazy, however, was hovering at the edge of supreme success. It was waiting only for another June—his finest month. In June of 1962, five months after losing to Beatty, Jazy went to Charléty Stadium in Paris to run the 2,000 meters and set a world record of 5:01.6, a record that still stands. Less than two weeks later, at Saint-Maur, he beat Gordon Pirie's world record for the 3,000 meters.

Quickly Jazy was flooded by fan mail. Magazines started doing feature articles on him. L'Équipe's Robert Parienté wrote a book about him. He was recognized in the streets—and not just by track fans. Jazy was as much a celebrity as Jean Gabin. His phone rang continually. "But I am no different from any other man," said Jazy. "Perhaps I only work harder."

In 1963—again in June—Jazy returned to Charléty to go after Beatty's 8:29.8 world record for the two miles. A gray, hammering rain seemed to have washed out his chances, but 20 minutes before the race the sky had cleared and the race could begin. At 3,000 meters Jazy's time was announced at 7:59.8—almost three seconds behind Beatty with only 218 meters to go.

The chant started: "Vas-y, Ja-zy!" Jazy snapped into his sprint, a rocketing shift of gears that shoots him forward like a dash man coming out of the blocks. He did the last 200 meters in an astounding 26.8 seconds and broke the tape at 8:29.6 for another world record. The newspaper Le Monde wrote: "Jazy raised himself into the ranks of the great finishers in the history of track. He can now be compared to Peter Snell." Jazy was delighted. "When I heard my time at 3,000 meters I didn't think I had a chance," he said. "My spirit wasn't keeping up with my legs. Then I don't know what happened. I felt myself freed from a feeling of oppression, and off I went."

Seven weeks later Jazy set a European record in the 1,500 meters. Confidently, he went to Sweden to try for Snell's mile record. But training with Wadoux in the wooded mountains of Valadalen, Jazy suffered a seemingly disastrous accident. He was running a bit ahead of Wadoux, who tripped over a tree root. As Wadoux fell he crashed against Jazy, and both men went down. When they got up they saw blood on the inside of Jazy's right ankle. One of Wadoux's spikes had torn a 2½-inch gash diagonally across the ankle and had cut it to the bone. They were four kilometers from the Valadalen village, and Jazy was bleeding badly. Wadoux ran for help. Another French runner, Jean Pellez, ripped his shirt into a bandage to wrap around Jazy's ankle and carried the injured man two kilometers until met by Wadoux with a stretcher. But it was 40 kilometers from Valadalen to the nearest doctor, and an hour and a half went by before he was attended to. The doctor sewed up the wound and gave Jazy a tetanus shot, which caused a reaction in his nervous system.

For the next two weeks Jazy could not run and he lost three pounds. When he did start racing again he had also lost his quality. He was not to regain it until this June, when he burst out with a brilliance that stunned the world of track.

In Paris, Jazy's life is a disciplined one. He is awakened at 6 each morning by his two daughters—Pascale, 5, and Véronique, 2—who jump onto his bed. "I don't get more than six or seven hours of sleep at most," he said. "I could use more. But I see my family so little as it is, and I look forward to playing with my little girls." After a cup of strong black coffee, Jazy goes to the woods near his home and does his morning run of about 15 kilometers. By 11 he returns to the house for a shower and lunch. In the afternoon he goes to his office off the Champs-Elysées. Having left L'Équipe, he is now attaché de direction, a public relations man, for Perrier, the mineral-water company. He presents trophies to sports champions, hangs around cafés, works in the office pushing Perrier water. At 6:30 Jazy leaves his office and goes to a nearby golf course, where in good weather he runs another 15 kilometers barefoot. After dinner he usually watches television with his wife and daughters. Outside of his family Jazy is very much a loner. He has no official coach, having split up with Frassinelli. "If an athlete doesn't know how to take care of himself," Jazy said, "he'd better quit the competition."

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