Clarke seems justified. In Europe before the Mexico Games he defeated 10,000-meter champion Naftali Temu of Kenya and 5,000-meter gold and silver medalists Mohamed Gammoudi of Tunisia and Kip Keino of Kenya by margins that were comparable to those by which they beat him in the Games.
But there were other chances for gold. In the 1964 Olympic 10,000, Clarke led for most of the race and was outkicked by Billy Mills of the U.S. and Gammoudi. In the 1966 Commonwealth six-mile in Kingston, Jamaica, Clarke led most of the race and was beaten by Temu. At the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, Clarke was still in front down the last backstretch, but was outkicked by Scotland's Ian Stewart. These races gave him his reputation for crumbling under pressure. And even though they came following injuries or in tropical heat or during Clarke's decline toward retirement, in each he was probably the equal of any other entrant. Except for the peculiar nature of his running, he might have won them all.
Ron Clarke defied the one edict that, in contests among equals, approaches law: The Pacesetter Never Wins. Front running has an element about it of keeping one's nerve that men in high places know. The leader competes against footsteps, specters. He struggles to escape the clinging pack at the same time he fights to down his own cowardice. "There is fear," says Clarke. "I usually didn't think I'd be able to finish until I got into the last lap."
The follower has only to match the leader's pace. He enjoys a comparative calm in which he can relax and conserve his emotional energy for a final, unanswerable assault. Given these realities, few men running at the head of a pack can avoid a feeling of sacrifice. Steve Prefontaine, explaining the savagery of his bursts to break contact with his followers, says, "I hate to have people back there sucking on me."
Ron Clarke was a front runner, yet not in the classic mold of an athlete who has no finishing kick and therefore must set a hard pace out of desperation. On those rare occasions when Clarke followed instead of led, he outsprinted such fast finishers as Keino and West Germany's Harald Norpoth. Shunning expediency, Ron Clarke was a front runner out of principle. He accepted each of his races as a complete test, an obligation to run himself blind.
Over a late dinner of salad, a lean steak and five glasses of chartreuse Vigorade, he makes his case.
"The single most horrible thing that can happen to a runner is to be beaten in the stretch when he's still fresh. No matter who I was racing or what the circumstances, I tried to force myself to the limit over the whole distance. It makes me sick to see a superior runner wait behind the field until 200 meters to go and then sprint away. That is immoral. It's both an insult to the other runners and a denigration of his ability."
So Clarke took the lead in Tokyo and Kingston and even in Mexico with the understanding that doing so was likely his ruin. "If you're the world record holder, as I was, and nobody else will set the pace and make a real race of it, and it's your style to have a demanding pace, then you have to do it yourself. If that is going to diminish your chances of winning, well, you still have to do it. I was very conscious of that pressure. Perhaps one should resist it. I couldn't."
Although he calls it his "style" or "impatience," Clarke's flaw was a driving moral imperative to go flat out, to impose an order on each race, to make sure the winner was the fastest, toughest competitor. "I loved testing myself more than I feared being beaten," he says, "and front running is the ultimate test. You need a total, irrevocable commitment to see the race through to the end or it cannot justify your effort."
Clarke takes a text from his bookcase. "Any athlete who thinks he suffers ought to read this." The book is Heinrich Harrer's The White Spider, an account of the climbing of the North Wall of the Eiger in Switzerland, of the men who died attempting it and of those who finally succeeded. In it, one finds a passage Clarke has underlined: "There is nothing new to be said about the behavior of man in exceptional circumstances of danger or crisis.... I would not find better words than those used by the Athenian, Menander...'A man's nature and way of life are his fate, and that which he calls his fate is but his disposition.' "