In coming so near to perfection in running by the age of 22, Herb Elliott has given his life a curious finality that is possible only in sport—and set himself some tough problems for the future. No other athlete in Rome commanded such superiority over his rivals, no other athlete emerged with that elusive magic of victory which the Greeks sought, in such abundance.
It was a relaxed and attractively casual Elliott who turned up for the 1,500-meter heats, walking barefoot, without a sweat suit and carrying his spikes in his hand. No one else can afford to look as casual as he. Inside him it was different—as Dave Power, his Australian companion and teammate, put it: "He's a killer, in racing and training." The heats saw the elimination of the only European Elliott gave any sign of having heard of—Siegfried Valentin of Germany, who has run a 3:56.5 mile and a 3:39.3 1,500 meters.
As Elliott and his eight rivals walked out for the final, the frenzied crowd was already tautened to the breaking point by a world-record 400-meter finish. The 1,500-meter finalists were halted on the way to the start by the 400-meter victory ceremony. There was polite and sincere applause for America's first-place Davis, and a baying ei ei ei for Germany's second-place Kaufmann, the sort of premonitory roar that gives a 1,500-meter runner waiting for the gun a final spurt of adrenalin—one that nearly makes him ill.
If Elliott thought of his tactics, and he barely ever needs to, his thoughts must have run something like this: "A loose track, but bound by last night's storm, fast enough for a world record. An awkward wind up the finishing straight, so I hope someone will lead. Percy wants a record, but right now I'll settle for the medal. The sooner I start my finish the safer I am, with this bunch of fast finishers." But niceties of pace, judgments and tactics have previously been superfluous for Elliott, and so it proved this day.
Having drawn the pole, Elliott let Bernard of France, Waern of Sweden and Vamos of Rumania pass him, and held the fourth position. Bernard seized the lead decisively and took the field through a 58.2 first lap. This was a piece of rare good fortune for Elliott and brought the world record within his grasp. At the time it looked like collusion between the French, with Bernard attempting to help his teammate Jazy, but Bernard later stated that, according to Olympic tradition, he and Jazy were running their own races. He led only because he thought, unwisely I am sure, this improved his chance of winning.
Burleson and Grelle stayed at the back, out of trouble. The reduction of the size of the field to nine men helped the Americans, who lack experience of crowded fields. Since no more than 12 yards covered the whole bunch, with an effective pacemaker at the head, this was by far their wisest course of action.
In the second lap Elliott remained fourth, running slightly wide, but happy, no doubt, to pay this small price for preserving his tactical freedom. Jazy and Rozsavolgyi trailed warily behind Elliott. Percy Cerutty, a wizened man with the blazing eye of an Old Testament prophet, who first fired Elliott with enthusiasm for running, could be seen crouching on the outside of the track at the start of the last bend. An infringement of international track Rule 18 (no coaching from the sidelines) apparently was imminent.
At the half mile, passed by Bernard in 1:57.8. Elliott moved deliberately into second place at Bernard's shoulder, boxing Waern and keeping Rozsavolgyi outside him. With 600 meters left, Elliott eased past Bernard, and there was no challenge from the astonished Frenchman. Bernard was no doubt horrified that there was any athlete alive who could find a 1:57.8 half mile so unsatisfactorily slow that he felt obliged to take the lead himself. Bernard never recovered from this shock.
Elliott seized a five-yard lead in the next 30 yards, with Rozsavolgyi now second, Jazy third, Vamos fourth, Bernard fifth and Burleson sixth. Elliott continued to apply a steady stretch to his unfortunate rivals, pulling Jazy and Rozsavolgyi out of the vanguard. Elliott's smooth stride would have looked deceptively slow but for the trail of fading runners he left behind him. He passed the three-quarter mile in a relentless 2:54.4, having thrown a 56.6 third lap into the race. This was certainly the fastest third lap in miling history—a fractional easing at this point being traditional.
Now Cerutty entered the picture. He jumped the ditch between the spectators' enclosure and the track, tore off his white flannel shirt and waved it frantically, until the broad-minded Italian policemen finally decided to return him to his rightful place. The signal, we afterward discovered, means in Australian bush language, "Go for the world record." When asked afterward if he saw Cerutty, Elliott commented, "I could hardly have missed him."