Bill Savidan

New Zealand Olympian: 40



Billy Savidan, born in Auckland in 1902, became an athletics immortal on two counts when he won the six-mile gold medal at the 1930 Empire Games in Hamilton, Canada.
He became the first person ever to win a gold medal at an Empire Games - achievement enough. But what made him famous was the manner in which he won the race.
Seldom can an athlete have gone through the extremes of ecstasy and despair in so short a time as the diminutive and quietly-spoken Aucklander did that day in Hamilton.
Savidan was already a world-class distance athlete when the Games were held. He regularly won national titles over one and three miles and in the cross-country, and he was a strong favourite to win a medal at the Games.
Even the fact that he was forced to stand in the main stadium for more than 90 minutes during the opening ceremony and then turn his mind to the six-mile event two hours later did not weaken him, for he was a strong, durable runner.
There were 11 starters. Savidan, only 8st 13 lb, held rubber grips in his knuckles and wore No 60. He was content to hang off the pace during the early laps. During the first 11 laps he drifted back from the leaders, keeping an eye on his most dangerous opponent, Englishman Ernie Harper.
Then he moved to the front and upped the tempo, remorselessly running his opponents into the ground. At three miles, the time was under sectional time for the world record. After five miles, he was 100 yards ahead and running comfortably. Finally the lap-marker indicated he had just 440 yards to run. Savidan glanced back and noted that he led by more than 150 yards.
Exhilarated, he stepped up the pace to further widen the gap. He wanted to win by the biggest margin possible and kept the pressure on for a whole fierce last lap. The Aucklander really hammered himself down the home straight and reached what he assumed would be the finish line exhausted but triumphant. By now he’d lapped most of the field and was starting to pick up the stragglers a second time.
He was surprised to see no tape outstretched. Perhaps there were too many runners cluttering the track. Or perhaps the Canadians didn’t bother with a finishing tape.
He crossed the line and stopped, standing unsteadily with his hands on his hips, the crowd cheering. Then, disaster! An official shouted, “Another lap!” Then the gun fired - the gun signalling the last lap. The officials kept shouting, “Another lap! Another lap!” The lap-counter had made a mistake, turning over two lap indicators at one time.
Savidan didn’t wait to argue. He stumbled back on to the track, turned to see Harper going round the last lap and forced himself to run.
His legs, which moments earlier had been so strong, were now weak and wobbly. His shoes seemed to have lead weights in them. He was gasping for air, and almost in tears with the shock and injustice of it all.
He pushed himself as best he could, but Harper and the chasing pack bore down on him and the spectators could see the plucky New Zealander was struggling, his head rolling and his shoulders tense. Twice he nearly stopped, and he began to stagger.
Finally he struggled down the home straight again and collapsed through the tape. He’d built such a huge lead that he still won by 120 yards, but he was now in no condition to savour the victory. A team-mate, Ossie Johnson, grabbed him and held him up. Another team-mate, Alan Elliott, grabbed his other arm and they walked him around the track, gradually slower and slower until they brought him to a halt.
He was taken away to be photographed with the other place-getters, Harper and Evenson, and stood propped between them. On the victory dais, he had to be held up, though he managed to raise one arm to acknowledge the crowd. The national anthem was played and to add insult to injury, the anthem played was Land of Hope and Glory, England’s victory tune.
Savidan had little recall of the race. “I only can remember heading for the tape,” he told Johnson. Savidan had set a Canadian record of 30min 49.6s, but it was clear he would have run far much faster but for the official’s blunder.
Back in the changing room, Savidan collapsed and was tended to by his team-mates. When the crowd had gone home, Elliott and Johnson took Savidan by the arm and led him around and around the track for half an hour until finally he felt more like his normal self again.
For the rest of his life Savidan was asked about that torturous last lap. “It was the hardest lap I ever ran, a lap of torture,” he’d say.
Not surprisingly, it took him days to recover. Five days later he was only a shadow of himself and finished out of the placings in the three miles, which was supposed to be his strong event.
After the Games he showed his best form again, winning a 12-mile race in Toronto from the best Commonwealth and American runners.
Following his memorable run at Hamilton there was a move to send Savidan to the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.
He duly went and ran brilliantly to finish fourth in both the 5000m and 10,000m events, behind the talented Finns. Those two Olympic runs are among the best ever by a New Zealander, though they are often overlooked by sports historians who tend to focus almost exclusively on medallists.
For his heroism at Hamilton, and his two superb Olympic runs Savidan was rightly honoured in 1996 by being voted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame.
Perhaps the tragedy of Savidan’s career was that he was not sent to the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. The world was a much bigger place back then, but still Savidan should have been selected.
By then he’d represented New Zealand with distinction at the 1926 and 1927 Australasian champs, and had won a clutch of national titles.
In 1928, aged 26, he was at the peak of his powers. He won the national one-mile, three-mile and cross-country titles and beat his great rival Randolph Rose on the way. His omission from the small team sent to Amsterdam was inexplicable.
Savidan remained a force in distance running through most of the 1930s. Whenever his work as a stonemason allowed him, he would attend national champs and continued to win his share of races so that by the time he retired he’d picked up 17 national titles.
His last international performance was in 1937 when, aged 35, he lined up against outstanding Japanese runner Kohei Murakoso. At the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Murakoso had emulated Savidan by placing fourth in both the 5000m and 10,000m finals.
In their first meeting, at Carlaw Park, Murakoso beat Savidan comfortably. Shortly after, they clashed again in the three-mile event at the national champs on the Auckland Domain. Murakoso ran remorselessly and beat Savidan by the length of the straight. But because the Japanese was ineligible to win a New Zealand title, Savidan claimed his seventh national three-mile championship.
For many years after his retirement, Savidan was an official for the Auckland centre. He became a custodian of Auckland’s Tepid Baths and was as familiar a figure with the city’s swimmers as he was with its athletics exponents.
Savidan died in November, 1991, aged 89.

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