The Walker who ran all the way to glory revels in the joy of giving back
The tall man in a black vest and shorts, long hair blown back, the face etched in strain but easing with joy as he finished first, again and again. John Walker was called the Bjorn Borg of athletics.other Updated: Feb 14, 2014 01:19 IST
The tall man in a black vest and shorts, long hair blown back, the face etched in strain but easing with joy as he finished first, again and again. John Walker was called the Bjorn Borg of athletics. The long-haired tennis champion could well have been called the Walker of tennis, so often did they both win.
Walker was the first to run 100 sub-four-minute mile races, and first to run the classical distance under 3 minutes 50 seconds. The 1976 Olympics 1,500m victory at Montreal was the icing on the cake for one of the towering figures among New Zealand's great track stars of the past.
With some help, one finally makes contact. A brief wait at Stirrups Equestrian, the upscale equestrian equipment and upholstery shop he started 13 years ago, Walker arrives. A firm handshake later, he speaks his mind.
Walker, 62, fondly remembers a week spent in Delhi in 1980 for the Permit Meet – "a fascinating place". He went public in the late 1990s that he was suffering from Parkinson's disease. But that has not slowed him. As a member of the Auckland City Council, he deals with issues such as providing affordable housing and transport. But his heart beats for sports.
"I'm very community minded," he says, talking about his foundation, "Find your Field of Dreams". Growing up with modest means meant he ran 16 km daily to school and back and for tennis classes. Regular cross-country runs meant a strong base was set – "these days they run around the football field." His foundation raises a million dollars annually to give free coaching to underprivileged children. Thousands of children have benefitted.
Walker is happy with how all other athletes live under the shadow of Usain Bolt. "That is what the market wants, the superstars. He is a superstar and he delivers. If that's what it takes, so be it."
Remind him about the controversial 2010 Commonwealth Games and he blames the size of modern games. "These Games are so expensive, everyone has to deliver basically a model of the new buildings and hotels and stuff like that. They keep adding sports."
For all his triumphs, it was the race that got away, that was recently commemorated by the New Zealand media as one of the all-time great contests. A young Walker, "I was young and naïve then" ran brilliantly in the 1,500m final in the 1974 Christchurch Commonwealth Games, but it was not enough to upstage Tanzanian great Filbert Bayi, who won a start-to-finish race with a great exhibition of front-running pitches..
"What Bayi did that day was unbelievable. That race was way before its time." Walker's hopes of beating Bayi were dashed as the Tanzanian went down with malaria close to the Games before East Africa boycotted the Games over the New Zealand rugby team's tour of isolated South Africa.
"The world was robbed of a very good foot race. It would have made life a lot easier for me; I was ready to go fast, not to run slow."
Despite doping in athletics, Walker firmly believes clean athletes can still win through hard training. "When the guy trains harder, he wins. If he wins just one race, you got to be suspicious."
"Where we got money, people cheat."