The John Landy Story

When we think of the greatest moments in sports, we typically think of players scoring a game-winning goal, making the shot at the buzzer, or throwing the winning touchdown. It always ends in triumph, in winning the big trophy or the gold medal. Yet, arguably one of the greatest moments in sports is a story in which no records were broken, nobody was crowned the best in the world, and honestly the result didn’t matter. It’s the story of one of Australia’s greatest long-distance runners named John Landy.

Now, you likely have never heard of John Landy. But if you know anything about the history of track and field, then you might have heard of Roger Bannister. Bannister’s popularity and renown over the years has only grown because on May 6, 1954, he did what many believed was humanly impossible: Bannister became the first person to break the four-minute mile.

It was only one month later in June when Jon Landy would become the second person to break the four-minute mile. And only two months later, Landy and Bannister would race in what was called “The Miracle Mile” at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games. This historic race featured the two fastest milers in the history of the world. It was the race of the century with over 100M people listening and watching this race across the world. That’s bigger than the Super Bowl!

Now, Landy led nearly the entire race, but on the final turn of the last lap, as Landy looked over his left shoulder to gauge his position, Bannister passed him on the right. That very moment is enshrined to this day as a larger-than-life bronze statue, which still stands in Vancouver.

Once again, Landy came in second to Bannister.

I think it is hard for us to really imagine and understand how difficult this must have been for Landy. If he had only run the four-minute mile one month earlier, then he would have been remembered as the man who did the impossible, not Bannister. Had he only been 0.8 seconds faster, then he would have won the biggest race in the history of the world. Here’s the amazing thing: It never phased Landy; he would go on to say that he just kept focusing on running his best time.

While many would say Bannister was superhuman as a runner, Landy’s response in the coming years would be superhuman. Landy would be remembered for something even more special.

The 1956 Australian National Championship

It was in early 1956, in the final race of the Australian National Championship—which was also the qualifier for the 1956 Olympic Games—when Landy did the unthinkable. During the race, fellow Australian runner Ron Clarke tripped on the heel of the runner in front of him, and he crashed to the ground. Landy—who was right behind Clarke—tried to jump over him, but instead he dug the spikes of his shoe into Clarke’s shoulder.

Now, in the blink of an eye, without hesitation, Landy stopped, turned around, and offered his hand to help Ron Clarke up—even apologizing as he did so. Clarke assured him that he was okay and urged Landy to continue running.

In this brief moment of sportsmanship, Landy lost eight seconds off his time. But with a lap-and-a-half to go, he took off, caught up to the remaining runners, and somehow managed to come first with a time of four minutes and 4.2 seconds. Landy sacrificed a world record for the mile that day, and he also risked his spot at the 1956 Olympics—all for sportsmanship.

In the Sun News the next day, sports writer Harry Gordon wrote an open letter to Landy as follows: “[It] was a classic sporting gesture. It was a senseless piece of chivalry, but it will be remembered as one of the finest actions in the history of sport. In a nutshell, you sacrificed your chance of a world record to go to the aid of a fallen rival. And in pulling up, trotting back to Ron Clarke, muttering, ‘Sorry,’ and deciding to chase the field, you achieved much more than any world record. A lot of people are wondering why you pulled him up. The truth is, of course, that you didn’t think about it. It was the instinctive action of a man whose mate is in trouble. In the record books, it will look a very ordinary run for these days.”

That moment on March 11, 1956 is still remembered to this day. A larger-than-life sculpture called Sportsmanship was erected outside of Olympic Park in Melbourne to memorialize it.

Landy’s story is uncommon. Far too often, we see athletes caught up in cheating scandals to reach the top; they look to bend the rules at any chance they get, or they are too eager to trample on others to get to the top.

Nobody would have batted an eye if Landy had just kept running. Nobody expected him to turn around and help Clarke. There was no rule or precedent for such an act of sportsmanship. It was an uncommon act. And in the end, Landy didn’t even like the attention he got from it. He felt that it didn’t “warrant a fuss”, and it wasn’t anything significant—even though nobody would ever let him forget it for as long as he lived.

And rightly so. Landy’s example should never be forgotten because that type of integrity in sports is lacking now more than ever. We need more statues, more highlight reels, and more recognition of our athletes’ character—not their accomplishment. We don’t need more dunks, home runs, touchdowns, or goals scored. We don’t need more world records. We need more athletes of integrity.

Integrity

What do I mean by “integrity”? Integrity is choosing to live according to one’s principles. It’s behaving in alignment with a set of values. Which principles and values? Ones that are morally good and have been crafted over time.

The strength of someone’s integrity is dependent upon three things:

1. The strength of their principles and values: We strengthen our principles through experience, reflection, and study. We must work to understand what is good and just. John Landy has a strong moral compass. His life was not dedicated to serving himself, but instead he was focused on serving and helping others. In 2001, he served as Governor of Victoria, and over his life, he built a legacy greater than any sporting accomplishment. He built a legacy on serving others.

2. The strength to live according to their principles—even when they don’t feel like it: Sometimes, circumstances present challenges and obstacles that make it difficult to live by one’s principles. Landy experienced setback after setback: being the second man to break the four-minute mile; losing the “Miracle Mile” to Bannister. It would have been easy to get caught in the trap of feeling like he had to win to finally prove himself. Just think of all the justifications that other athletes would have made in this situation, so they could set a world record and pursue the Olympic gold medal. But even in one of the biggest races of the year, with so much to lose, Landy didn’t lose his sense of right and wrong. He chose to live by his principles.

3. The ability to make decisions without hesitation: You must realize that there is no other way to live than according to your principles. Landy didn’t just make this one good choice; he made thousands of other good choices before Clarke hit the ground. And he continued to make thousands of other good choices. Character comes from habit; that is, from what we repeatedly do. Landy didn’t think that helping Clarke up was a “big deal” because it wasn’t even a conscious decision on his part. Landy simply didn’t think there was any other way to live his life.

Developing Integrity

So, how can we have superhuman integrity like John Landy?

First, know your principles. Be clear about who you want to be, and how you want to be remembered. Never stop exploring and refining your belief system.

Secondly, live by those principles, not by your feelings or circumstances. So often, the hard thing and the right thing are the same Make the right decision—even when it’s the hard decision.

Lastly, repeatedly make the right decision, both when it’s easy and when it’s hard. You know from any sport that repetition helps build skill. But if you want to get really strong at a skill, then you need reps under pressure. Just think of lifting weights; you must continuously add weight to strengthen your muscles. Character is no different. It’s not enough to make the right decisions when it’s easy. We need to make the right decision when it’s hard, and we must do it consistently.

This is why sports are such an important training ground for our character. Because we are constantly being tested and pushed. Our character is being trained and shaped. But how are we shaping it?

Never forget the story of John Landy. He taught us to never forget that we are what we repeatedly do. We need to know our principles, and we need to live by our principles—regardless of our circumstances. That’s living with integrity.  Now, go get some reps!

-J.P. Nerbun

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