John Walker, the third of New Zealand’s triumvirate of great milers, was very much a man of his times. Whereas his predecessors, Jack Lovelock and Peter Snell, were understated and tended to shy away from publicity, Walker was always comfortable in front of the television cameras.
He spoke confidently and was extremely accessible. While never neglecting the stringent training demands that his running required, he had a down-to-earth, almost casual approach, epitomised by his “have spikes will compete” attitude that so endeared him to promoters on the grand prix circuit.
The mile, or its metric equivalent, the 1500m, is a glamour event of track and field and Walker was invariably a major drawcard at any athletics meeting. He was a track and field rock star. He was bigger than most of his rivals and cut an impressive figure as he burnt up the tracks of Europe, his long, flaxen hair trailing behind him.
But the style and the image would have counted for little if he hadn’t also been a champion athlete, and he was one of the best.
His international career spanned nearly 20 years – extraordinary durability for a runner – and his string of achievements is mind-boggling.
Walker was one of three big-name New Zealand distance runners who emerged at about the same time. With Dick Quax and Rod Dixon, he blazed a trail through Europe throughout the 1970s.
As a youngster, he showed more interest in tennis than running, but once he was taken in hand by coach Arch Jelley, his natural talent quickly emerged. By 1972, aged 20, he was the national 800m champion and missed selection for that year’s Olympic team by a whisker.
His first sub-four minute mile was at Victoria, Canada, in July 1973 when he blitzed a B section field and stamped himself as a champion in the making.
The New Zealand public saw how good he was at the 1974 Christchurch Commonwealth Games, when he took the bronze medal in the 800m in 1min 44.9s, a time still bettered only by Snell among New Zealand athletes.
Then he chased home Filbert Bayi in a sensational 1500m final. Bayi ran 3min 32.2s to break Jim Ryun’s world record. Walker, at 3min 32.5s, was also under the old world record. Ben Jipcho and Rod Dixon were just outside it, yet were relegated to also-rans. It was an historic race.
Walker beat Bayi in Europe the next year and also turned in a 3min 32.4s 1500m. The world eagerly awaited a Walker-Bayi showdown at the 1976 Olympics.
In 1975, Walker was supreme. He ran eight sub-four minute miles and won them all.
The big one was at Gothenburg, on August 12, when he thrilled 11,000 spectators with a stunning display of power and speed. He surged across the line and into the arms of the other New Zealanders at the track - Dixon and journalist Ivan Agnew, who told him excitedly he had gone under 3min 50s.
That run changed his life. He was besieged by the world’s media and became the brightest star on the track and field circuit. Track & Field News named him as Athlete of the Year for 1975.
The following year, though beginning to be hampered by a leg problem that was eventually to require an operation, Walker was again in a class of his own. He rated his 2000m world record of 4min 51.4s at Oslo that year as the best he ever ran.
At the Montreal Olympics, Walker caused his supporters some flutters when he was eliminated early from the 800m, but in the 1500m - in a field weakened by an African boycott - he was always the man to watch.
After a slow early pace in the final, he was faced with the prospect of having to outkick runners who were faster over 800m and made his bid with 300m remaining.
He grabbed the lead at about the same point Lovelock began his famous finishing burst 40 years earlier, and, though he weakened over the last 20 metres, he had enough in hand to hold off Ivo Van Damme and Paul-Heinz Wellmann.
His immediate reaction? “Relief. That came before the joy. To have been favourite and to have lived up to everyone’s expectations, including mine. The relief was fantastic. They can break your world records, but they can never take away your Olympic gold medal.”
Amazingly, Walker’s international career was to last another 14 years. He set a New Zealand all-comers’ record of 3min 50.6s at Auckland in 1981, ran 3min 49.08s for the mile in 1982, and ran his 100th sub-four minute mile on his home track at Mt Smart in 1985.
Leg injuries handicapped him and stomach cramps forced him to cut out the longer distance work in his training. Yet took a silver medal behind Englishman Steve Cram in the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games 1500m, then flirted, with moderate success, at the 5000m at the 1984 Olympics and 1986 Commonwealth Games.
In 1990 he made the final of the Auckland Commonwealth Games 1500m, only to be tripped early in the race. Afterwards he did a victory lap at the invitation of the gold medallist, Englishman Peter Elliott.
Walker hoped to become the first person to break four minutes for the mile after turning 40, but his attempt had to be called off because of a leg injury.
There was a somewhat mixed reaction to Walker in New Zealand. While everyone admired his running ability - he was Sportsman of the Year in 1975 and 1976 and was named Sportsman of the Decade for the 1970s – his outspokenness grated on some. Overseas there were no such caveats. He was admired at all the circuit stops in Europe and was a special favourite of the autograph hunters at London’s Crystal Palace.
Steve Ovett called Walker a pioneer and said he did more than anyone to popularise athletics in Europe. “I looked up to John Walker and I can’t say that about many people,” said Ovett.
Walker was awarded the Lonsdale Cup in 1975 and 1976, was inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 1990 and eventually the Mt Smart Stadium track in Auckland was renamed John Walker Track – in the days before the Warriors Rugby League Club used the park as its headquarters.
In 1996 he was awarded the Olympic Bronze Order.
Also in 1996, Walker announced he was suffering from Parkinson's disease. He has fought the illness courageously and by his openness has done much to help others who suffer similarly. He and his wife Helen operate an equestrian shop in Auckland. He became Manukau City councillor. Walker and his wife have four children, Elizabeth, Richard, Timothy, and Caitlin.
In 2009 Walker was appointed Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit and became Sir John Walker.
* Won the 1976 Montreal Olympic 1500m gold medal.
* Became the first person to break 3min 50s for the mile, setting a world record of 3min 49.4s.
* Set a 2000m world record that lasted a decade.
* Ran more than 100 sub-four minute miles, the first person to reach that milestone.
* Won three Commonwealth Games medals.