Sir John George Walker is a former middle distance runner from New Zealand.
Walker was the first person to run the mile in under 3:50. He won the Olympic Games 1500m in Montreal in 1976.
1974 Commonwealth Games
Walker achieved world prominence in 1974 when he ran second to Filbert Bayi in the 1500 meter run at the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, New Zealand. In one of the greatest 1500 m races held to that time, Walker and Bayi both broke the existing world record, and others in the race recorded the fourth, fifth, and seventh fastest performances ever. Additionally, Walker won the bronze medal in the 800 metres in 1:44.92, his lifetime best for the distance, and still the second-fastest New Zealander ever, behind Peter Snell.
Throughout his career as a world-class miler Walker was coached by Arch Jelley, a school principal, and a middle distance runner himself, whose work with runners has been typified by meticulous training programmes on a scientific basis and effective communications in person.
World record breaking runs
Walker broke the World Record in the mile run with a time of 3:49.4 minutes set at Göteborg, Sweden, on 12 August 1975, bettering the previous time of 3:51.0 set earlier that year by Filbert Bayi. It was the first time that the Three minutes and 50 seconds time had been broken, and it was a full 10 seconds faster than Roger Bannister’s historic sub-Four-Minute Mile of 3:59.4 that was run twenty-one years previous. He was named Athlete of the Year by Track and Field News the same year.
Walker’s new record lasted until 17 July 1979, when it was lowered by the Briton Sebastian Coe.
The following year Walker broke the world record for the 2000 metres, running 4:51.4 in Oslo, Norway, on 30 June 1976. He smashed the existing ten-year-old record held by Michel Jazy by nearly five seconds; Walker regarded this run as the best he ever ran. Steve Cram broke the record on 4 August 1985, running 4:51.39 at Budapest, Hungary. Indoors, Walker broke the 1500 metre world record with a time of 3:37.4 in 1979.
1976 Montreal Olympic Games
In the 800 metres Walker failed to advance to the semi-finals missing the top two qualifying spots in his heat running a time of 1:47.63.
However Walker was a favourite to win the 1500 metres due to the African boycott of the Games weakening the field. The 1500 metres final started at a slow pace going through 800 metres in 2:03. The race would come down to a fast finish. In a bid to out-sprint runners that were quicker over 800 metres, Walker started his finishing sprint 300 metres from the finish, fading in the last 20 metres holding out Ivo Van Damme and Paul-Heinz Wellmann to win the gold medal. Although it seemed that the boycott denied Bayi (who was Walker’s main rival) the opportunity to challenge for the 1500 metre title, Bayi likely would not have competed, anyway, because of an attack of malaria that he suffered. In 1977 Walker saw his position as the world’s top miler challenged by Steve Ovett, who beat him in the IAAF World Cup 1500M.
New Zealand records
During 1981 he set a New Zealand all-comers’ mile record of 3:50.6 in Auckland.
In 1982 in Oslo, Norway, Steve Scott (3:47.69), John Walker (3:49.08), and Ray Flynn (3:49.77) took the top three spots in The Dream Mile, establishing American, New Zealand, and Irish national records for the mile in the same race. All three national records stood for 25 years until 21 July 2007, when Alan Webb broke Scott’s American record. Walker and Flynn’s times remain national records.
At the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane he won the silver medal in the 1500 metres finishing behind Steve Cram. He moved up to the 5000 metres distance for both the 1984 Olympic Games and the 1986 Commonwealth Games with limited success. He raced at the 1990 Commonwealth Games competing in both the 800 and 1500 metres, where he was tripped early on in the latter.
Walker became the first man in history to run 100 sub-4 minute miles in 1985, achieving that feat just before fellow miler Steve Scott of the United States. There was some controversy around this as Scott claimed there was an agreement that the two would race each other, with the winner being the first to claim 100 sub-4 minute miles. Walker denied such an agreement existed.
As his career wore on, leg injuries and stomach cramps started to affect his training. In the early 1990s he aimed to be the first runner aged over 40 to run a mile under four minutes, but his attempts failed due to a leg injury. At this point his international career had shown unusual longevity – spanning almost two decades. Walker ended his racing career with 135 sub-four-minute miles.
He was inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 1990, and in 1996 the Olympic Committee awarded him with the Olympic Bronze Order.
Distance Time Place Date
800 m 1:44.92 Christchurch 1974
1000 m 2:16.6 NR Oslo 1980
1500 m 3:32.4 Oslo 1975
Mile 3:49.08 NR Oslo 1982
2000 m 4:51.4 NR Oslo 1976
3000 m 7:37.49 NR London 1982