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John Michael Landy (1930–2022)

by Staff Writers

from Australian

John Landy. Athlete, author, photographer and governor of Victoria. Born: Melbourne, April 12, 1930. Died: February 24, 2022 aged 91.

In the 1950s, John Landy was one of only two men in the world to run a mile in less than four minutes. He broke this time barrier on six occasions, as well as setting world records both for the mile and 1500m.

For periods of time he was the fastest man in the world — his only rivals being the legendary British runners Roger Bannister and Chris Chataway. Landy’s place in the annals of sporting history is guaranteed, however, more by a gallant act of sportsmanship than for his numerous spectacular track records.

Landy, aged 26 in 1956, was competing in pre-Olympic track and field championships. The Games — to be held in Melbourne — were just weeks away. Landy was the favourite but one competitor was the renowned miler Ron Clarke. In the third lap Landy was close behind him when Clarke clipped his heel and fell. Incredibly, Landy stopped to help assist Clarke safely off the track.

There were 600 yards to go. Landy, who had lost at least seven seconds, chased the field — now a long way ahead — passed them all and went on to win the race. In so doing he almost certainly lost an opportunity to set a new world record. The Melbourne Sun News Pictorial sporting journalist and Olympic historian, Harry Gordon, described the incident as “a senseless piece of chivalry”.

In 2002, 46 years after the event, Landy was honoured by the unveiling of a commemorative statue. He was a modest man and all his life he was embarrassed by the Clarke incident, believing it had been blown out of all proportion.

Landy’s rectitude — and what he saw as ordinary decency — stood him in good stead when, in 2000, he was appointed governor of the state of Victoria. Incidentally, he was assuredly wrong in his assessment of ordinary decency. At a reception after the unveiling of the memorial, Herb Elliott (winner of the Rome Olympic 1500m in 1956) was heard to remark, “I’d have left the bastard (Clarke) where he was”.

Landy was born to a middle-class Melbourne family. His father was a prosperous accountant who held pastoral interests in alpine country straddling the Murray River on the border of NSW and Victoria. Son John was educated at Malvern Grammar, Geelong Grammar and at the University of Melbourne, where he graduated in agricultural science. Originally a footballer in the Australian Rules tradition, he took up running at the relatively late age of 21.

Landy, at first coached by the unorthodox Percy Cerutty, then by the conventionally disciplined Austrian, Franz Stampfl, was a winner almost from the beginning. In 1952 at an interclub (pre-Helsinki Olympics) meeting he ran a mile in 4 minutes, 2.1 seconds. The existing world record was held by the Norwegian, Gundar Haegg, who, seven years earlier, had clocked in one second faster. The Melbourne officials checked their watches. Even the New York Times sceptically reported, “Please pass the salt, this is not to be believed of an unknown runner.”

Landy gave up his athletics career after the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. He never won gold.

He taught at the Timbertop campus of Geelong Grammar, where Prince Charles received part of his education. For 21 years he worked in the agricultural section of ICI. Later he farmed the family property. He also worked in business and sports administration. He wrote, photographed and became an Australian commissioner at Expo. In the 1980s he chaired Melbourne’s bid to again host the Olympics. He chaired the Meat Research Corporation and the Wool Research and Development Corporation.

In 1971, he married English journalist Lynne Fisher, with whom he had two children.

Since he was four years old and became fascinated by a banksia beetle and a blue-grass butterfly, Landy had developed into a naturalist with a profound knowledge of Australian flora and fauna. Now, as a passionate environmentalist he became president of Greening Australia, an organisation devoted to large-scale tree-planting. Some technical problems he helped solve were the labour-intensive, expensive processes involved in gathering eucalyptus seed in sufficient quantity to meet the ambitious program of a million or more a year.

Landy was equally talented as a writer and photographer. Major publications include Close to Nature (1985) — an alpine diary recorded over a year at the family farm. A Coastal Diary (1993) was a study of Victoria’s magnificent Otways coastline.

As a photographer he graduated from the micro-world of insects to recording majestic landscapes. For this book the spartan Landy spent long periods alone on the Great Ocean Road, camping out in all weathers.

Landy was appointed governor of Victoria on January 1, 2000, for a three and a half year term. He continued the process of democratisation begun by Davis McCaughey.

The frugal McCaugheys had inherited a vice-regal regime conducted by Brian Murray as a court, many said, grander than that at Buckingham Palace. The grandeur had crept back, visitors maintained, under McCaughey’s successor James Gobbo.

Landy refused to be designated “your excellency”. “Call him governor, or even John,” his principal private secretary, Loris Callender, instructed those who were to meet him. Landy particularly liked to entertain in the mornings and more guests visited Government House during his reign than at any previous time.

There is little doubt that he was influenced by the example of the then governor-general, William Deane, who emphasised the need for Aboriginal reconciliation.

“I am on the side of the down and out in our society,” Landy told the press after his appointment by the Bracks Labor government. His term was extended for two years by the same government early in 2004. Thus the starring old athlete was able to play a vice-regal role in the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.

When Landy’s term was extended in 2004, premier Steve Bracks said of him: “He had great humility and a tremendous capacity for work. He worked for all Victorians. He visited almost every council and shire in the state. He was the perfect governor to officiate at the Commonwealth Games.” Landy retired as governor in 2006.

Landy lived his last years in a comfortable, if modest, house in the unfashionable, inner-city suburb of North Melbourne. A neighbour and good friend was his predecessor as governor, McCaughey.

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Citation details

Staff Writers, 'Landy, John Michael (1930–2022)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 17 June 2024.

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