Sunday, 3 June 2012

Terence Allman Sullivan

The realisation of his daunting task suddenly struck the young Rhodesian as he surveyed the men with whom he lined up for the mile race at Dublin.

The world's record holder, the unbeaten Herb Elliott of Australia, was there. So was the great New Zealander, Peter Snell, who would soon emerge as supreme miler in the world. The Hungarian, Laszlo Tabori, Ireland's own Ron Delany and Australian, Albert Thomas, were all established sub-four-minute men in this truly international field, with England's Gordon Pirie another major name.

It was 25 September 1960 and it was to prove the most momentous day in the history of Rhodesian athletics.

Just past his twenty-fifth birthday, Salisbury Municipal clerk, Terry Sullivan drew on every ounce of his endurance and determination to create that history.

The incomparable Elliott burst away down the home stretch, out of reach of mere mortals, to win in 3 min. 57 sec. But right behind him, Sullivan and Pirie were locked in a titanic duel, with Sullivan inching ahead at the line to snatch second place.

It was a moment of sheer euphoria for the pencil-slim Rhodesian as the announcer told the big crowd "... second, T. Sullivan, of Rhodesia, in a time of 3 min. 59,8 sec____"

He had realised a dream and become the twenty-fifth man in the world to crack the magical four-minute barrier, first breached by Britain's Roger Bannister at the Iffley Road track at Oxford on 6 May 1954 (3 min. 59,4 sec.). Pirie, at 3 min. 59,9 sec. was the twenty-sixth.

More significantly, Sullivan became the first man from the African continent to run a sub-four-minute mile.

"I had just come from a hard Olympics and was feeling tired and washed out," recalls the man who was nicknamed 'Tearaway Terry'. "It was a very rough race and I was forced to run in the third lane nearly all the way round. I had decided to stay with the leaders, then next thing it was getting mighty rough, with even odd punches thrown to try to unsettle me."

That was the spark he needed to overcome his jaded feeling and to bring his well-known determination to the fore.

"I remember thinking 'to hell with you, you're not going to fix me'. It got me really stirred up and I can thank that for my effort."

So fierce was the pace that the man who finished twelfth clocked 4 min. 03,0 sec. Snell, former world three miles record holder, Thomas, 1956 Olympic 1 500 metres champion. Delany and Tabori, who had first run under 4 min. in 1955, filled from fourth to seventh places in the sixteen-man race.

The quality of the field can be assessed by Elliott's winning time. Only twice, in recording seventeen sub-four-minute miles, did he run faster — his then world record of 3 min. 54,5 sec at Dublin in 1958 and a 3 min. 55,4 sec. at London, also in 1958.

Sullivan, who was ranked fifth in the world in 1960, had ironically suffered a major disappointment a few weeks previously when he failed to qualify for the 1 500 metres final at the Rome Olympic Games.

He was unknown and unseeded and the luck of the draw went against him. In the fastest heat, he ran fourth behind Elliott, Hungary's world-ranked Istvan Rozsavolgyi and American star Dyrol Burleson.

In big fields of more than twenty per heat, the Rhodesian outstanding time of 3 min. 42,8 sec. would have been good enough to win one of the two heats and to finish second in the other.

But only the first three from each heat made the final and Sullivan sat in the stands watching men whom he knew he could beat. Elliott was the winner (3 min. 35,6 sec.) and Rozsavolgyi was third (3 min. 39,2 sec.), both from Sullivan's heat.

The Salisbury man also narrowly failed to qualify for the 800 metres final, going through three heats and falling away at the semifinal stage.

But he was the second fastest miler in the Commonwealth and gained selection for a three man team to challenge the top three Americans at London's White City immediately after the Olympics.

Elliott and another Australian, Mervyn Lincoln, made up the Commonwealth trio, with British runners unable to gain selection. The Americans lined up with Burleson (6th at Rome), Pete Close and Jim Grelle.

There was a slight drizzle but the stadium was packed for the race at 9.30 p.m. under floodlights. And what a thriller! Sullivan, the man from little Rhodesia, so nearly became the first man to rob Elliott of his unbeaten mile record.

"I sat with the field until the bell," recalls Sullivan. "Then I thought, 'I'm not tired ... I'm going' and just put my head down and went. I had dropped Herb by about 20 metres just 200 metres from home, but he gradually made it up and pipped me on the post. His acceleration at the end of a mile was unbelievable."

"Yes, it was the closest he ever came to being beaten and the other four runners were 30 or 40 metres behind. That one race brought me invitations from all over the world and there was great excitement in the crowd when they thought Elliott was going to be beaten.'*

Elliott won in 4 min. 0,9 sec. and Sullivan was a fraction behind.

However, there were more triumphs for Sullivan to savour in his golden year of 1960, including winning the half-mile and mile at the South African championships ( he was awarded real gold medals) and being named Rhodesia's Sportsman of the Year for the second time.

He was the first man to win the coveted John Hopley Trophy twice (1958 and 1960) and only cricketer. Mike Procter, has done so since (1971 and 1972).

Of the invitations to come from his White City performance, one was to attend an international meeting at Moscow in 1961 after running in the American indoor circuit, where he beat the top Russians on the unfamiliar boards every time, much to their chagrin. Sullivan won a Bronze Medal at the American indoor championships at Madison Square Garden.

After accepting the invitation to Moscow. Sullivan was placed in a dilemma on the eve of his departure, when his ticket (one way only), was paid for in Russia but he still did not have the visa which he had been attempting to get from the organisers for weeks.

Together with his wife he decided to go in any case, quipping as he set out for the airport "I must be the only man in Africa with a one-way ticket to Russia."

In Prague they checked his documentation and an official demanded his visa. Sullivan persuaded them to allow him to travel on to Moscow, but once there, two armed men, with bayonets fixed, came on to the plane and arrested him.

"I was marched into the airport building and locked up in a cell for almost five hours while athletics officials argued with immigration officials," remembers Sullivan.

"Eventually I was released and my passport was confiscated."

Under this pressure and in front of 104 000 spectators at the Lenin Stadium, Sullivan ran fourth in the 1 500 metres behind Jim Beatty (USA), Michel Jazy (France) and Rozsavolgyi.

Still the top Russians could not beat the tenacious Rhodesian and their best man was fifth in a time good enough to qualify as a Grand Master of Sport. Sullivan, in fact was never beaten by a Russian in the whole of his career and was only twice beaten by a Briton.

In Moscow he cut a lonely figure as the only one-man team in the march past, proudly waving the Federal flag.

Sullivan's passport was returned at the airport just before he left. "A chap in a trench coat gave it to me and I discovered that they had stamped it with a visa."

Only on the day he was leaving, was he given his return ticket and he remembers it as "the most nerve-racking experience of my life."

Terence Allman Sullivan was born at Johannesburg on 7 September 1935, but came to Rhodesia at the age of ten and began his athletic career at Prince Edward School.

He first became South African mile champion (4 min. 14,3 sec.) in 1958 and the career of Rhodesia's greatest athlete was set

Sullivan narrowly missed a medal at his first British Empire and Commonwealth Games at Cardiff in 1958, when Elliott won the 800 metres (1 min. 49,3sec.) and Sullivan clocked 1 min. 50,2 sec. finishing just behind Brian Hewson and Mike Rawson. both of Britain.

But that well-merited medal could not be denied and in 1962 at the Perth Empire Games. Sullivan was third in the 1500 metres final in 4 min. 06,6 sec to earn the Bronze, with Snell taking the Gold at 4 min. 04,6 sec. Another Rhodesian Bronze winner at these games was Johann du Preez in the 200 metres.

It was on 3 May 1962, that Sullivan ran the fastest mile in Rhodesia — an outstanding 4 min. 03,5 sec. at Salisbury, considering the 5 000 ft. altitude. It remains a national record eighteen years later.

Injury and illness contrived to keep Sullivan out of of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, though there was widespread disappointment that the selectors did not grant him a late chance to prove his fitness.

Labelled the 'forgotten man' of Rhodesian athletics, he went to South Africa for several meetings in 1965 determined to prove he was not washed up and that he should have been at Tokyo.

He cracked the South African 1 500 metres record held by Peter Snell, in the equivalent of 4 min. 1,6 sec. for the mile and went on to the South African championships in Potchefstroom where he won the mile in 4 min. 11, 3 sec. He lowered the South African Allcomers 1 500 metres record to 3 min. 44 sec. at Green Point Stadium, Cape Town — the fastest time run on the continent of Africa at that time.

Sullivan broke the South African mile record in December 1963 when he ran 4 min. 4 sec. at Cape Town to slash nine tenths of a second off Harold Clark's eight-year-old record and just four days later, at the same venue, he ran 4 min. 3,2 sec., drugged with penicillin in an effort to shake off the flu.

But in 1965, at the age of thirty, when he was in his prime, Sullivan retired, clearly bitter at being overlooked for Tokyo — a justifiable attitude.

By tradition, the mile is the supreme competitive event in athletics, involving a combination of stamina, speed and tactics. To emerge as one of the world's best is remarkable in itself.

In Terry Sullivan's case it was astonishing and a tribute to his dedication and single mindedness... and also to his wife Pam, who kept a lonely vigil day after day at the track to time and encourage Terry, who trained alone and did not have the stimulation of competition at home nor of coaching from any source, putting him at a severe disadvantage to the rest of the world's milers.

Despite these drawbacks, he had the fibre to bring distinction and honour to Rhodesia on the tracks of the world. There has been no finer ambassador for this country.


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At 10 June 2012 at 03:39 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...

Dave Stedman Writes:-

Terry Sullivan. When he ran and got his bronze in 1962, the Commonwealth Games was not yet metricated. The Games only metricated in 1966, or later. Peter ran in the 1 mile there, not the 1500m. If they’d run the times quoted in the 1500m, they’d have been regarded at snails! A 4-minute mile equates to about 3:42-3:43 for 1500m. See what I mean?

At 3 April 2018 at 13:23 , Blogger Paul Cheffers said...

thanks for your researches on old African runners. Does anyone know what happened to Cyprian Tseriwa. who ran the 5000m at Rome , and was on the same Rhodesian Olympic team as Terry. Is he still alive? Does anyone know his whereabouts?


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