Olympic 5,000-Meter Champion Murray Halberg Dies at 89

Murray Halberg, gold medalist in one of the most dramatic distance races in Olympic history and a four-time world-record holder, died in Auckland, New Zealand, on November 30. He was 89 years old. 

Halberg achieved victory in the 1960 Olympic 5,000 meters with a decisive surprise attack at three laps to go. The feat is remembered as one of the great tactical triumphs in the history of world-class distance racing. He also showed the sheer speed necessary to run world records at 2 miles (twice), 3 miles, and in the 4 x 1-mile relay for the New Zealand team. He was the first New Zealander to break 4:00 for the mile. 

Sir Murray Halberg became a runner after a rugby injury at age 17 left him with a disabled left arm, and he linked with coach Arthur Lydiard after disappointment in the 1956 Olympic 1500 meters. He was the first runner to attain world stardom under Lydiard’s guidance. 

His first major success was winning the 3-mile title in the 1958 Commonwealth Games. His Olympic win at Rome in 1960 came less than an hour after another Lydiard athlete, Peter Snell, won the 800 meters. The manner of both victories made Lydiard famous, and put New Zealand on the map of world distance running. Both showed the world the combination of pace and endurance attained through Lydiard’s structured high-mileage training. Halberg also finished fifth in the 10,000 meters at the Rome Olympics.

He made successful tours of the American indoors circuit, breaking the world indoor record for 2 miles (8:34.4) in 1961. He claimed wryly that his withered left arm was an advantage on the tight bends of indoors racing. 

Halberg went on to repeat as Commonwealth 3-mile champion in 1962, defeating one of the strongest fields ever, with Ron Clarke, Bruce Kidd, Bruce Tulloh, Albie Thomas, Derek Ibbotson, and Kip Keino behind him. By that time he held the world record for 2 miles (8:30.0) and 3 miles (13:10.0). Athletes as great as 1960 Olympic 1500-meter champion Herb Elliott, Kidd, and Tulloh regarded Halberg as their most feared, competitive, and resilient opponent. He was world top-ranked at 3 miles/5,000 meters every year from 1960 to 1963, but at the 1964 Olympics he was affected by Tokyo’s polluted air, and finished seventh in the 10,000 won by Billy Mills.

Halberg gave his post-competition life to charitable work, creating the Murray Halberg Trust for Crippled Children in 1963, which became the Halberg Foundation, and hosted the annual New Zealand Sports Awards, known as the Halberg Awards. He received a knighthood for services to sport and child welfare, the first New Zealand athlete to receive the honor. 

Halberg is the subject of A Clean Pair of Heels: The Murray Halberg Story by Murray Halberg and Garth Gilmour, and has in-depth profiles in The Lonely Breed, by Ron Clarke and Norman Harris and When Running Made History, by Roger Robinson.

posted Saturday December 3rd
by Runner’World