Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Searching for Jack Lovelock, and a flat white

One of the delights of undertaking sports research is finding a treasure trove of information from an unexpected source.

For any historian, the LA84 Foundation Sports library in the West Adams district of Los Angeles is a must visit.

When the internet was in its infancy and I was undertaking some research on Jack Lovelock for what would become Conquerors of Time, I came across a reference to the LA84 Foundation Library. Upon making contact with them it was clear that when the opportunity arose they needed to be included in any research trips to the United States.

That chance occurred in 2003 when setting aside four days in Los Angeles to utilise the library's resources. Basing myself in a motel in Santa Monica, I was a short taxi ride away from the museum. But before getting there, there was an unexpected, but most welcome, surprise.

The trip had been a round-the-world effort firstly to visit Galatas on Crete to do some research on the World War Two bayonet charge by two companies of New Zealand's 23 Battalion, and others, to reclaim the small village, just outside of Canea, that was the subject of my book Galatas 1941: Courage in Vain. From Crete it was to New York to stay with Prof. Roger Robinson and his wife Kathrine Switzer, while also visiting the families of milers Bill Bonthron (Princeton) and Luigi Beccali (Long Island) for research on the Lovelock book.

So successful were those contacts that by the time Los Angeles was reached it would be fair to say the brain, and the suitcase, was overloaded with excitement with the information that had been gained.

Alas, one of the disappointments of time away from home was that coffee a la Australasia, and Coffee Culture in Christchurch, where we were living at the time, especially, had been a noticeable absence during the trip. Sustenance was to be closer at hand than was appreciated when checking into said Santa Monica motel. The manager said if I needed some breakfast in the morning there was a little café out the front that was bound to suit.

So walking into the cafe to start my day next morning, I said to the woman behind the counter: "This may sound a little strange, but do you do flat whites here?" She responded, "You're from Australia or New Zealand!"

"New Zealand," I replied.

She then said: "We had an Australian barista stay here a couple of months ago and she showed us how to make flat whites, would you like one?"

Would I what? It arrived and when completed she said: "How was that?" And I said: "May I have another please? It's been a long time between flat whites."

Suitably fortified I made my way to West Adams to the LA Foundation Sports Library which was a site to behold. If this was how proceeds from the 1984 Olympics should be spent then all power to Peter Ueberroth and friends.

Faced with such an impressive array of sports books and magazines, including complete sets of the late, lamented World Sports, Sports Illustrated and a near complete series of The Amateur Athlete, the USOC official journal, it was fair to say pig and muck would be a fair description of my reaction.

The Track and Field section of the library was prolific and with only four days there was a lot of ground to be covered. The chosen method was to get a library ladder – the books were on the top shelf – and work my way through the indexes of the books most obviously related to my subject.

It was when nearing the end of that process that a true gem emerged, the story of Artur Takac, titled 60 Olympic Years. Takac had been Yugoslavia's delegate to the IOC for many years and it turned out that he had been a handy middle-distance prospect in his youth.

He raced with Lovelock in an event in Zagreb in 1935. Aged 17 at the time, Takac was taken under Lovelock's wing and was given a coaching session on the hoof, as it were, during the race. Too young to be included in the Yugolavia team for the 1936 Olympics, Takac was sent to the Olympic Youth Camp staged in association with the Games.

There, he ran into Lovelock who invited him to a training session before the 1500m. After watching him do his workout, Takac timed Lovelock through several 300m repeats and saw just how fast he was going. He asked him why he specifically ran 300m sprints?

Lovelock merely said: "Silence my boy. Just keep watching and you will see in the final all will be decided in the last 300 metres. But it has to be a surprise."

This was gold, literally and figuratively, because it confirmed that Lovelock's plan to sprint from 300m out was no fluke. And it destroyed the myth that Lovelock had arrived at this tactic very late in the piece.

On that find alone, the trip to the library had been worthwhile. But it yielded much more. It is a fantastic place for any sports historian and it was my experience that the staff became very involved in what I was seeking and could not have been more helpful.

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