Obituary

Terry Sullivan: First man from Africa to break the four-minute mile

19 May 2019 - 00:00 By David Isaacson


South Africa-born Terry Sullivan, who has died in Johannesburg at the age of 83, was the first man from Africa to break the four-minute mile.
He coached himself throughout his career, during which he beat almost all the great milers of his era with the exception of Australian legend Herb Elliott.
Sullivan was 10 when he and his family moved from Johannesburg to Salisbury, as Harare used to be called.
He displayed his athletics talent early on despite being sickly and suffering from meningitis. Encouraged by teachers at Prince Edward he joined the local Rhodes Athletic Club as a youngster.
Sullivan made his breakthrough setting the South African junior 880-yard record with a 2min, 5sec effort, though his career nearly ended in a nasty accident when he fell about 15m down a section of the Pungwe Falls in Nyanga. He fractured his skull, an arm and a leg, but the worst damage was to his jaw, which was broken in seven places. He was back running "at a subdued" level after nine or so months.
With no competition in Rhodesia, Sullivan's main goal in his early days was the South African championships, picking up the first of his four one-mile titles in 1958.
"In those days any aspiring athlete did not look further than SA for athletic excellence," Sullivan told Ian Harries in a rare in-depth interview that was published in the Zimbabwe Miler's Club newsletter in July 1980.
In 1958 Sullivan handed Murray Halberg, a top New Zealand runner, his first defeat on his tour of Southern Africa. Sullivan was selected for the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff that year and finished fourth in the 800m but failed to progress beyond the 1500m heats.
"My frustrations here in Rhodesia were that I could win easily, but when I went overseas I had no experience of tactical races," he said.
Nonetheless, he was offered scholarships to American universities but, already engaged to his sweetheart, Pam, he turned them down.
"The concept of living in America was foreign to me," said Sullivan, who was a municipal clerk before becoming a company secretary in the private sector.
In 1960 Sullivan went to the Rome Olympics, where he was drawn into the toughest of the three 1500m heats. With the top three from each heat qualifying for the final, Sullivan ended fourth behind Elliott, István Rózsavölgyi of Hungary and Pan American Games champion Dyrol Burleson of the US.
Sullivan watched the final from the stands but his earlier performance was good enough to earn him selection to a Commonwealth team to compete against an American side at London's White City straight after the Olympics.
On a rainy night he dared to do the impossible - defeat Elliott. The Australian, in his short career, was beaten only once in the 1500m and he never lost a contest over the mile, which is 109m longer.
Sullivan attacked on the final lap and built up a 20m advantage with 200m to go. But Elliott hunted him down and took the lead just before the line.
"It was the closest he ever came to being beaten," said Sullivan. "That one race brought me invitations from all over the world."
Next came his sub-four-minute feat at the Big Mile race in Dublin in a star-studded line-up.
Elliott won comfortably, but behind him Sullivan had a tough battle, running most of the race in the third lane before finishing second in 3:59.8 to become the 25th man on the planet to break four minutes for the mile.
Sullivan was invited to compete in Moscow in 1961. The next year he won the 1500m Commonwealth Games bronze in Perth but might have done better. "The British and New Zealand runners were watching me as the 'danger man' in the event."
Sullivan retired from athletics at the end of 1965, unimpressed with the administrators.
"One found them imposing their will on us instead of tactfully catering for the athletes' needs," he said.
1935-2019

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