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Race of the Century

When U of T pharmacy grad Bill Crothers defeated the world’s best middle-distance runner in 1965, he proved one thing to be true: the most valuable resources in a university athletics program are the people

It was over in less than two minutes. In fact, it was over in just one minute and 49 seconds. That’s all the time it took for Bill Crothers to make Canadian sports history in June 1965. You could have held your breath for the duration of this great U of T sports moment – and for all the expectation and drama, many did.

Crothers had graduated in 1963 from U of T’s Pharmacy College. He was running in an 880-yard race on Varsity Stadium’s cinder track, where he had trained hundreds, even thousands, of times, though never in front of 19,633 cheering spectators.

Lean enough to hide behind an I-beam, Crothers didn’t fit the stereotype of a great athlete. His horn-rimmed glasses looked like they’d been plucked from a joke shop. He had a pasty complexion and deadpan expression. Peter Snell, on the other hand, Crothers’ main rival at the International Track Meet, fit the profile of a great athlete to a T. Snell held world records in the half-mile and mile events and had won three Olympic gold medals. The New Zealander had never been beaten in a major international competition and was regarded as the greatest middle-distance runner of all time. With thick thighs and rugby player’s arms, Snell looked as if he could break a four-minute mile while pushing a car. His training regimen was the stuff of legend – more than 100 miles a week over the hilly New Zealand landscape.

If you had gone by Snell’s background and been fooled by Crothers’ appearance, you’d have figured this would be no race at all. But Crothers had finished second to Snell at the Tokyo Olympics the year before and was graced with the speed of a sprinter.

The runners started out cautiously on the first lap. Snell tried to break away from the field around the halfway mark, but Crothers judged the pace perfectly. Coming off the last turn, Crothers ran down Snell in front of the packed grandstand, leaning into the tape at the finish line a few seconds shy of the world record. This was Crothers’ defining race. And it wasn’t a moment he treasured alone.

Crothers’ teammates Bruce Kidd and David Bailey were watching the race from the infield. So was Fred Foot, U of T’s running coach. When Crothers crossed the line, they mobbed him. Crothers had beaten Snell! In a sense, they had, too. “Any time any of us won a major race, we all shared in it,” says Bailey.

In the 1960s, conventional wisdom held that Canadian university athletes couldn’t compete with American college runners and top international amateurs, with their advantages in training and funding. But Foot, a native of Folkestone, England, and a longtime member of the Toronto Police Service, was a commonsensical man with one radical idea: his athletes could compete with the world’s best if they received international-calibre coaching.

“Fred convinced us that we had no limitations, even with the meagre facilities we had to work with,” says Bailey. “You can’t achieve anything if you don’t first believe, and Fred made us believe that we could rise to the elite. We trusted him, and we believed in him as much as he believed in us.”

“People will talk about the resources of an athletic department,” says Kidd, now the dean of U of T’s Faculty of Physical Education and Health. “Fred Foot proved one thing is true: the most valuable resources in any program are the human resources, whether it’s coaching or teaching or anything else.”

Now the grandstands that were packed in June 1965 are gone. Even the cinder track, which remained in shadowy outline until this spring, is gone. While Varsity Stadium went from facility to relic several years ago, its demise began long before. In the early 1990s, successive provincial budgets slashed funding for post-secondary education, and the annual allotment for U of T’s athletic department dwindled to almost nothing. A stadium that needed structural repairs couldn’t even be given a fresh coat of paint. “In a very short time, it was no longer a question of whether it could be salvaged or saved,” says Kidd. “It was a question of when it would fall down.”

Varsity Stadium wasn’t the first building on campus to meet the wrecker’s ball, and it won’t be the last. Some buildings outlive their usefulness and are barely missed. The stadium was a different story. Its departure, from the corner of Bloor Street and Devonshire Place, left a gaping hole. For many Torontonians, Varsity was U of T’s storefront.

When academic buildings are knocked down, the lessons learned inside the halls endure. Their legacy isn’t brick and stone but knowledge. Varsity was much the same. Its legacy isn’t plank seats, scoreboards and the times registered on stopwatches. For the athletes who trained and competed there, Varsity was about learning, being inspired and building character. The stands may be gone, but you can still see how coaches such as Fred Foot influenced the lives of the athletes they trained.

Foot balanced his job with the Toronto Police Service and coaching; his runners balanced school and athletics. “Fred never took any shortcuts, and we never made any compromises,” Crothers says. “We would attend classes and even write tests until 3 on a Friday afternoon, and then fly to New York to run in a meet that night. The runners from the U.S. colleges would take off school the Thursday and Friday before a race. They couldn’t understand what we were doing.”

The U.S. runners could count on their track clubs or universities for the best equipment and first-cabin treatment. The scholarship-winning talent at U.S. colleges drove cars with fewer miles on them than our runners had chalked up while running round and round the Varsity track. Our athletes played up their no-frills image. Every fray of their sweats was a badge of honour, proof that they could achieve more with less.

This principle carried into their training. Foot couldn’t ask his runners to log 100 miles a week like Snell. “Because of the academic programs, we had to emphasize quality rather than quantity,” says Bailey, who went on to become a world-ranked 1,500-metre runner and the first Canadian to break the four-minute mile. “We all learned to budget our time well in order to do the kind of job we wanted in athletics.”

Last November, Professor David Naylor, U of T’s president, led the groundbreaking ceremony on the site of the Varsity Centre for Physical Activity and Health (where Varsity Stadium once stood). The centre’s 5,000-seat stadium is scheduled to open this fall and its artificial turf field will mean no more mud bowl games on a soggy field. The cinder’s not-quite-six lanes of country road are being replaced by an eight-lane superhighway track. A bubble to shield athletes from the winter elements is slated to inflate in 2008, and a world-class weight-training facility, with new dressing rooms and coaches’ office, will be constructed at the south end of the site. The estimated eventual price tag for the Varsity Centre: $56 million.

“The revitalized Varsity Centre reflects the university’s commitment to enhancing the student experience both inside and outside the classroom,” said Naylor at the ceremony. “Whether as participants or spectators, all students can benefit from the array of athletic activities that will be offered at the Varsity Centre.”

U of T’s commitment to the facility is a matter of following its institutional values: to serve the student body and the community beyond the campus. Yet Varsity Centre is only a construction project without the commitment of the athletes and those who follow in Foot’s footsteps.

Carl Georgevski, U of T’s head track-and-field coach, was a high jumper at Monarch Park Secondary School in Toronto’s east end in the early 1970s when he first met Foot. “I didn’t run more than nine steps [in my approach to the high jump bar], so I didn’t work directly with Fred,” says Georgevski. “He gave me and other U of T track athletes a ride to meets.”

Georgevski recalls Foot being more of a mentor than a chauffeur. While Foot didn’t work on technique with the athletes in field events, he did open their eyes to what is most valuable about sport. “Sport prepares you for how to deal with anything you’re going to come up against in life,” Georgevski says. “Sport teaches you how to deal with success and with failure. It teaches you to strive and persevere.

“We have about 100 athletes on our track team each year, and in the past five years I can think of only four or five who didn’t graduate,” he adds. “Our graduation rate is 87 per cent, but that’s sort of misleading because [the 13 per cent] reflects not only those who didn’t graduate, but also those who transferred to other institutions.”

Georgevski points to the career achievements of his athletes. “We’ve had students go on to medicine, law and other grad schools,” he says. “One of our athletes went on to be the manager of a nuclear plant in Nevada. Others are teaching. It’s not the case that our athletes had to make compromises to compete. In fact, the demands of training probably forced many of them to be more organized. It might have pushed them to do better than they otherwise might have.”

The runners from the 1960s suggest that it would be difficult for today’s U of T track athletes to achieve world rankings. The idea of balancing sport and school or career has become as quaint as amateurism. The modern elite athlete doesn’t just take off a race day and the day before. Today’s interna-tional champions are almost always full-time athletes.

Crothers, Kidd and Bailey emphasize that the objective of a university athletics program should not be times, world rankings, records or medals. It should be something that lasts longer than two minutes. “I don’t know if we could recreate the performances of the 1960s track team internationally,” says Crothers. “But I think we can recreate the spirit of our team – the camaraderie, the friendship and support.”

“I think that the spirit still exists, whether it’s the track team or teams in other sports,” Kidd says.

Here is an important, maybe the important distinction: the same spirit exists within the teams, but in the student body it’s hard to find school spirit about the teams.

The university hopes that will change – that its commitment to Varsity Centre will inspire greater interest among students in intercollegiate sports and help U of T recapture some of the athletics glory of days past. “Athletics are hugely important,” says David Farrar, U of T’s vice-provost, students. “The university has not paid enough attention to this important area of human development, and we recognize that athletics are a vital part of the overall student experience. That’s why we are committing almost $20 million to Varsity – to help forge a new era in sports at U of T.”

Many U.S. colleges have one or two high-profile athletic programs that shape school spirit (and produce millions in revenue, underwriting other university varsity teams) – football at the University of Nebraska, basketball at the University of Connecticut. In Canada, Carleton has a winning basketball program. Farrar is seeking a model that strikes a balance between this “championship” approach and U of T’s current philosophy, which emphasizes participation. “We have more than 40 varsity teams and some championship teams like women’s field hockey,” he says. “But there’s certainly room to generate much more excitement about our athletes.”

Some alumni, particularly those who remember the championship teams of the 1950s and ’60s, have openly despaired about the state of varsity sports at U of T. They envy the elite programs in the U.S. and have criticized U of T’s approach as an attempt to be all things to all people. But Gordon Cunningham (BA 1966 Trinity, JD 1969), who played on U of T’s winning hockey teams in the 1960s and used to be one of those alumni detractors, took on the role of Varsity’s fundraising chair because he believes U of T is moving in the right direc-tion. “I’ve been very encouraged by David Naylor’s comments about athletics and the university’s commitment to Varsity Centre,” says Cunningham. “And I’m optimistic about where athletics at U of T are headed.”

Foot retired after 48 years of service with the Toronto Police Service. Before his death in 2002, at the age of 85, he lived to see his athletes achieve remarkable success and assume leadership roles away from the track. Crothers, the most business-minded of the teammates, went on to own several pharmacies before becoming a long-serving school board trustee in York Region. Bailey (BScP 1968, MSc 1970, PhD 1973) won the senior investigator award from the Canadian Society for Clinical Pharmacology and has broken new ground with his research on interactions between food and drugs.

Crothers believes it’s no accident that so many of the alumni from that track team went onto other successes in life. “The sport attracts goal-oriented and committed young people,” he says. “And it attracts people like Fred, people who really get nothing in return for volunteering other than the sense of satisfaction that goes with helping others.”

Kidd sees the hand of the coach in his athletes’ life choices – that a sense of public service was one of the values instilled in the athletes by Foot and by Foot’s example. “Fred had a genuine, heartfelt concern for other people,” Kidd says. “It’s not a coincidence that all of us went on to do something in the service of the public.”

Gare Joyce is a Toronto freelancer. At age 8, he watched Crothers beat Snell from a front-row seat at Varsity Stadium.

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  1. 7 Responses to “ Race of the Century ”

  2. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    This took me back 40 years. Like the writer Gare Joyce, I was there. I was a middle distance runner (of no distinction) who trained and ran in meets at Varsity Stadium, and the Crothers-Snell race is a precious memory of that time. A little-remembered fact is that Peter Snell never won a major race after his defeat by Crothers. He retired less than a year later.

    Paul Van Loan
    BA 1957 Victoria, MA 1958
    Santa Cruz, California

  3. Bruce Simpson says:

    How exciting to relive that 880-yard race at Varsity Stadium in June of '65! I had run a race myself that evening and was on the infield with other members of our club, The Toronto Striders. It was a thrilling moment I'll not forget, when Bill passed Peter to win. We mobbed him with pats on the back, nearly killing him as he was catching his breath and recovering from the effort. Those were great days with great people - Fred, Bill, Bruce (Kidd), Dave and many others.

  4. Mike Horgan says:

    I was at the National Track & Field Championships at Varsity yesterday. It was the first time I had been back since Crothers beat Peter Snell in 1965. That was the most exciting sports event I have ever attended. Thanks for filling in some of the blank spots in my memories.

  5. Glen Midgley says:

    Like some of the others who have posted here, I too was at that infamous meet at Varsity Stadium in 1965. I was a middle-distance runner of little distinction. I ran with the old East York Track Club from about 1963 to 1965. Our coach, Fred Foot, gave me a good base for my years in the sport. But due to my career at Bell (spanning 40 years) in Toronto's west end, I joined the Toronto Striders in 1965, which eventually became the Etobicoke Striders. We trained at the Centennial Park track in Etobicoke until I retired from track racing in 1974.

    But back to 1965. I was sitting with Dave Crothers, who was Bill's younger brother. Dave and I trained together quite a bit and got along well. Prior to this rematch between Bill and Peter Snell, I remembered the evening in 1964 when Bill returned to the East York Collegiate High School track where we trained, having just won a silver medal from the Tokyo Olympics. There was certainly discussion around whether Bill could have won the gold medal over Peter. Peter was known for his tactic of "kicking" early in half-mile races -- as far out as a quarter of a mile -- and that had served him well up until 1965.

    However, Bill had learned from past experience racing against Peter and in this rematch Bill was clearly the better runner from a tactical standpoint. When Peter attempted to break free of the pack early, Bill went with him and shadowed him until the home straight. I remember almost holding my breath and wondering, "Can Bill hang onto him?" But I should have known better than to ask that question. I had witnessed many races in which Bill never panicked or lost focus. In virtually every race I saw Bill run, he always held his form and gait beautifully -- often winning races by barely a foot or so.

    That warm sunny summer evening, Bill overtook Peter to win the race. I can still remember the crowd screaming like crazy. Dave was elated for his brother's win.

    There was another wonderful race that evening: the 100 yards with Harry Jerome, who was taken from us too early in life. During that race, Harry ran even with the other competitors until around the 60-yard mark. Then suddenly, and very surprisingly, he exploded into faster gear. By the 80-yard mark, he was five yards in front. He seemed to coast over the finish line, just missing the world record.

    These are great memories, and I feel blessed to have experienced that very special evening in July 1965.

  6. Bob Winegar says:

    I remember watching Bruce Kidd race at the CNE. With his seemingly awkward style of running where his left arm would flop to-and-fro, he was attempting to be the first Canadian runner to go under four minutes. His teammates took him halfway in two minutes flat and got him to the 3/4-mile mark at three minutes. In spite of a valiant effort, Kidd was able to finish in "only" 4:01.4. The crowd of 20,000 didn't care. We went absolutely nuts! Bruce's running mate, Bill Crothers finished in an amazing 4:07. Bruce said later that running on the cinders at the CNE was like ploughing through sand. Had his attempt been made on a present-day track he would have made it into Roger Bannister country, under four minutes.

  7. ian phillips says:

    I followed all these guys, especially Bill C. when I ran the 880 and mile during my school years 1960-66. I loved to run and still am heavily involved in triathlon and speed skating, along with coaching youth. I hope they will catch the passion that I did for sports. Abby Hoffman was also a runner that I admired and always will. Great article and great memories.

  8. Douglas P Finley says:

    I too was there. Took a train from my home in Michigan. If I am doing the math right, I was 17. Stayed in the Royal York Hotel. So did the star runners: Peter Snell, Ron Clarke, Bob Schul, Albie Thomas, Billy Mills, Ron Larrieu and more. I have the autographs to prove it.

    What I lost is the front-page photo in the newspaper of Crothers beating Snell at the finishing line. I am in that picture. My seat was right on the finish line. The timers were right behind me.

    Ron Clarke broke the listed world record for the three-mile distance that night, but a week earlier he ran two seconds faster in L.A. which was a pending world record.