James McNeish © 1986 Random House 495 pages.

Of all New Zealand’s 1500m heroes, none has been more explored than Jack Lovelock, the 1936 Olympic Champion. 

Given the backdrop of his greatest athletic achievement in Berlin – 3 years prior to the outbreak of World War II, Lovelock’s Olympic glory had the benefit of playing out in a historical context unmatched by our other Olympic champions. 

His unexpected and premature death in 1949 when falling under a train at a New York subway station at age 39 only served to heighten interest and it is this event which lies at the heart of the 1986 novel Lovelock by Sir James McNeish, nominated for the Booker Prize for that year.

The first part of Lovelock focuses on Lovelock’s university life, his friendships and a growing fixation on winning in Berlin, after a reality check in Los Angles. As Lovelock rises to become an athlete of rare calibre, the middle section of Lovelock focuses on Berlin against a backdrop of German nationalism where Lovelock fulfills his destiny – reaching perfection in doing so, while last part of Lovelock is set in the aftermath of a brilliant athletics career, arguably defining the novel. 

For after you’ve run and won the perfect race, executed a long term plan carried out over years to win the one race mattering the most, against the best ever assembled 1500m field the world has seen, in front of more than 80,000 German fans including the Führer himself, in world record time, executing the ‘perfect race’ tactics to do so, what then? 

And what might be the effects on someone having to face a reality that for the rest of their life, they’ll never again measure up to that one moment when they were truly perfect? 

Lovelock draws from McNeish’s own extensive research to weave a story surrounding Lovelock off the running track. A man coming to terms with many things, who above all , is struggling to reach the same heights as a medical practitioner as he once had on the track, due to suffering a severe head knock from a riding accident that impaired his vision and caused on-going dizzy spells. 

While Lovelock’s fate is known before the novel is read, McNeish is a master story teller, providing a glimpse through the eyes of a young colonial, living a seemingly charmed life, accepted into the upper echelons of Britain’s classes, but not really, not after his stellar athletic career and the war are over. 

From being a world renowned athlete, Lovelock is reduced to a mere mortal trying to find his way in post-war London, striving amid bouts of depression to realise a new dream of leading the way in rehabilitative practices, seemingly a man ahead of his time in that field, but with few real followers. 

Eventually marrying into a family with means, the Lovelock’s relocate to New York for a new beginning. Lovelock even starts running again, but he is constantly plagued by his failing eyesight, acute headaches and dizziness that ultimately prove to be his undoing. 

As a novel for runners, Lovelock all too often is devoid of the excitement and drama of his actual races, the events and achievements which made him a household name around the world in the 1930’s. The diaries and research while insightful don’t capture the essence of his finest moments, which are all too often skipped over or briefly mentioned as background canvas. 

In 1938 Jack Lovelock toured NZ running exhibition races. This photo taken in Wellington, shows my grandfather, the only one not wearing a hat, looking impressed.

McNeish, himself was never an athlete, so couldn’t capture that aspect of Lovelock himself, but it also seems he chose not to render his races using other athletes insights. Instead, as a literati, his novel was written for and is acclaimed by them. The book’s existence is to answer questions rather than recount races – however if you happen to be both literati and a runner, then Lovelock is as close to perfection as a running novel can be.