Ron Clarke, an Australian who set 17 middle-distance running world records, captured an Olympic bronze medal and lit the Melbourne 1956 Olympic cauldron, died at age 78 of kidney failure on Wednesday.
Clarke was 19 years old when selected to light the Olympic cauldron at the Opening Ceremony of the first Olympics hosted by Australia in 1956 (video here).
“No one ever told me why I was selected to carry the torch, but I presume it was because I’d broken so many junior world records and more importantly, I suppose, it was because I wasn’t competing in the Games themselves,” Clarke said, according to the Sydney Sun-Herald. “I was a bit disappointed about not being chosen for the team and as I’ve said many times, I would have given one thousand chances to run with the torch as to compete in the Olympics.”
Clarke’s right arm was burned and there were holes made in his shirt due to flame particles dropping from the torch he carried, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
“It was terrific being out there,” Clarke said, according to the newspaper. “I did not feel the burns at all until afterwards.”
Clarke later competed in the 1964 and 1968 Olympics, earning 10,000m bronze in the Tokyo 1964 Games. At Mexico City 1968, Clarke collapsed at the 10,000m finish, placing sixth, and nearly died from altitude sickness, according to the Associated Press.
“There was, instead, the awful sight of the great Australian distance runner, Ron Clarke, gray as dust, an oxygen mask pressed to his face as he lay unconscious by the track for 10 minutes after the 10,000 meters on the first day of competition,” Sports Illustrated wrote. “Everybody knew Mexico City was 7,349 feet high and that there was this crazy thing called ‘oxygen debt.'”
He set world records in distances ranging from two miles to the one-hour race, according to OlympStats.com and is one of the greatest athletes never to win an Olympic gold medal.