On 14 July 1965, Ron Clarke won the 10,000 metres at the Bislett Games in Oslo in 27:39.4, bettering his own recognized world record by a Beamon-like 36.2 seconds. His best time in 1968 was 15 seconds faster than the second best time for the year. But the 1968 Olympics were held at the altitude of Ciudad de México, and Clarke had been born and trained at sea-level. The pace was slow, because of the altitude, with 5K passed in 15:00.6, slower than the 1924 final. Mexico’s Juan Martínez took the lead on the 19th lap, delighting the home crowd. With two laps remaining the lead pack of four was Clarke, Kenya’s Naftali Temu, 1966 Commonwealth Games champion, Ethiopia’s Mamo Wolde, and Tunisia’s Mohamad Gammoudi, silver medalist from 1964. Temu and Wolde pulled ahead on the penultimate lap, dropping Gammoudi and Clarke. Wolde shot into the lead at the bell but Temu fought back and caught Wolde on the final straight to win by four metres. Clarke struggled in the last two laps, a victim of the altitude, finishing sixth. He collapsed at the finish line, and was administered to by an Australian doctor who was seen crying at the condition of this great athlete.
Ron Clarke is likely the greatest distance runner never to have won a major international championship, winning a bronze medal in the 1964 Olympic 10K, and four silver medals at the Commonwealth Games. But his world records set new standards and confirmed his greatness. In 1968, he visited Czech distance legend Emil Zátopek at his home in Praha. When Zátopek took him to the airport, he pressed a gift into Clarke’s hands, telling him “You deserve this.” On the plane, Clarke opened it and it was the gold medal Zátopek had won for the 1952 10,000 metres. Wallechinsky wrote that Clarke had commented, “I do know no one cherishes any gift more than I do, my only Olympic gold medal and not because of what it is … but because of the man whose spirit it represents.”