Australian 400m runner Rick Mitchell at the opening ceremony for the 1982 Commonwealth Games (© Getty Images)
World Athletics is deeply saddened to hear that Rick Mitchell, Australia’s highest-achieving male athlete at 400m, has died, aged 66.
Mitchell took the silver medal behind the Soviet Union’s surprise packet, Viktor Markin, in Moscow. Cathy Freeman memorably won the gold medal in the women’s 400m at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, but Mitchell’s is the only individual medal in the one-lap sprint by an Australian man.
The medal came after a trademark Mitchell finish along the final straight which took him from fifth past everyone else but Markin. His 44.84 was an Australian record which stood until Darren Clark ran 44.77 in the quarter-finals of the next Olympic Games in Los Angeles on the way to finishing fourth in the final in another national record 44.75.
The building blocks towards Mitchell’s Olympic silver medal were assembled one-by-one, beginning with his family’s move from Sydney to Melbourne when he was a young boy. He was a keen rugby union player before taking up athletics, first at the local Waverley club in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, then at St Stephen’s Harriers.
It was at St Stephen’s, historically one of Melbourne’s oldest and strongest athletics clubs, that Mitchell came under the influence of his career-long coach, Norm Osborne. Osborne built up a solid group of endurance-based sprinters – 400m men, for the most part.
Mitchell joined the group in late 1974. 18 months later he was in his first of three Olympic teams and on his way to Montreal.
“I gave Rick the usual spiel that it was up to him and if he wanted me to coach him to come along and give it a fly,” Osborne said in a 1980 interview for Australian Runner magazine.
The endeavour ‘flew’ right enough. Mitchell started the 1975-76 domestic season with a break-through to 46.12. Three months later, he won the national title in Melbourne in 46.5. On arrival in Montreal, he improved still further to 45.7 in a warm-up meeting. Athletics fans could sense Mitchell was building to something big.
Also in Montreal was Mitchell’s clubmate, training partner and, now, Olympic teammate, Don Hanly. It was common for Australian athletes to travel to Europe for competition by then – Graham Crouch, Ken Hall, Raelene Boyle and Judy Pollock were among many who had. Just as many, though, were international neophytes at their first Games as in the days of John Landy, Marjorie Jackson and Shirley Strickland.
Mitchell and Hanly were among the second group. Hanly recalls their prvious travel experiences: “I went to the US West Coast on one of Neville Sillitoe’s junior tours (Sillitoe coached Mexico City Olympic 200m silver medallist Peter Norman). ‘Mitch’ had been to Singapore (again, with a Sillitoe group).
French-Canadian Montreal must have seemed quite exotic by contrast.
But both were fit, fitness honed on runs around Melbourne’s Tan Track in the winter months and sessions on the grass oval where St Stephen’s trained in Yarra Park, just across the road from Melbourne’s Olympic Park.
This humble, pear-shaped track, with one broad bend and one narrow bend, was home to a broad group of talented athletes. One thing it did not have was changing rooms, so Mitchell’s SSH group shared the Olympic Park rooms with the Pat Clohessy-Chris Wardlaw long-distance group.
Wardlaw, another member of the 1976 Australian Olympic team, remembers the volume of work Mitchell used to do. “We’d come there and do a quick session of 400s, and be gone. They’d barely have got their spikes on by then, but when we finished our run, they would still be there.”
Volume and numbers are the two things Wardlaw recalls. “It was a really strong group. Groups make it easier to set a standard and stick to it. Rick might have been the best athlete, but he was really just first among equals in a lot of ways.”
Mitchell, then, arrived in Montreal well-prepared. “We were both very fit,” said Hanly, who believes his own 400m hurdles failure was down to a lack of specific preparation rather than any lack of fitness. A good run in the 4x400m heats made up for it to a large extent.
Improving by the round, Mitchell ran his way into the final of the flat 400m. He ran 46.11, 45.76 and 45.69 en route to a sixth-place finish in the final in yet another personal best of 45.40.
Alberto Juantorena won the 400m-800m double in Montreal and there is a wonderful picture of the giant Cuban racing side-by-side with the lightly-built Mitchell in the heats of the 4x400m. Cuba ran Australia out, unfortunately, but Montreal was the start of an unlikely friendship between the two.
Hanly recalls the Australians encounter with Juantorena in the Village. “The first time we saw him, it was just, ‘Wow. This guy is huge’.” But Mitchell went on to room with Juantorena at a meeting in London the following year and a mutual respect built up. They both raced at the first IAAF World Cup in Dusseldorf later that year where Juantorena claimed not to have heard the starting gun in the 400m and the race was rerun. Mitchell did not participate in the rerun.
Come the Moscow final, the story took another turn, one Mitchell used to delight in retelling. As the athletes waited nervously in the call-room ahead of the final, Mitchell reached into his bag. To his surprise, he found a red beret, the same one, or similar, to the one Juantorena had worn when he carried the Cuban flag at the Opening Ceremony.
To Mitchell, at least, the symbolism was clear. The gift was his way of saying if he could not win he hoped the Australian would.
Mitchell won the Commonwealth Games 400m in 1978, beating two athletes who went on to make the Moscow final, Joseph Coombs and Mike Solomon. Four years later, Mitchell’s hopes of a home win in Brisbane were dashed by Bert Cameron, who went on to win the following year’s World Championships final.
Mitchell went to a third Olympics in 1984. He missed out on the final individual spot which, to his disapproval, was decided not in a head-to-head race but in a run-off in different heats at one of the pre-Games meetings. Nor was his run memorable. Mitchell took over on the anchor in second place but fell back to fourth.
Piling on the misfortune, the Australians – Bruce Frayne, Clark, Gary Minihan and Mitchell – ran 2:59.70, becoming the first team in Olympic history to run sub-three minutes without getting a medal. But like those runs around the Tan and countless ‘reps’ on the pear-shaped track, it was a long-term investment. The four still hold the Australian record and, although they are no longer alone in this unwanted achievement, it’s still only been done 11 times in Olympic and World Championships history.
Mitchell and his successor, Darren Clark, are a virtual dead-heat in considerations of Australia’s greatest male 400m runner. Each made two Olympic finals – Mitchell sixth and second; Clark twice fourth – each won a gold and a silver at Commonwealth level, each set numerous national records.
It’s subjective, but that piece of silverware might just put Mitchell ahead.
Rick Mitchell had a varied post-athletics professional career, including a period as Director of the Tasmanian Institute of Sport and administrative roles in horse racing – another of his passions. He always gave generously of his time to athletics, notably in mentoring roles. He leaves a wife, Chris, and four sons, Ed, Joe, Alex and Ollie.
Len Johnson for World Athletics