REGARDED as ‘the best race I’ve ever seen in my life’ by former BBC commentator and Olympic medallist Brendan Foster, the 10,000m at the European Championships of 1971 was truly an epic affair.
Held exactly 50 years ago – on Tuesday August 10 – it was the final event on the opening day of the 10th European Games held before a crowd of 70,000 in Helsinki’s Olympic Stadium.
It gave the partisan Finnish crowd, starved of distance success for so long, a night to remember as Juha Vaatainen ran an incredible last lap to win in a championship and Finnish record of 27:52.78.
The race also provided Corkman Donie Walsh with an Irish best for the distance which, somewhat surprisingly for a man who won a total of 16 national titles on track, road and country, was his sole national record.
The odds-on favourite leading up to Helsinki was the six-foot tall British runner Dave Bedford, his distinctive long hair and drooping moustache matched by the famous red socks he always wore.
The previous month, on a sun-scorched afternoon at Portsmouth and despite badly blistered feet, he had established a European record of 27:47.0 for 10,000m, the second fastest ever recorded over the distance.
Bedford knew only one way to run, and that was from the front. At 5000m, reached in 13:54.4, he tried to drop his pursuers but to no avail. With a lap to go a group of five were still together and with 300m left Vaatainen and Jurgen Haase of East Germany kicked past Bedford and the home fans went wild.
The Finn covered the final lap in 53.9 (with the final 200m in 26 seconds) to cross the line in a time of 27:52.78.
Hasse was second in 27:53.35, Rashid Sharafetdinov of the Soviet Union third in 27:56.26 as the first five set national records. Bedford had to settle for sixth in 28:04.33. As Vaatainen was swept off his feet by the ecstatic Finnish fans, Leevale’s Donie Walsh was heading out on his final circuit enroute to an Irish record of 28:52.60.
In the lead up to the Europeans, the Corkman was in fine form. He won the national 10,000m in 29:34.2, turning a last lap deficit of 15 yards into a winning margin of 20 yards over Fr Paddy Coyle.
He finished first over 5000m in an international match in Spain, along with victories over the same distance at the Cork City Sports and Clonliffe International (PB of 14:02.6).
A half-century on from that unforgettable night, Walsh – now a highly successful coach at his beloved Leevale – looks back with fond memories. “The atmosphere there was incredible; the only other place I could compare would be Eugene in Oregon where I ran the NCAA championships.
“I was happy with my run; it was good to run the European Championships to give you the experience more than anything else. It was an Irish record which was broken by Neil Cusack the following year.”
Two days later, Walsh was back on the track for the heats of the 5000m where he again was up against Vaatainen.
Donie led through 800m in 2:24 before eventually finishing 11th in 14:12.6.
The Finnish runner would go on to make it double gold when winning the final in another championship and national record of 13:32.48.
In between the 10,000m final and 5000m heats, the Corkman also helped the disappointed Bedford to drown his sorrows, as he recalls: “After the 10,000m myself and Bedford went off out for a few scoops. Bedford was a real athletes athlete, the same as Steve Prefontaine was an athletes athlete.
“They went out and they ran, and if you were better than them you beat them on the day.
"They only knew one way to run, go out and run everyone into the ground. If you were able to stay then you could stay and if you can’t you can’t.” Walsh was 21st of the 33 finishers that night in Helsinki and four places ahead of him was another Finnish athlete, Lasse Viren.
Twelve months later Viren would carve his own place in athletics history when emulating his countryman by winning the 5000m and 10,000m at the Munich Olympics.
It’s also worth noting the man who finished 33rd and last that night.
A 24-year-old Portuguese named Carlos Lopes could only manage a time of 30:05.64 – 13 years later he would take marathon gold on that memorable night at the Los Angeles Olympics ahead of John Treacy.
Proving that in sport, on occasion, the Biblical phase of ‘the last will be first’ can certainly ring through.