SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian distance running great Ron Clarke, who set 17 world records in the 1960s, died in a Gold Coast hospital after a short illness on Wednesday morning. He was 78.
Clarke never won a gold medal at the Olympics, taking home a bronze from the 10,000 metres in 1964 and finishing fifth in the 5,000 and sixth in the longer distance in Mexico in 1968.
At his peak in 1965, however, Clarke redefined distance running by destroying record after record from the two-mile race through to the one-hour run.
He was the first man to run under 28 minutes in the 10,000m and his time of 27:39.4 in Oslo that year stood as the record until Finn Lasse Viren bettered it at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
"Today is a very sad day for athletics in Australia, with news of the passing of legendary runner Ron Clarke after a battle with illness," Athletics Australia president David Grace said.
"Ron will forever be a legend of our sport and we are grateful for his extensive contribution to the sport of athletics, as well as to public service during a life that should be celebrated."
Clarke was selected to light the cauldron at the 1956 Olympics in his home city Melbourne as a teenager but retired three years later to study accountancy.
He returned to the track in 1962 and claimed his first world mark the following year in Melbourne, taking the 10,000m and six mile marks in one race.
Third place in the 10,000m behind American Billy Mills at the Tokyo Olympics followed in 1964 before his extraordinary 1965 saw him win the coveted Track & Field News men's Athlete of the Year award.
Clarke ran nearly 50 races and improved world records 12 times, starting by claiming the 5,000 metres record in Hobart in January and taking 39 seconds overall off the 10,000m mark.
Despite training in the Alps for the Mexico Games, Clarke was unable to compete against athletes better used to the altitude and did well to finish the 10,000m at all.
He won his fourth Commonwealth Games silver medal in Edinburgh in 1970 and although he never claimed a title at a major multi-sports Games, he did own an Olympic 10,000m gold medal given to him by Emil Zatopek.
"Look after this. You deserve it," the Czech told him in 1968 after handing over one of the three gold medals he won in distance events at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.
Clarke later served as mayor of the Gold Coast, the resort city which will host the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
"Ron was a great man," said 1960 Olympic 1,500 metres champion Herb Elliott.
"His contribution to athletics was enormous. He was also a wonderful contributor to public health through lifestyle programs and gymnasiums and the communities in which he lived. Ron will be greatly missed."
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Ian Ransom)
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