stories, photos, anecdotes….. sharing the past
historyparkes wrote a series on Olympians from the Parkes Shire. Each post will provide a snapshot of the sportsmen and sportswomen who have worn the green and gold and called the Parkes Shire home at some point of their lives. The 1950s were a golden era for sports stars from the Parkes Shire, with two representatives in athletics at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. This post will highlight the second athlete who hailed from the Parkes Shire, Jim Bailey, who was a middle distance runner. Bailey was part of the golden generation of Australian middle-distance runners who included John Landy, Ron Clarke, Herb Elliott, Donald MacMillan and Merv Lincoln.
James John Bailey was born July 21, 1929 in the Sydney suburb of Arncliffe. When he was 18 months old, Bailey’s family moved to Parkes. Jim’s dad, Patrick Joseph Bailey was the health and buildings inspector for Parkes Municipal Council, with the family living in Elizabeth Street. Jim’s mother, Mary Margaret was a housewife. By 1936 the Bailey residence was ‘Lolita’ in Carrington Street, Parkes. The Bailey family stayed in Parkes for ten years before moving to 110 Gloucester Road, Hurstville, Sydney (Source: The Champion Post Monday May 8, 1956, page 1 & 1954 NSW Electoral Rolls via Ancestry Library Subscription) where Jim joined the St George Athletics Club. Inter-club athletics attracted more spectator and media attention in the 1950s and Jim proved to be a successful half-miler (880 yards) and mile runner (1500 metres).
At age 19, Bailey finished in a dead heat with David White in 880 yards in the 1949 Australian Championships. Bailey’s coach at the time, Alleyn Gainsford, advised Bailey not to contest the required rerun. This gave White the gold medal by default with Bailey second. However Bailey was to be outright winner two years later, finishing in 1:54.9 with David White runner up.
The 1951 Australian Championships were held on the new cinders track at Melbourne’s Olympic Park. The new surface was being given a test run in preparation for the 1956 Olympic Games. Bailey was not a fan of the new surface, finding it harsh compared to grass. He was encouraged by French miler, Michel Clare, to train in Paris where cinder tracks were the norm. Bailey did not adjust to the harsh European winter, where he would train and compete in snow-covered tracks or face cancellations due to inclement weather. He returned home for the 1952 championships, out of form. Bailey finished second to Don MacMillan who earned the sole 1952 Olympic Games berth in 880 yards.
It is often that sportspeople can excel in more than one sport, and it was the case with Jim Bailey. In 1953 he played for the Irrigation Commission team in the Public Service competition, scoring several tries as a strong running winger. He was touted as a future star in rugby league, however Bailey wanted to focus on athletics. He took a job as an engineer on the Snowy River Hydro-Electric Scheme where the mountainous terrain would assist his training.
In the 1954 championships Bailey again won the 880 yards with a time of 1:53.2. The same championships Bailey was runner up in the mile to John Landy. Bailey’s time was 4:12.8 and Landy’s was 4:05.6. The spotlight was no longer on Bailey – both domestic and international athletics was focused on the impossible becoming reality – the first sub-4-minute mile! Later in 1954, Britain’s Roger Bannister would break the four minute mile. On 6 May 1954, Bannister broke the four minute barrier in front of a crowd of 3,000 spectators in Oxford, England. Bannister’s time was 3 minutes 59.4 seconds. His record stood for 46 days before it was beaten in an athletics meet in Turku, Finland. The athlete was John Landy, with a time of 3:57.9. With John Landy appearing to be superior to Bailey, the Australian athletics fraternity cruelly nicknamed Bailey “Mr Second”.
While Bailey continued to win inter-club athletics meetings and he was invited to Victoria at a special meeting, the ‘christening’ of Melbourne’s Olympic Park cinders track. Bailey won but like many of the other athletes found the cinder track hard. Jim Bailey caught the eye of fellow athlete, and later sports reporter for L’Équipe, Michel Clare who convinced Bailey to travel to France to gain experience on cinder tracks and study style and relaxation techniques. (Source: Running: Star Off To France (1951, June 30).Sporting Globe (Melbourne, Vic. : 1922 – 1954), , p. 11. Retrieved July 6, 2016, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article193641613 and Olympic Hope (1951, July 1). Sunday Mail (Brisbane) (Qld. : 1926 – 1954), , p. 13. Retrieved July 6, 2016, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article98338287)
Having been unsuccessful to make the Olympic team for the Helsinki Olympics in 1952, Bailey accepted a scholarship to study geology at University of Oregon. He quickly established himself on their athletics team at collegiate track & field meetings. In preparations for the Melbourne Olympic Games, Bailey took part in a special event in Los Angeles with John Landy. The aim was the promote the Melbourne Games and to have Landy break the four minute mile on US soil. While Landy was the favourite, Bailey surprised everyone – himself included – when he defeated Landy in a time of 3:58.6. This was the first time that the four minute barrier had been broken on US soil. When Bailey returned to Australia he was asked on his chances at the Melbourne Olympics. Bailey replied that he thought he could beat John Landy again. The mood of the public turned against him. In an interview 50 years to the day since his amazing achievement, Bailey explains the treatment he received and why it occurred:
Bailey won in 3 minutes, 58.6 seconds. He gained international fame when all he wanted was to get an invitation to the Australian Olympic trials later that year.
Bailey admits now that he didn’t handle the victory well.
Upon returning to Australia, he announced he was in better shape than he had been when he beat Landy, and he’d beat him by an even wider margin the next time they met.
“They would have excused me if I had been more apologetic about beating Landy and not said the things I did,” he said. “Landy was so popular, the way swimmer Ian Thorpe is now. I got death threats for what I’d done, and I was booed at the trials.”
Bailey, a former pro rugby player, was cast as the roughneck from Sydney. Landy, the former record holder, was cast as the gentleman from Melbourne. Bailey admits the characterizations were closer to the truth than not.
Bailey made the Australian Olympic team in both the 800 and 1,500 meters, but didn’t get out of the semifinals in the 800 and never ran the 1,500.
“I wasn’t right, mentally or physically,” he said.
To this day, Bailey says failing in the Olympics, in front of his countrymen, left more of an impression on his life than beating Landy and running the first sub-4 in America.
“I was completely overwhelmed by what happened in Melbourne and never recovered from it,” he said.
Source: The Seattle Times Sunday April 30, 2006
Video footage of Jim Bailey running the first sub 4-minute mile on US soil. Source: YouTube
While the rivalry between Landy and Bailey brought a lot of attention to middle-distance running, in reality the two were friends. Bailey continually referred to Landy as ‘The Master’ and promoted Landy’s achievements to a sceptical American audience. Bailey helped establish middle-distance running in the North West of the US, winning the NCAA mile in 1955 and helping fellow Oregon runners such as Bill Dellinger, Jim Grelle, Dyrol Burleson, Steve Prefontaine and Alberto Salazar. Source: University of Oregon Sub4 Milers video https://youtu.be/jEYkY9p4p_I and The Seattle Times Sunday April 30, 2006
While Bailey has been almost forgotten about in Australia, he is still remembered in United States. While one misplaced comment to the media cemented his role as “villain” in the perspective of Australians, the truth is that he was a man and athlete of generosity and sportsmanship. Before defeating Landy in America, Australian official and fellow athletes had nicknamed him “Mr Second”. Bailey respected Landy and believed that John Landy would not be beaten and argued this fact with Americans who diminished Landy’s efforts, disbelieving that anyone other than an American would win Olympic gold in the half-mile and mile events. Bailey regularly assisted with training juniors at St George Athletics Club. Source: The Perth Mirror Saturday 12 May 1956, page 12
Jim Bailey returned to United States after the Olympics, working as a rep for sportswear before moving into the real estate business. Jim did compete in 1954 Empire Games in Vancouver, when Bannister defeated Landy, however he was injured in the final of the 800m event. The insult of being booed by his fellow countrymen led to below par performances in 800 metres and withdrawing from the 1,500 metres. However he leaves a positive legacy with the youngster of St George Athletics Club in the 1950s, and with University of Oregon athletics team. Bailey describes himself as “a misfit living on the edge.” Source: The Seattle Times Sunday April 30, 2006 Yet this doesn’t give a complete picture of the athlete and person that Jim Bailey is. He was one of a golden generation of Australian athletes. Bailey was a dedicated athlete, leaving Australia for France and later the United States of America in pursuit of bettering his technique and times with the aim of representing his country. He coached youngsters and adults, even assisting fellow runners especially in Oregon. He is also one of a small elite band of men and women who are Olympians of the Parkes Shire.
Parkes Shire Library’s Dan Fredericks was asked to write the obituary which appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald Friday May 29, 2020 p.33 The obituary can be viewed online here.
Parkes Shire Library would like to thank the following organisations for their assistance in making this post possible:
If you have stories or memories that you are willing to share about Jim Bailey or any of the other Olympians of the Parkes Shire , please contact Parkes Shire Library via firstname.lastname@example.org so that they can be shared and kept for posterity on this blog. Alternatively you may leave comments on this page.