Why Die? The Extraordinary Percy Cerutty, “Maker of Champions”, by Graem Sims

Why Die was published in 2003.  Writer Graem Sims did the world of sport and Australia a big favour by chronicling the life of a true original.  If he ever does a piece of work as good again in his life he’ll be doing well as Why Die is a remarkable book about a remarkable man and it’s a disgrace that it’s no longer in print.

Percy Cerutty was a man ahead of his time and is considered by many to sit alongside figures such as Vince Lomardi and John Wooden in the pantheon of coaching greats.  That Cerutty revolutionised athletics training and conditioning for middle distance runners at his centre amid the sand dunes of Portsea is beyond question; that he did all his effective work after the age of 44 when he suffered a breakdown and was given two years to live by one Melbourne medical practitioner makes his story all the more intriguing.

Sims captures Cerutty’s physical state when he writes: “Pale, short of breath, with rotten teeth and a stalled digestive system, Percy hobbled about on joints stricken with rheumatism, probably related to an electrolyte (salt) imbalance resulting from poor nutrition.  One day he would be floored by a migraine episode, the next spent recovering from it, floating as if detached from his physical being.  Percy entered a phase of feeling a crushing sense of isolation, and his physical health bore the brunt of this alienation.”  He’d endured a life of malnourishment and poverty as a child and didn’t taste fruit of any kind until the age of 15.  His digestive system in pieces, Cerutty began his journey back to life after an encounter with a Melbourne GP, Ray Killmier, who told him that if he was going to survive he was going to have to do it through his own will, intuition, and initiative as opposed to looking to medicine for a panacea.

Bit by bit Cerutty rebuilt his physical health through eating raw foods only, and through reading the works of Alexis Carrel, George Hackenschmidt, and Arthur Newton developed a philosophy on physical conditioning and well being that he would later use to condition a group of athletes that made a notable impact on the world middle distance running scene from the mid-1950s when John Landy ran a series of sub-four minute miles to 1960 when Herb Elliott won the 1,500 metre final at the Rome Olympics.

Elliott is still revered world-wide for his achievements as he went undefeated over the 1,500 metres and mile distances up until his retirement in 1961 at the age of 22.  My father recalls being with his own father in Fitzgerald’s pub in Foynes, County Limerick and listening to Elliott smashing the world record by 2.7 seconds in the ‘Mile of the Millennium’ at the Morton Stadium in Santry, Dublin.  Five runners ran the mile in under 4 minutes that day and it’s unlikely that an event as significant in athletics has taken place in Ireland since.

Cerutty studied the natural movement of animals to develop a running technique which is uncannily similar to that espoused by Danny Dreyer, the main proponent of chi-running, over half a century later.  While many felt that his work on technique was key to his athletes’ success, Herb Elliott was clear that it was the mental side where Percy excelled.

“Percy helped me to world records not so much by improving my technique but by releasing in my mind and soul a power that I only vaguely knew existed.”

Cerutty was a keen runner in his youth but retired from competitive racing in 1918 with 11 wins and 11 placings from 37 races.  The members of Malvern Harriers were astonished when Cerutty turned up in the spring of 1942 and said “I’ve come down to have a run with you.  I used to be a member here.”  He ran his first competitive race in twenty five years on December 15th, 1942 when he finished second and clocked a time of 4 minutes and 50 seconds off a handicap of 240 yards for the mile.  His second competitive career came to an end at the age of 55, but only after astonishing the Australian athletics community with feats such as covering 100 miles in less than 24 hours as well as completing his first official marathon in 2:58:11 at the age of 52.

troublemaker and he was never accepted by the conservative Australian athletics establishment.  Cerutty’s methods were more highly thought of by both the British and the Americans.  At the 1956 Melbourne Olympics Cerutty was made an ex-officio member of the British team having once again been shunned by his own countrymen.  In 1958 when the Australian AAU tried to stop Cerutty from accompanying Elliott to a series of events in the U.S. on the way to the 1958 Empire Games in Wales, the Americans paid for him.

When his achievements were finally recognised by the Establishment in November 1972, when he was awarded an MBE for his services for sport at Government House in Melbourne, he performed a headstand for the onlookers on the lawn.  This was nothing compared to what followed:

“As drinks and sandwiches were served afterwards, journalists saw Percy stroll away from the crowd and wander across the gardens.  Sprinklers spat their gentle music as they drenched the turf; Percy found a patch some distance away and unzipped his flies to relieve himself.  He was in full view of the crowd, if anyone had been looking.”

Percy had a habit of pulling strokes and gaining access to events and areas where he had no right to be in attendance.  At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics Percy was working as a freelance journalist for the Melbourne Herald.  He was unable to get accreditation in order to attend the opening ceremony but still managed to gatecrash the extremely tight security to take up a position in Emperor Hirohito’s imperial box.  It was “the greatest Olympic ticket con ever pulled” according to the Herald news editor, John Fitzgerald.

Percy loved women, and while his behaviour once drove his second wife Nancy to break a glass bottle over his head he remained faithful despite being an outrageous flirt.  Nancy celebrated her 100th birthday on the 26th of November last year and still lives at the Portsea training camp.  His views on women athletes were contentious and were rooted in his belief that their femininity was compromised by extreme programmes of physical conditioning.  Sims recounts a hilarious tale where Cerutty tells a proud father who wanted his promising daughter to attend the Portsea centre that “if your girl comes here I won’t be satisfied with half measures…I might make her the fastest woman athlete in the world.  But I warn you now.  You may lose a daughter and gain a female son.”  His views on compatriot Germaine Greer and her feminist tome “The Female Eunach” are as amusing.  In the margin of one of the pages he wrote that “this woman is mad.  Too silly for words.  She’s too verbose.  She quotes all these references – probably has no real experience of what real love is all about.  I know what this woman needs.”

If any passage of the book captures the essence of Percy Cerutty it’s the description of the scene of his and Herb Elliott’s greatest triumph in the 1,500 metres at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.  Watching from the stand, Cerutty thought that Elliott had dropped the pace, and was going to miss out on the world record.  “He’s coasting.  Time to give him a rev-up” he said to the person sitting next to him.  With that he scaled the spiked iron fence, jumped the moat, stripped of his team singlet and waved it over his head as Elliott, who was leading, passed three hundred metres out from the end.  Elliott, who wasn’t sure whether he was in danger from behind or whether he was on record pace, stepped on it.  As Elliott crossed the line in a world record time of 3:35.6, Cerutty was being roughly thrown back over the fence by two Italian policemen.

On August 15th, 1975, 36 years after being given no more than two years to live, Percy Wells Cerutty finally succumbed to motor neurone disease.  He was 80 years old.

I hope Graem Sims takes on another project as worthy as this one, and I’ll leave the final words to him:

“Those who entered his orbit included a range of humanity from prime ministers to plasterers, and included the greatest athletes of the era, fulfilling the highest ambitions that men may dare.  They reckon he was the most extraordinary man they ever met.”