Friday, December 5, 2008
Bill Parnell, miler (1928-2008)
By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
December 5, 2008
A cacophony of honking tugboat horns and screaming ferry whistles greeted Bill Parnell on his return home from the British Empire Games in 1950.
The runner brought with him two shiny souvenirs — a bronze and a gold medal — from the competition at Auckland, New Zealand.
After landing at the airport south of Vancouver, Mr. Parnell was escorted through the city in a motor cavalcade. The ferry across the harbour to his hometown of North Vancouver was adorned with flags and bunting. A parade brought the athletic champion to a reception at which the cheers of 500 high school students was all the louder for their having been given the day off in honour of one of their own.
“This is North Vancouver’s hour of triumph,” Mayor Frank Goldsworthy told the crowd. “Our Bill did it.”
Mr. Parnell did not care for the spotlight. One newspaper described him as being “tall, slow-talking and Gary Cooperish.”
He outran the best milers in the British Empire to claim the gold in a record-setting time.
While that would be his greatest achievement on the track, Mr. Parnell’s standing among fellow athletes was reflected in the bestowing of two great honours. In 1952, he carried the Canadian flag in the Opening Ceremonies of the Helsinki Olympic Games. Two years later, he read the athlete’s oath at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games held across the inlet from his hometown.
It was at those 1954 games that his record was shattered in the most celebrated mile-long foot race in history. The Vancouver competition also marked the end of the running career of one of Canada’s best track athletes in the post-war years.
Born on Valentine’s Day in 1928, Comer William Parnell competed as a high jumper as a junior in high school. He switched disciplines after observing the pace of runners at school meets. He felt he ran as fast. To test himself, each morning he deliberately left home late to try to beat the school bell. After school, he also ran home — uphill all the way.
As a senior, he won the city’s senior high school championship in 1945.
The 6-foot-2, 180-pound athlete had difficulty pacing himself while training for the mile, a problem not solved until after he won an athletic scholarship to Washington State University. A coach at the school at Pullman had a simple solution — Mr. Parnell carried a watch as he ran.
At age 20, he qualified for the Olympic Games at London, where he competed in both the 800- and 1500-metre races. He was eliminated after racing one heat in each event.
He set a Canadian mark in the mile that year with a time of 4 minutes 17 seconds. In 1949, he broke his own standard by placing third at the U.S. Nationals with a time of 4:09.6. The Amateur Athletic Union ranked him third in the world in the 800 metres.
He capped a breakthrough year by being named winner of the Norton H. Crow Memorial Award as Canada’s outstanding amateur athlete of the year in 1949.
The journey to New Zealand for the British Empire Games was a marathon. Canada’s team boarded the liner Aorangi in Vancouver harbour on Dec. 22, 1949. The athletes celebrated Christmas and New Year’s while on board, the holidays interrupting the monotony of a voyage lasting nearly three weeks.
Aboard ship was a backstroke specialist from Victoria named Joan Morgan. The swimmer and the miler, who spent many hours in the British Columbia capital training under coach Bruce Humber, would later marry.
Four days before his 22nd birthday, Mr. Parnell took to a soggy grass track at Eden Park at Auckland before 40,000 spectators to face the empire’s greatest milers. The favourite, Len Eyre of England, established a scorching pace over the first three laps. He was followed by Maurice Marshall, running on home soil.
Mr. Parnell ran freely in third place, having pulled away from the rest of the field. A move to grab second place was repulsed by the New Zealander about a furlong from the finish line. As the runners prepared to turn the final corner, found himself trailing the Englishman by 15 yards. Mr. Parnell made his final, desperate and decisive move.
The Canadian’s closing kick closed the gap. He passed both leading runners to breast the tape five yards ahead of his rivals. The time — 4:11 flat — established an empire record. He was six-tenths of a second faster than the previous mark.
“The race went exactly as we planned it,” Mr. Parnell said. “We hoped Eyre would forge his way to the front to enable me to get a final sprint at him and to my glee he did so.”
Auckland Star sports editor E.H. Doherty praised the Canadian’s strategy.
“It is possible Eyre threw away the race by over-confidence,” he wrote. “It is certain he received the biggest fright of his life when the Canadian came pounding up in the run to the tape.”
At a modest home half a world away, the Parnell family gathered around a radio console atop which had been placed a son’s photographic portrait.
“Mother was the one that got excited,” Alfred Parnell, speaking of his wife, told a visiting reporter. “She had her ear glued to the shortwave. When Bill came in first she could hardly speak.”
The runner may have learned a valuable lesson four days earlier. He had led the 880-yard race in the stretch when he was passed by teammate Jack Hutchins, who then was passed near the finish line by John Parlett of England. Mr. Hutchins took the silver, Mr. Parnell the bronze. The latter had been boxed in on the second lap of the race, a frustrating position he avoided in the mile.
The eight-week sojourn ended with a long flight home. The athletes landed at Vancouver airport to be greeted by local mayors and other dignitaries. Mr. Parnell joined fellow gold-medal winner Dr. George Athans (obituary, March 2, 2007), a tower diver, in riding in an open car adorned with a scarlet banner proclaiming, “Our champs.” They were lead car in a cavalcade including such other competitors as the cyclists Lorne Atkinson and Johnny Millman, the boxers Eddie Haddad and Len Walters (obituary, April 2), as well as Mr. Humber, who coached Mr. Parnell.
(The return to home soil was not without tears. Peter Salmon, a Victoria swimmer, was informed on his arrival of his mother’s death earlier that day.)
When he spoke at his former high school, Mr. Parnell said he was overcome by the moment.
“This welcome does something to you,” he said. “I just don’t seem to be able to talk.”
Two years later, he enjoyed the privilege of carrying the Canadian flag into the Olympiastadion in Helsinki during the Opening Ceremonies of the 1952 Olympics. He often described his role as flagbearer as being his proudest moment as an athlete.
He qualified for the semifinals in both the 800- and 1500-metre races before being eliminated.
His status led to another honour closer to home. On July 30, 1954, he stood atop a structure called the Tribune of Honour on the infield grass at new Empire Stadium in Vancouver for another opening ceremony. After an air force fly-past, a fanfare of trumpets sounded, followed by the release of hundreds of pigeons and the firing of a five-gun artillary salute. Mr. Parnell held a corner of the flag in his left hand. He recited, as captain of the host team and on behalf of all the athletes, an oath: “We declare that we will take part in the British Empire and Commonwealth Games of 1954 in the spirit of true sportsmanship, recognizing the rules which govern them and desirous of participating in them for the honour of our Commonwealth and Empire and for the glory of sport.” With that, the greatest sporting event in British Columbia history began.
The official souvenir program of the games featured Mr. Parnell as a star alongside mile rivals John Landy of Australia and Dr. Roger Bannister of England.
The much-awaited showdown came on Aug. 7, the final day of competition. Two days earlier, Mr. Parnell came fifth in his heat, missing by one slot a spot in the final. “I was disappointed that I didn’t run harder,” he told the Globe many years later. “Or couldn’t run harder.” On the day of the big race, he flashed his athlete’s credentials to grab a prized piece of turf on the stadium’s grass infield not far from where he had taken the oath.
The race did not disappoint. Dr. Bannister called on a kick along the final straightaway to pass on the right as Mr. Landy glanced over his left shoulder for his pursuer. The Englishman crossed the finish line in 3:58.8. Mr. Landy also broke the four-minute barrier, earning the race the name the Miracle Mile.
Mr. Parnell’s four-year-old empire mark had been shattered by an astounding 12.2 seconds.
He cheered the runners, knowing he would be hanging up his cleats and picking up chalk as a school teacher. His competitive running career was at an end.
Mr. Parnell taught physical education at North Vancouver schools until his retirement, after which he continued as a coach. He was honoured earier this year for a half-century of coaching.
He was inducted into the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame in 1970 and the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame in 1977.
Over the years, his accomplishments were forgotten and his achievements overshadowed. He kept his medal, four years older but the same colour as Dr. Bannister’s, in a drawer at his home.
Some years ago, he reminisced how techniques for his students were different than he had known.
“We had our first child and I was trying to train myself, which never works out as well,” he told the sports columnist Archie McDonald in 1990. “We didn’t know as much about running in Canada as we do now. When I think of what high school kids do now compared to what I did I wonder how I managed. We didn’t know much about interval training back then. I guess we ran for fun.”
Comer William Parnell was born on Feb. 14, 1928, at Vancouver, B.C. He died on Sept. 6. He was 80. He leaves his wife, Joan (nee Morgan); two sons; two daughters; seven grandchildren; and, two brothers. He was predeceased by a sister earlier this year.