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Herb Elliott on Percy Cerutty

Herb Elliott on Percy Cerutty

This interview with Herb was broadcast on Radio National on 5th January 2001

At the 1960 Rome Olympic Games, HERB ELLIOTT won the 1500 metres race by the largest margin that had been recorded in Olympic history. Elliott's coach was the eccentric, irascible PERCY CERUTTY, and over the six years that Cerutty trained Elliott, from 1956 to 1962, Elliott was the undefeated champion of both the 1500 metres and the mile running events. Postal worker turned athletics guru, Cerutty revolutionised running training in Australia - most famously by making his athletes run up and down sand dunes. Cerutty was also a health-food nut, he developed a philosophy he called "stotanism", and he was notoriously outspoken. Cerutty's most famous protege, Herb Elliott, remembers his controversial, charismatic coach.

Amanda Smith: The coach behind Herb Elliott's athletic success, Percy Cerutty, was born in 1895. He died in August 1975, almost 25 years ago. In his day, Cerutty revolutionised running training in Australia, most famously by making his athletes run up and down the sand dunes at Portsea, on the Victorian coast. Cerutty was also a health food nut; he developed a philosophy around running which he called 'Stotanism', and he was notoriously outspoken. But for all his idiosyncrasies, Percy Cerutty was a very successful coach, and Herb Elliott his great protégé. Although, according to Herb Elliott, Cerutty has never received the recognition he deserves.

Herb Elliott: It was reinforced to me just recently. I was in Melbourne, I had a couple of hours to spare, I went out for my daily walk and I ended up deciding to walk through South Yarra, which is where Percy had a little wooden shed that he and his wife Nancy used to live in, and I walked past this sort of little back street entrance to where the shed was. The shed's gone, and I just mused to myself as I walked past there, this was the home of the greatest athletics coach that Australia has ever produced, and there's no plaque on the door to even remember that that's where it all started to happen.

Percy Cerutty: Fail, it's not in my dictionary. I've got a good dictionary up there and the words 'fail' and 'failure' have been ruled out for years. I don't know what people are talking about who use that word. All I do know is temporary non-success, even if I've got to wait another 20 years for what I'm after, and I try to put that into people, no matter what their object in life.

Amanda Smith: So how did Percy Cerutty develop his ideas about running? And what was it like to be coached by him? Herb Elliott recalls their first meeting in 1955, when Herb was a schoolboy at Aquinas College in Perth.

Herb Elliott: I'm not quite sure how it happened, but he turned up one day from the Eastern States, (one of the Wise Men from the East, we used to call them then) to the school, and I remember he had this magnificent body for a 60-year-old man; he had a pair of white shorts on, bare feet and no top on, just the shorts. And he talked to us about flying. I remember he was running around flapping his arms, and if he'd taken off I would have been very impressed, but my first impression was he was sort of interesting, but a bit of an old fool.

And then my father invited him out to our home the following weekend, and I remember Mum went to great effort to make sure the food looked very healthy, and we had a conversation with Percy that probably lasted two or three hours. And that was probably the start, that probably sowed the seed that ultimately sort of started to strike towards the surface to think about devoting a bit of my life to becoming a good athlete. It was a very, very inspiring, thought-provoking meeting.

Amanda Smith: Well I guess the decisive meeting or moment for you though was during the 1956 Olympics when you came to Melbourne with your family. You saw the great Soviet runner, Vladimir Kuts win the 5,000 and 10,000 metres races. Can you tell me about that experience and what that led to for you?

Herb Elliott: Yes. My father decided to come across and have a look at the Olympics, for which I am eternally grateful. And the way in which Vladimir Kuts, he was a stocky, nuggety little figure, he looked more like a weightlifter than a runner, and his arch opponent was Gordon Pirie who had the classical build of an athlete, 6-foot-2, barrel chested, slim legs, all that stuff, and this guy just absolutely ground Pirie into the dirt. I've never seen anything quite so remorseless, or quite so unstoppable as that. And it inspired me, all the nasty bits, and I thought 'Oh, I wouldn't mind doing that to somebody', so that was probably, I guess any of our major decisions in life very rarely happen with a flash of lightning out of the sky, they build up and you can't actually see where it's going to until you get there. But I guess there were lots of things happening, including that, which eventually made me go back to my parents and say, 'Look, I don't want to come home, I want to stay here in Melbourne with Percy', and that was quite a lot for my mother to deal with at the time. But anyway, they agreed, and from that time on I became one of his protégé.

Amanda Smith: So you were 18 years old at that time, Herb; what was it about Percy Cerutty that appealed to you?

Herb Elliott: I guess there are a number of things. I mean, he had the magnificent ability which very few people have got, some of the great speakers in history I guess, Winston Churchill had it, I guess King had it, I guess maybe to some extent, JFK. He just had the ability to transfix you with words, and lift you 20 feet into the air. I mean he had a wonderful eloquence, an inspiring eloquence about him. But I don't think that was what appealed to me so much as he seemed to be more interested in using your sport to develop you into a better human being, than he did in using your sport to become a world champion. I mean he somehow or other put your sport into a much larger context than just running around in circles faster than anybody else.

Amanda Smith: And this appealed to you as an 18-year-old?

Herb Elliott: Yes I mean I was brought up a Catholic, led to believe you're a breathing sinning machine of course, and to have somebody start talking to you about improving yourself, I mean I guess we all probably thought that we could be better people than we were. And he showed me a way that I could be a better person, which was to use the skill that I had which was running, and provided that, and this is where I asked him the question. I said, 'Well how do I become a better person by running round in circles?' And he said, 'You only ever grow as a human being if you're outside your comfort zone.' And so I guess I went into all of my training and my approach to training was that you've got to be outside your comfort zone, so I was an intense, high quality trainer, and there was a lot of pain in my training sessions as a consequence of that. But I think it was one of the reasons why I just never got beaten, because every training session, four out of six, were nominated as quality, and I was used to sort of doing the hard yards at quality.

Amanda Smith: Well at that time, were either you or your parents aware that Percy Cerutty was regarded by some as a bit of a 'fruit loop'?

Herb Elliott: Yes. I don't know, I didn't discuss that with Mum and Dad, I think if they thought he had have been totally or genuinely a fruit loop then they wouldn't have allowed me to stay here in Melbourne, and it was with their blessing that I stayed here in Melbourne. I didn't say, 'Well stuff you, I'm staying', it wasn't one of those sorts of situations. He was eccentric, he was unpredictable, and he was entertaining, had an enormous sense of fun, but he would be very close to probably the most widely read man that I've met, in terms of the breadth of subjects that he read about: spiritual aspects or physical aspects or mental aspects, or art, or science or saints or devils, I mean Percy didn't read books, he studied books. He would often stop when an interesting point was raised, and write a two page essay on that particular point, just so he could think through his own views that had been provoked. So he was a highly, very widely read guy and he had a very sound philosophy behind all the nonsense and the hoo har that was going on. Underneath it all there was a sort of sound philosophy based on 'Let's improve ourselves as human beings, let's become more compassionate, let's become bigger, let's become stronger, let's become nicer people.'

Percy Cerutty: Athletics, I always say, is only a start, but you prove on the track something, beating others and getting somewhere, but you can use as an experience in after life, as I told Elliott, 'Beat them on the track and you'll beat them in business', and he's getting on, see?

Amanda Smith: So you started training with Cerutty at Portsea, at his grandly-named International Athletic Centre. What did the training and life there involve?

Herb Elliott: Normally we'd just go down on Friday night, and we'd meet at Percy's place in South Yarra after work, perhaps 6.30 or something like that, hop into his old Oldsmobile and off we'd head off down to Portsea. Sometimes we would get out of the car about Dromana and run the rest of the way, but it was just idyllic. I mean running, in fact pretty well anything we do in life, has a spiritual component to it, and so I always found, and probably most people find, that they run better and easier in beautiful surroundings. And of course Portsea, with the magnificent cliffs, the reefs, the pounding surf, the beach, the tracks through the tea -tree, was just a wonderful environment to run in. And it was spiritually uplifting. So when you got down there you just sniffed in the salt air and you felt your chest expand and you could feel your muscles in your legs tingle. It just made you want to run.

Amanda Smith: Well part of Cerutty's philosophy was a kind of thing about naturalism, wasn't it, about training outside of the city, about not doing interval training or circuit training.

Herb Elliott: Yes, I mean he was a great believer in yoga, it was one of the many subjects that he discovered, and anybody whose read yoga knows that essentially it's about the battle between the ego and having the ability to be connected with the spirit some way or another. Now I had absoloutely no desire to find God particularly at that stage of my life, but certainly the transferability of that sort of idea into a sporting program, where you have to master all your weaknesses, was one which was enormously appealing.

Amanda Smith: Well part of his philosophic creed also was in the term that he coined, 'Stotanism'. Now what did that term mean?

Herb Elliott: He had a great admiration for the Spartans, you know the Grecian army people who I remember even as a kid myself, reading some story, I can't remember whether it was in mythology or some ancient history book anyway, but where a Spartan had stolen a fox and he'd been detected, and rather than get detected and lose face, he hid the fox under his clothing and the fox ate his stomach out and he didn't let out a sound. I mean being able to stand enormous pain without showing it, and of course the other part of the Spartan was the Stoic, and again, the person who basically doesn't show emotion particularly. And he'd put those two together to come up with 'Stote', and so you were supposed to, as the great 'If' poem says from Rudyard Kipling: 'To treat triumph and disaster as the same', and realise there was something bigger behind it all anyway, so it's not worth getting excited about or depressed about. So that was basically what the Stotan stuff was.

Amanda Smith: Percy Cerutty was also as I understand it, pretty anti-authoritarian, and he also believed that his athletes should be self-determined and independent thinkers. Nevertheless, how authoritarian or didactic was he with you and other athletes?

Herb Elliott: I think he had a sort of - disdain's too strong a word, but he didn't respect authority as much as say, some of the old European racers may, I think it's an Australian characteristic more than anything else. He wasn't one of these people who was out there with a training session with a stopwatch saying 'Go and do this, and do it in that time, come back and do it again and 'You didn't do that fast enough, do it again', he was more a person who spoke at the philosophical level and got you inspired and enthusiastic and then just let you go. And I guess he was probably, from time to time we'd have a little test. We had a thing down there called the Halls Circuit, which was about a 1¼ mile course through the tea-trees. And that was a good way of measuring your progress. If you were going along well, he'd know it, but the image of him in the press was certainly one of those people who had the whip out, was one of those sort of coaches that was flogging you up and down the sandhills and so on. Not at all. He would just inspire you and then leave you pretty much to your own devices. He'd check on the sort of intelligence of your training, to make sure that it made sense, but he just seemed to know that you were committed or you weren't committed. And if you were committed, he walked away from it at that point.

Amanda Smith: Would you describe this then as a kind of intuitive, anti-scientific approach in a way? Again, in the way that he eschewed the idea of interval training or circuit training.

Herb Elliott: He had a suspicion of science, but at the same time he'd had terrible arthritis as a younger person, and he'd been to the doctors and done all that stuff, and his arthritis hadn't improved, and he was almost at the point of being crippled. And at that point he thought, 'OK, well these guys aren't going to fix me, I'll have to see what I can do for myself.' And he started to read books on diet and health and so on; I don't know whether you call that science or not. But, he went for foods with the life principle and he became very conscious of carbohydrates and the various other fresh vegetables and so on. He was looking for vitality in his food and he was a student of that. But I wouldn't say it was scientific, he was really learning from other people's experiences, and he applied those to himself and found out that he got rid of his arthritis, and so with confidence, he espoused that sort of dietary practice with us. But no, it was more than just intuition, he certainly had plenty of that, but he did study successful dieticians and he went through all of the health manuals and he read the people of the day, and he was ahead of his time. He was talking about us having bran for instance, when every other Australian would feed bran to their chooks, they'd never feed it to a human being. And so he was ahead of his time. But the learning was there within our society. As we all know, things that have been invented now probably won't become popular for another 30 years, but Percy was right in at the invention stage, with an understanding of what worked and what didn't work.

Percy Cerutty: I admit that, speaking for myself in philosophic terms, the only God I worship or know, is success. And I try to put that into the minds and personalities of others, you see. But I never impose anything; they choose, they don't even have to come here. But if they are, I'm going to talk on that level.

Amanda Smith: The late Percy Cerutty, Australian athletics coach of the 1950s and'60s, whose runners included the great Herb Elliott.

Now the other important athletics coach in Australia at this time was Franz Stampfl, who was also quite a maverick. But if Cerutty's approach was 'naturalistic', Stampfl's was mechanistic, and scientific.

Herb Elliott: Well it really just goes to show that there are any number of ways to get to the top, doesn't it. There is no secret formula that once I've got that secret formula I'm unstoppable, I've got to get there. I mean that's just not true. I guess it probably gets back to the fact that you need to have an attitude which is right, and you need to have a process to apply that attitude day by day, which is logical and sensible. And so I mean, he had a totally different approach to Percy, you're quite right. But they both had probably as much in common as they had different. They were both very inspiring people, they were both able to impart inspiration through speaking, and they were both very, very dedicated and devoted. Percy claimed that Stampfl was an impostor because Stampfl claimed that he was in the Austrian Olympic Team or something, and Percy went through the records and couldn't find his name, so that started a feud between them, which of course the press, being what they are, God bless their little hearts, they just loved that; it was fantastic: conflict? you beauty, headlines, let's go for it. So they fanned it up, and whenever his protégé, who was Merv Lincoln ran against myself, it was always the battle of the coaches rather than the battle of the athletes. And I do remember on one occasion a very well-meaning Lord Mayor of Perth at the time, I think his name was Sir Thomas Meagher both Merv and I had run at Leederville Oval in Perth, and Sir Thomas, doing the right thing, invited his interstate guests down to his home for a meal, and that was the first time I ever saw Cerutty and Stampfl in the same room, it was just like two dogs with their hair bristling on the back of the neck, circling around, and you were never quite sure whether one was going to go and attack the other or what, but it just stayed at the bristling hair stage, thank goodness, but it was a very unpleasant afternoon.

Amanda Smith: Do you think you would have achieved what you did in running, Herb, without Percy Cerutty?

Herb Elliott: I have no doubt that I would not have, no. I think we were a genuine partnership, and there was a synergistic thing. If you add the two parts up together and put them together, it ends up being more than the sum of the two, that's the way we were. So yes, I have no hesitation answering that question; I couldn't have done what I did without Percy.

Amanda Smith: What about if it had been Franz Stampfl, rather than Percy Cerutty who'd invited you to train with him?

Herb Elliott: I don't think I could have stood it. One of the reasons that Percy's and my partnership worked was that the chemistry was right. The sorts of things that he talked about, believed in, did, and wanted me to do, all fitted me. And he would be halfway through saying some new insight to me, and I would know instantly what he was going to say, because it was an insight that I knew was the truth for me. I don't think I could ever have tolerated the training sessions, the running round and round and round the track with interval training, I don't think I would have survived. So there could be somebody say that Merv Lincoln was a far greater athlete than I because he withstood the training sessions. I looked at training sessions that were just beautiful; they were painful, but they were beautiful. And I never found running around and around a track against a stopwatch had any beauty associated with it.

Amanda Smith: Did you always have total faith in Cerutty? Even in the knowledge that others thought he was pretty kooky, did you ever doubt his methods or find fault with his personal behaviour?

Herb Elliott: I never had doubt about him, no. But I used to ignore some of the things that he said to me. There would be times where he would say something that was insightful for me, and it seemed to me to be genius. Then there'd be other times where he would say something, which I would think was ridiculous. But that never bothered me, I just ignored it. And so I was fortunate I guess, that I was able to select those things that he had to give me which helped me, and I was able to reject those things which I didn't think would help me. And so our relationship went on and on and on for years. Some of his other athletes found that sometimes he would say something one day that was in conflict with what he might have said a week ago, and they found that disturbing and lost faith and moved on. But we worked because I sieved what he told me and took what I wanted and didn't take the rest.

Amanda Smith: And you could wear the contradictions in him?

Herb Elliott: Yes, I loved the contradictions in him. You just never knew what was going to happen next. There was an atmosphere of tension, of excitement, fun, that was part of our relationship.

Amanda Smith: Well probably the event that best sums up how exuberant and unorthodox Percy Cerutty was, was his behaviour during the running of the 1500 metres race in Rome in 1960, the yellow towel. Can I beg your indulgence, Herb, to tell that story?

Herb Elliott: Well I've got to start before Rome: on every occasion where I was running in a major race, Percy, the day before, would just absolutely belt hell out of himself running around four laps of a track somewhere, and he'd finish, and he'd stick his face that far from mine with froth-flecked lips, and exhausted. And he'd just sort of eyeball me, and he'd say, 'You might be able to run faster Elliott, but you'll never be able to run harder!' and then he'd go and collapse somewhere. So I mean, that was the way he dealt with the tensions of my race the next day, it was a genuine sharing of that tension. But it was also a challenge to me, you know, just run, 'Try and run as hard as me mate, you've got no hope. I can run harder than you can.'

And so when we got to Rome of course, he needed to participate in my run, he participated in all the runs up to that particular point. So we had a little scheme that we worked out beforehand that he would sit up in the back straight it was, in the stadium in Rome, and in the last lap, if it looked as if I could win, or it looked as if I could break the world record, no it wasn't that. If it looked as if I could break the world record and it looked as if somebody was on my hammer, he'd wave the towel. So when we talked about this, I was in that vague zone area that you are when you're sort of nervous before an event, you only half listen to people. Anyway the event started of course, and as it happened in the last lap, I was in front down the back straight, and all of a sudden I saw Percy waving this towel and I couldn't remember what it was supposed to mean, except I had to run faster. So there he was.

But it's an extraordinary thing, and it's an illustration of how focused you are. I perceived that he was in the crowd when he waved the towel, which is where he said he would be. In fact he was standing on the edge of the track, and there were police converging on him, because this old man had somehow or other got over this incredibly formidable moat to share the event with me, and it was very fitting that he did. Fortunately he stayed out of jail.

Amanda Smith: Well Herb, tell me what legacy to coaching and training did Cerutty leave? Because it seems to me that Franz Stampfl's scientific approach is the one that won the day in the sense that sport these days is very 'scientised'.

Herb Elliott: Yes, I'm not too sure that's the advantage of sport these days. I think science can be used by an athlete as an excuse for not training the way in which they should. But what legacy did he leave? Well, he's left a huge legacy in me personally, but what legacy has he left in the land? I think that talking to today's athletes, I find that there are two things which all champions have in common, maybe more than two, but two I can talk about straight off. One is that every champion is a person who accepts responsibility totally for their own sporting destiny; and the other one is the quality versus quantity issue. Athletes are constantly confronted with the decision, maybe they don't realise it quite as clearly as it being a decision, but it is, between quantity of training and quality of training, particularly today when athletes are getting paid more money and it's easier for them to not work, so they can extend their training sessions out for much longer periods of time. The area that suffers then is quality. And I guess the message that Cerutty always gave was 'When you're out on the track, there is nobody there but you. God is not with you, I am not with you, your Mum and Dad are not with you, you've just got that show to yourself. You have to be utterly and totally independent and you must accept total responsibility for what it is that you're going to do on that day and all of the processes that we're going to get you there.' So that's a message he gave fifty years ago. And the other message of quality versus quantity, he was always one who believed in intensity, in training, the pain was the way to go forward, and today, science doesn't necessarily preach that, and I think science is wrong.

Amanda Smith: Finally then, you mentioned the word 'genius' earlier. Was Percy Cerutty a genius?

Herb Elliott: Well if you describe a genius as somebody who is able to pluck some concept or some idea which nobody else has been able to grasp, and that works, and that people can see the logic and the sense of it as soon as it is applied and wonder why the hell they didn't think of it themselves, yes, Percy was a genius.

Percy Cerutty: Once you've tried and done your best, you can look back and feel satisfied. I tried a hundred different things, little businesses, all sorts, see? And I don't feel any regrets about anything. I feel that it's far better to know you've tried and perhaps not succeeded than to look back and wonder whether you should have really tried hard.

Amanda Smith: The charismatic, controversial, eccentric Percy Cerutty, the 25th anniversary of whose death falls on the 14th of next month. And with that remembrance of his life and times, Cerutty's most famous and successful runner, Herb Elliott, who's now the Director of Athlete and Corporate Relations with the Australian Olympic Committee.


This page last updated: Saturday 20 March 2010


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