“I look at my career as a castle: my London silver medal is the foundation; my two Helsinki silver medals are the walls; my gold medal in Melbourne, the roof”
The 1956 Olympics were the first to be organised in the southern hemisphere, and for this reason they took place in November/December, coinciding with the spring season. Melbourne was selected in 1949 with one vote difference against the bid from Buenos Aires, while other candidate cities such as Mexico City, Los Angeles or Detroit had been discarded earlier.
In mid-1955 there were doubts about the construction progress, and Rome, already selected to host the 1960 Games and with preparations well ahead of schedule, was considered to host the 1956 Olympics instead. Nevertheless, Melbourne was able to get ready, and finish building works on time. Some countries boycotted the Olympics in response to the Suez Crisis (invasion of Egypt by Israel, France and UK) and the Soviet Union repression of the Hungarian Revolution.
Alain Mimoun was born in Telagh, Algeria, when it was a French colony. The oldest of seven brothers in a family of peasants, he was rejected a scholarship to continue studying and become a school teacher. He did some works before enlisting in the French army in 1939 aged 18, at the start of WWII. In 1940 he was mobilised to France and started training. There he managed to win his first race, a 1500m event, beating the defending champion.
During most of WWII he was unable to compete, as he fought in different scenarios, being even wounded in a leg, that a doctor suggested to amputate. He refused and recovered, and after the war, in 1945, he moved back to Algeria, where he started competing again. By 1946 he left the army and moved to Paris to pursue a running career while working as a waiter.
In 1947 Mimoun won the French 5000 and 10000 metres titles, and got to the 1948 London Olympics, where he came across a certain Emil Zátopek in the 10000 metres, where he finished second, 300 metres behind him. In his second Olympic attempt, in Helsinki four years later, and again over those distances, Zátopek was once again unbeatable, with Mimoun taking only silver in both events. By then he was nicknamed “Zátopek´s Shadow”.
Without clear opposition in France during the following years, a different story was going to be told in the Olympics of 1956 in Melbourne. In the 10000 metres he only managed to finish 11th, and as an ultimate chance he decided to register for the marathon, a distance he had never tried before, and where his friend Zátopek was also competing.
On December 1st there were 46 athletes representing 23 countries for the marathon start, and the first outing of runners from Ethiopia and Kenya. It was mid-afternoon, with a hot temperature of 27°C, that would rise during the race to 38°C in the shadow! After a false start, unique in the history of the marathon, race started with 2 and a half laps of the track before heading out of the stadium.
By the 10k, a long uphill section, Finland´s experienced Paavo Kotila was in front, followed 2 seconds behind by Mimoun and two Soviet runners. In the 20k, in another uphill section and with temperature on the rise, there was a group of six runners in front, including Mimoun, with Zátopek, recovering from a hernia operation still in sight, in 10th.
After this hard section, and taking advantage of the downhill portion, Mimoun pushed his pace and broke contact with the group. Passing the 30k Mimoun had an advantage of 72s with the Japanese Kawashima, who had moved from 14th at 20k, who was running with Croatian Franjo Mihalic and Finnish Veikko Karvonen, and Zátopek in 5th.
Nobody would come near Mimoun again in the downhill sections, and he passed the 40k more than 1 minute ahead of his closest pursuer. Entering the stadium wearing number 13 it was Mimoun´s glorious day, as he won the Olympic gold medal for France in 2.25.00. This would make the third Olympic gold in marathon for France, 28 years after El Ouafi, and 56 after Théato triumphs. Curiously, none of the three had been born in France.
For the first time victorious against his close friend Zátopek, our winner stayed near the finish line waiting for him to arrive. Against what he thought, the podium was completed with Mihalic (2.26.32), who became a marathon star with victories in the Moscow and Athens marathons in 1957, and Boston in 1958, and Karvonen (2.27.47), already an experienced marathoner who had previously won the top-level marathons in the world: Eschede in 1951, Boston in 1954 and Athens and Fukuoka in 1955.
Zátopek only arrived in sixth place, very tired, with the crowd cheering as if he was the winner. Mimoun went to embrace him, as finally, the victory was his. It would be his first win against his friend, and last, as they would never compete against each other again.
As for Mimoun, later on, he confessed in an interview that had been training secretly for the marathon during the last 2 years. Many days he trained 3 times, for a daily total distance of 35k.
Back in France he was welcomed as a hero, although he returned to his regular job as waiter on the next day. He didn´t compete in 1957, but won marathon national titles in 1958 and 1959. In 1960, and already 39, he qualified in the French team for the Olympics in Rome. Without Zátopek in the field to push him, he only managed to finish 34th.
Although he didn´t retire and continued competing, winning another national marathon title in 1966, and setting many French age-category records in different distances, the last one in his seventies. In 1999 was named “French Athlete of the 20th Century”, and in 2000, after hearing the news about Zátopek death, he said: “I have not lost an opponent, I have lost a brother.”
He kept running or walking 10-15 miles almost every day until his death, when he was 92, being given a state funeral with military honours. At the time of this death there were more than 150 premises with his name all over France, from stadiums to schools and streets.
“The Olympic Marathon”, DE Martin & RWH Gynn. Human Kinetics, 2000.
After Mimoun´s victory:
Mimoun: “Emil, why don’t you congratulate me? I am an Olympic champion. It was I who won.”
Zátopek: “You did great, Alain.”
Mimoun in a later interview: “For me, that was better than the medal”.