Jack Lovelock won New Zealand’s first Olympic athletics gold medal before Adolf Hitler and a crowd of 110,000 at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He led the 1500-m field home in a world record time of 3 minutes 47.8 seconds.
In the lead-up to the 1936 Games Lovelock seriously considered competing in the 5000 m instead of the 1500 m. He appeared to have made up his mind by 1 July, when he wrote to Harry Amos, secretary of the New Zealand Olympic Association, to tell him that he had decided to concentrate on the 1500 m. But in the days before the event newspapers reported that Lovelock was still wrestling with the decision. Arthur Porritt, the team manager in Berlin, recalled that Lovelock even turned up for the 5000-m heats. After seeking advice from his coach, Bill Thomas, who declined to take responsibility, Lovelock turned to Porritt – who told him to get dressed.
The field for the 1500-m final included many of the world’s best middle-distance runners against whom Lovelock had competed over the years, including Eric Ny (Sweden), Jerry Cornes (UK), Glen Cunningham (USA), Gene Venzke (USA) and Luigi Beccali (Italy), who had won the 1500 m at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, when Lovelock finished seventh.
Lovelock ran strategically, positioning himself inside Cunningham for much of the race. As they came to the final lap Ny was leading. Lovelock surged up to his shoulder and Cunningham followed. Then, with 300 m to go, Lovelock sprinted. His dramatic finish famously caused the BBC commentator, 1924 sprint gold-medallist Harold Abrahams, to forget his broadcasting etiquette: ‘My God, he’s done it! Jack! Come on! ... He wins! He’s won! Hooray!’ Lovelock’s time of 3:47.8 was a new world record for the 1500 m and made the 4-minute mile seem a real possibility (another 109 m at the same pace would have resulted in a 4:04 mile).
The head of Germany’s Olympic Committee, Theodor Lewald, presented Lovelock with his gold medal. He was also given a year-old seedling of a Black Forest oak tree, a symbol of Germany presented to gold medal winners. Lovelock gave this to teammate Ces Matthews, who was returning to New Zealand. By the time it arrived it was in poor condition, but the curator of the Christchurch Botanical Gardens, James McPherson, nursed it back to health. In 1941 it was planted at Timaru Boys’ High School, where it is now a large tree known as ‘Lovelock's oak’.