Sunday 20 October 2019

Obituary: Laszlo Tabori

Record-breaking Hungarian athlete who defected after Soviet invasion

Athletes Sandor Iharos, Chris Chataway and Laszlo Tabori at White City in 1955. Photo: George Elamperson/Shutterstock
Athletes Sandor Iharos, Chris Chataway and Laszlo Tabori at White City in 1955. Photo: George Elamperson/Shutterstock

LASZLO TABORI, who has died aged 86, became the third man to run the mile in under four minutes before defecting to the US following the Soviet invasion of his native Hungary.

It was on May 28, 1955, that Tabori emerged from obscurity at an invitational one-mile event at White City, London, to beat the British hopes Christopher Chataway and Brian Hewson. His time of 3:59.0 put him third to the Australian John Landy's world record 3:58.0, and Roger Bannister's 3:58.8.

For much of the race, Tabori was behind the leaders, and as it was pouring with rain he was spattered with mud kicked up by the other runners from the cinder track. As a result, he recalled looking look "like I jumped in a pig hole and came out".

That autumn Tabori went on to set a then world record of 3:40.8 in the 1,500 metres in Oslo and he was also part of a 4x1, 500-metre Hungarian relay team that broke world records three times. The following year he and Landy were joint favourites for the 1,500-metre event at the Melbourne Olympics.

Four weeks before the Games opened, however, a popular uprising against Soviet rule in Hungary was met by vicious repression as the Russians sent their tanks into Budapest.

While most of the Hungarian team went to Melbourne their hearts were not in it, as Tabori recalled later, and their training had been badly disrupted.

Tabori finished a disappointing fourth in the 1,500 and sixth in the 5,000 metres.

After the Games, Tabori defected to America and settled in southern California. He might have qualified for the 1960 Rome Olympics, but his US citizenship had not come through, and as a stateless person he was not allowed to compete. In 1962, he hung up his spikes and later became an athletics coach.

Laszlo Talabircsuk was born on July 6, 1931, to a Hungarian family at Kassa (now Kosice) in what is now Slovakia. His father was a railway worker. In 1941, when Laszlo was 10, the family moved to Abaujszanto in north eastern Hungary. Laszlo was not athletic at school and later claimed he had learnt to run when stealing food from German occupation troops. After his move to the US, Tabori struggled to learn English and for a time he worked as a janitor before finding a job with a firm that made wheelchairs.

His career as a coach began in 1967 at the San Fernando Valley Track Club, where he remained for 35 years. He also coached at Los Angeles Valley College for 10 years. By the 1970s he had gained an international reputation, winning several awards.

His athletes went on to compete in the Olympics and win New York and Boston marathon titles. They included Jackie Hansen and Miki Gorman, the first women to break the 2:40 barrier in the marathon.

Jackie Hansen recalled that Tabori was "very demanding but never asked you to do more than you could do. You definitely felt that short of being in hospital or the morgue, you better show up to work out".

But Tabori, who never lost his Hungarian accent, remained most proud of his achievement in May 1955, which he recorded on a personalised number plate: 359IN55.

"It was a lifetime ago, but I still remember it like yesterday," he told an interviewer in 2015. Tabori's first wife, Kata, a fellow Hungarian emigree whom he married in 1962, died in 2005.

Laszlo Tabori, who died on May 23, is survived by his second wife Laurie and two daughters from his first marriage.

© Telegraph

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