By Ian Hanson
Helen Currey would often sit on her front porch in Coolah, a small country town in central western New South Wales, having ‘a cuppa’ with her mum watching the passing parade.
That passing parade would include the local postman, Tony Manning, who along with his brothers, would run past the Currey’s front door.
Tony became so good at running he would go on to become the town’s local hero, a Commonwealth Games gold medallist, and later Helen’s husband.
“Peter, Nick and Tony Manning used to run every day and Mum and I would be sitting out in the sun enjoying a cuppa tea and we’d see these Manning boys out running,” Helen recalled.
“Mum would say ‘Helen there goes those mad Manning boys again… running around, frost on the ground and all.”
By 1970, Coolah had a population of just 900 people and on the afternoon of July 23, some 50 years ago, Helen, her seven sisters and her mother sat around the kitchen table listening to the radio.
The Currey clan had tuned in to the final of the Men’s 3,000m Steeplechase at the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games because Tony Manning, was one of two Australians in what was a world class field of competitors.
Manning’s running had earned the local postie a spot on the Australian track and field team for the Edinburgh Games. While he was the unheralded Australian in the final, the other Aussie was none other than the Steeplechase world record holder Kerry O’Brien.
O’Brien hailing from Adelaide had finished fourth in the same event at the Mexico City 1968 Olympics, but in the lead up to the Edinburgh Games, the South Australian was in career form. In early July at an athletics meet in Berlin, O’Brien set a new world record time of 8:22.20 in the Steeplechase, where athletics teammate Pam Kilborn was calling out his split times, but the performance surged O’Brien into gold medal favouritism.
Joining the Australians in the final were a trio of Kenyans, and some of the greatest Steeplechase athletes in the world, including the Olympic champion Amos Biwott and the Olympic silver medallist Benjamin Kogo. But also Ben Jipcho, who would later go on to win the Munich 1972 Olympic silver medal behind fellow Kenyan Kip Keino.
O’Brien and the Kenyans were certainly higher up in the betting market than the local postman from Coolah.
But astute Australian coach Ken Steward made a bold prediction in a newspaper article in the lead up to the Games, stating his belief that Tony Manning could well be a dark horse for a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games.
Manning had also qualified for Edinburgh in the 5000m after beating O’Brien and the legendary Ron Clarke in the Australian Championships in the lead up trials – but when the 5000m race clashed with his pet event, it was the steeplechase for Tony.
The Men’s 3,000m Steeplechase Final. (CGA Archive)
Manning kept in touch with the front during a topsy-turvey Games final, which saw the lead change on almost every lap. But the New South Welshman always looked ready to pounce, and pounce he did.
When O’Brien made his move on the penultimate lap, Manning and the rest of the field were caught unawares, as O’Brien quickly established a lead the race was albeit over, Manning was on course for the silver. But when O’Brien misjudged the second last water jump, the gold medal favourite and leader crashed out of the race and into Australian sporting infamy, it paved Manning’s passage to gold.
Kerry O’Brien stumbles at the water jump. Tony Manning moves into the lead. (Getty Images)
Kerry O’Brien stumbles at the water jump. (Getty Images)
Kerry O’Brien stumbles at the water jump. (Getty Images)
Sheer heartbreak for Kerry O’Brien. (Getty Images)
There was no stopping Manning, the unheralded runner stamped his authority on the race over the final lap-and-half and delivered the gold medal for Australia – just as coach Stewart had predicted.
Manning’s time of 8:26.2 was a lifetime best and remains seventh-best on the Australian all-time list some 50 years on.
But back in Coolah, Helen and her family, heard a different story.
“We had TV but the replay of the race didn’t come on till the evening, so we were all sitting around the radio listening to it,” Helen said.
“The fellow who was calling the race made it out as if Tony won by the skin of his teeth.
“We’re all yelling ‘C’mon Tony… C’mon Tony’ because we thought it was a close race.
“So it was a bit of a shock when we saw the actual race on the telly at night and saw he had won the race by heaps.
“We weren’t married then, Tony was just a lad about the place, but he became the local hero and the town had this welcome home parade in Coolah, when he came back which was huge… I’ll never forget it.
“Gosh, the whole town turned out for the parade and they had him parked up on the top of this open truck, so everybody could see him.
“He would have felt a real nin [nincompoop] when everyone was screamin’ and throwin’ streamers.”
Tony admitted himself he got the shock of his life when he hit town on his return after the Games.
“Every shop in Coolah was decorated, every person in town and the district was out; it was pretty big time,” Tony said.
“We flew into Sydney and then my brother Ted and his wife Helen picked me up and they drove me home and we stopped at St Patrick’s School at Lithgow on the way back to show the kids the gold medal.
“I remember being that tired I could hardly speak.
“It was four-and-half hour trip and by the time we arrived home late in the afternoon there was around 3,000 people who had turned up – not bad for a population of 900… and we had a big get together at the Golf Club.”
And how did Helen manage to win Tony over?
“It was in 1972 and I think we must have met at a dance up at the Golf Club. The club used to have those regularly back then… my friends use to reckon I was the better runner,” Helen said jokingly.
But after growing up in a country town of only 900 people, and playing rugby league in school, how did the local postie choose to become a steeplechaser.
Tony and Helen Manning with memorabilia from the Edinburgh 1970 British Commonwealth Games. (Supplied)
“I was out in Coolah running on my own, there was no one to train with… my brother was training with me for a number of years but after he got married he gave it away, so I just continued on,” Tony said.
“I was the only track and field athlete in Coolah at that stage… there was a bit of rugby league football played and that was it.
“I played in the centres, but I didn’t play for very long, I kept on running at school, but I was about to finish school and didn’t know what [event] to run at that stage of my career and my brother Ted said, ‘why don’t you try the steeplechase?’.
“And truthfully, I said what the hell is the steeplechase?
“Ted said well we’ll go to Sydney next week and we’ll have a look at one and you can decide what you want to run in at the Country Championships.”
The following week, Ted went with Tony on the nine-hour round trip from Coolah to Sydney to see a steeplechase race in action. With hurdle obstacles set around the track and a water jump, it was like nothing Tony had even seen in his country town. But he was intrigued and decided to give the steeplechase event a go.
“I went to Sydney and watched a steeplechase race, I liked the challenge of the jumps, so the following week I ran in those Country Championships at ES Marks Field,” Manning said.
“I took 18 seconds off of the state record… so that was it, I became a steeplechaser… there was no great science in it.”
But the newfound steeplechaser found there wasn’t a suitable course in Coolah, so Tony had to keep making the trip to Sydney to train, often a couple of times a week, and then on some weekends Manning would be invited to run in Queensland.
“I’d go to Sydney on the Saturday, and then go up to Queensland for the meets on the Sunday,” Tony said.
“I had a car towards the end but in the early years of my career I was travelling by train, sometimes it was the old steam train.
“I’d pick the train up at Dunedoo for the trip down to Central Station [in Sydney] and then sometimes we would fly up to Brisbane later on for different meets.”
As Manning started to gain quite a following with a string of notable wins, the publicity in the Sydney newspapers started to grow, with Manning admitting all the attention was “all very embarrassing to me at that stage.”
But the humble postie took it all in his stride, and to this day he still laughs when he sits and watches YouTube of his race from Edinburgh with his kids and grandkids.
The commentator refers to Manning as “Australia’s last bushwhacker,” a term of endearment first used by his teammate Ron Clarke to describe the runner from Coolah.
“I used to get kids coming up to me after the Edinburgh Games, wanting to meet this bushman from Australia,” Manning said.
“I guess 50 years ago… we still had that touch of wild colonials about us.”
Tony’s memorabilia from the Edinburgh 1970 British Commonwealth Games. (Supplied)
And if you want to catch Tony these days you still must be quick.
The 77-year-old is still running and cycling around Lake Haven on the NSW Central Coast where he lives happily in retirement with Helen, 48 years married and after 47 years with Australia Post.
But loves nothing better than a run through Wyrrabalong National Park around Norah Head.
“There are two great tracks around there, a 5km and a 10km course. I often go around when my son comes down,” Tony said.
No stopping this great Aussie bushwhacker and his wife Helen, who still enjoys sitting at home having a cuppa remembering the days when her Tony came home with the gold.
FOOTNOTE: A tumor operation prevented Tony Manning from contesting the 1972 Munich Olympics, which saw Ben Jipcho re-write the world record books on his way to Olympic silver behind another legendary Kenyan – the great Kip Keino.
Aside from the African boycott of the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, Kenyan athletes have won every steeplechase gold medal since Manning’s win in 1970. At the Olympics Kenyans have won every steeplechase gold since 1984.