In every sport, there are coaches, and then there are legendary coaches. In the anals of running history, Franz Stampfl stands out as one of the great running coaches. Here Mel Edwards, a former international marathon runner, and now UK Athletics Level 4 Endurance coach, takes a look at the life and times of this great coach.
Stampfl was born in 1913 in Vienna, then the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1937 sensing the rise of Adolf Hitler and having been banned after refusing to obey instructions from Austrian Olympic officials, he left Austria for England to study at the Chelsea School of Art. When Hitler marched into Austria in 1938, the British government demanded that he leave the country unless he showed a unique and necessary skill. Having taught skiing back in his homeland, Stampfl pitched AAA officials to coach their athletes, earning him a job in Northern Ireland.
During World War II, in June 1940 Stampfl was suddenly interned as an enemy alien. He was transported to Canada and then Australia. He went on hunger strike to protest at his confinement.
Early one June morning in 1940, Stampfl was on his way to Canada on the liner ship SS Arandora Star with a host of other prisoners of war. In the middle of the North Sea, a German U-boat torpedoed the ship; and within thirty minutes amid screams of fear, the ship was flooded with water and sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic. To survive, Stampfl forced a steel plate aside to get to the surface and then jumped into the freezing cold, oil-slicked sea. For eight hours he swam, warding off shock from the cold and struggling to keep his head above the water, before a rescue boat sighted him.
Stampfl was one of 868 survivors. Hundreds died in the disaster, but those who survived were shipped back to Britain, interned and shipped once again to Australia on the HMT Dunera.
When the war ended, Stampfl married an Australian woman whom he had met in Melbourne and moved back to London in 1946. He reconnected with amateur officials and arranged for a number of coaching posts, including part-time ones at Cambridge and Oxford Universities. Still he was not asked to aid the British Olympic team in 1952 – evidence that amateur officials never brought him fully into their fold because he was an outsider.
He emigrated to Australia in 1955, training the Australian Squad in preparation for the Melbourne Olympic Games. He became Director of Athletics at Melbourne University and he settled in Melbourne until his death.
Stampfl’s coaching assisted Roger Bannister to the world’s first sub four-minute mile at Oxford on 6 May 1954. Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher, who played key roles in pacing Bannister to the record, were also coached by Stampfl. Stampfl’s book, Franz Stampfl on Running, first published in 1955, was a great success and rated by The Times as an “admirable and enthralling text-book on training and tactics”.
At the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Stampfl coached 11 of the athletes in the Australian team.
He trained many successful Australian athletes during his lifetime; most notably:
• Ralph Doubell – 1968 Olympic Gold Medal 800 metres – World Record
• Gael Martin – 1984 Olympic Bronze Medal shot put
Other Stampfl athletes included Olympic finalists Tony Sneazwell, Alan Crawley and Merv Lincoln, in addition to Commonwealth champions Peter Bourke, Sue Howland and Judy Peckham.
Stampfl was a great proponent of the interval style of training where athletes run high-intensity distance trials followed by short recovery periods. An example could be 12 repetitions of 400 metres with a 200 metre jog between each.
Stampfl had a great rivalry with Percy Cerutty who coached the middle-distance champion Herb Elliott. Stampfl’s coaching was regarded as ‘scientific’ whereas Cerutty’s techniques were considered more ‘natural’, based on ‘Stotan’ (a mixture of Stoic and Spartan) philosophies. As such, they – and their athletes – were seen as obvious rivals.
Stampfl was involved in a car accident in 1980, his vehicle being hit while stationary at a traffic light, and was left a quadriplegic. Despite this, he continued to coach. In 1981 he was awarded an MBE for services to athletics. He died in 1995 at the age of 81.
One of his quotes was “The possibilities in racing tactics are almost unlimited, as in a game of chess,; for every move there is a counter, for every attack there is a defence… The runner’s greatest asset, apart from essential fitness of body, is a cool and calculating brain allied to confidence and courage. Above all, he must have a will to win”.
Featured Image: Franz Stampfl (left) with Roger Bannister (centre) after the athlete broke the four-minute mile barrier. Photograph: Popperfoto