Obituary: Franz Stampfl

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The Independent Online
Franz Stampfl, athletic coach: born Vienna 18 November 1913; died Melbourne 19 March 1995.

Franz Stampfl was an athletic coach of genius. He played a supporting role - and it was probably decisive - in Roger Bannister's first four- minute mile in May 1954. And he went on to coach other successful international athletes in Britain and Australia.

It was in the autumn of 1953 that Chris Brasher introduced Stampfl to Bannister and to me. The three of us had just left university and were working in London. We also hoped to achieve more as athletes. Stampfl had no regular job but made some sort of a living by charging athletes of all abilities and ages sixpence or a shilling for his coaching services. He was 40 years old, with hardships and misfortunes behind him, but no real achievements.

An art student in Vienna before the Second World War, Stampfl had been a javelin thrower and all-round athlete of some promise. He fled from Austria after the Anschluss and at the outbreak of war tried to volunteer for the British Army. But he found himself interned as a German-speaking alien and was shipped out to Canada aboard the liner Andorra Star. The ship was torpedoed and only 400 of the 2,400 internees and crew survived. Unsurprisingly to those of us who got to know him later, Stampfl was one of the survivors. He was picked up after many hours in icy water.

From Canada he was sent to Australia for the rest of the war. Although he would occasionally recall the sometimes brutal treatment he received as a war-time internee, he never allowed that fundamentally to affect his love for the British way of life.

By January 1954 Bannister, Brasher and I were joining Stampfl at the track by the Duke of York's Barracks in the King's Road, in Chelsea, on two or three evenings a week. More than his athletic knowledge it was Stampfl's conversational powers and the sheer exuberance of his personality that drew us to him. We were rather resistant to the idea of coaches and would privately mock the subservience of our American or Russian competitors to their apparently all-powerful handlers. But Stampfl did not attempt to dictate any training regime. He sought instead to persuade us that we were capable of far more than we thought.

He encouraged us in interval training - the practice of repeating, say, 10 fast laps of 400 metres interspersed with slow laps of four 800m with a few minutes' rest in between. He insisted that the laps could be faster and the intervals could be shorter. He was always bubbling with good humour and vitality.

Afterwards we would usually have supper and a bottle or two of wine and it was there that Stampfl worked his magic. The trouble with serious athletic training is that it can be both painful and boring. An hour or two with Stampfl would leave one in no doubt, however, that it was all worthwhile.

As his conversation darted from painting to politics and back to pacemaking - and his views on everything were romantic and always immoderate - he would leave one with the firm conviction that a world record or an Olympic medal was not only attainable but a goal so desirable as to be worth almost any effort. Stampfl was a strong and vivid personality with an extraordinary capacity to inspire and to motivate.

On 6 May 1954 we made our separate ways to Oxford and to the Iffley Road track. By chance Stampfl met Bannister at Paddington Station and on the train he urged Bannister that, despite the cold blustery day, he could still break the four-minute barrier and shatter the 12-year-old record of Gundar Haegg. As we had planned over so many Chelsea evenings, Brasher set the pace for the first two laps, I continued almost the three-and- a-half lap point and Bannister swept around the final bend to collapse into the arms of an ecstatic Franz Stampfl.

Stampfl now had the reputation to match his great coaching talents. He helped me to a world record and Chris Brasher to an Olympic gold medal. He took up an appointment in 1955 as Director of Athletics at Melbourne University. He coached many of Australia's best athletes. Most notably he guided Ralph Doubell to win Olympic gold in the 800 metres in world- record time at the 1968 Mexico Games.

Stampfl became a quadriplegic after a car accident in 1980, and was not expected to survive long. His determination enabled him to live another 15 years and, from his wheelchair, to continue his coaching at Melbourne University.