On December 1, 2006 the French sport newspaper L”Equipe arranged a reunion for the three marathon medallists from the Melbourne Olympic Games on the 50th anniversary of their race.
Finland’s bronze medallist Veikko Karvonen and silver medallist Franco Mihalić, who ran for Yugoslavia, were in the know. For the gold medallist, France’s Alain Mimoun, the meeting came as a surprise.
Marc Ventouillac, the award-winning French journalist, recorded the occasion for posterity, noting the 85-year-old Mimoun’s reaction as he arrived in the room where his two old adversaries - Karvonen now 80 and Mihalić 86 - were awaiting him. They had not seen each other since that stifling day in Melbourne.
"The tension is palpable," Ventouillac notes. "He enters the room. Stands a metre away from the two men. He looks at them, Mihalić on his left, Karvonen on his right. One or two seconds of silence. Three faces gripped by emotion. Then Mimoun points his finger at the Finn: ‘Karvonen?’
"The face of the little man lights up. He approaches Mimoun and holds out his hand. The Frenchman lunges forward to envelop him in a hug, before doing the same to the Serbian."
Gesturing to Karvonen, Mimoun says: "I was lucky he finished third, this man from the cold country, because otherwise with the heat in Melbourne people would have said I only won because I was born in Algeria!"
Karvonen responds: "Maybe - but I always liked the heat. If it hadn’t been there, I would probably not have been on the podium!"
As the conversation turns to the events of that day in Australia in 1956, Mihalić recalls that, for him, the defending champion Emil Zatopek was the favourite.
Karvonen begs to differ, adding: "I knew that the Czechoslovak was no longer strong enough. I was rather favouring Mimoun, because he had the endurance and the experience to win."
Zatopek or Mimoun? The question that had been asked for eight years, and always with the same answer: Zatopek. But on this day of days for the French runner, the answer would be different…
Ali Mimoun Ould Kacha was the oldest of seven born to a peasant family in Algeria, but he became disaffected with his country of birth when he was passed over for a scholarship to continue with his studies after obtaining excellent results at school, while others with worse results - including several sons of French colonists - were successful in their applications. He was the only one to be rejected.
At that point he told his mother that France, rather than Algeria, was his country. Had that gone differently, it might have been the Algerian rather than the French flag that was raised in the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
But more than a decade before Mimoun’s crowning moment he might easily have lost the ability to run altogether.
Mimoun had enlisted in the French Army in 1939 and fought through a series of campaigns throughout the Second World War. After taking part in the Battle of Belgium in 1940, his regiment retreated into Northern France, where he narrowly escaped capture by the German forces.
While fighting for the French Resistance in Bourg-en-Bresse Mimoun, who had been a footballer and a cyclist as a teenager, joined in a running race as he was passing a suburban track. He then began racing locally, with immediate and dramatic success.
However he was soon called up to fight for the Western Allies in Tunisia, and then Italy, and it was in the latter sphere of action, during the Battle of Monte Cassino, that he was seriously injured in his left leg by shell fragments.
American doctors working in the field hospital recommended its amputation. Determined not to lose his leg, he refused. Fortunately, a French surgeon there managed to successfully perform an operation and his left leg was saved.
He recovered sufficiently to resume active service and participated in the Allied invasion of France and then of Germany.
Upon being demobbed, Mimoun moved to Paris and began calling himself Alain. He joined the famous sports club Racing Club de Paris and also worked there as a waiter for many years.
He later recalled: "I was a café waiter. I did not have enough to eat. I won four Olympic medals while I was living in a small, two-room apartment without heating, shower and toilet."
The first of those medals arrived in 1948, at the London Olympics, where he took silver in the 10,000 metres, clocking 30min 47.4sec and managing to be one of only two runners not lapped by Zatopek, who took gold in an Olympic record of 29:59.6.
In the 10,000m at the 1952 Olympics, Mimoun again took silver behind the Czech, although this time narrowing the gap to just over 15 seconds.
He also finished second to Zatopek in a momentous 5,000m final that saw Britain’s Chris Chataway hitting the deck on the run-in, finishing less than a second behind the winner, who set an Olympic record of 14:06.06.
In between the two Games, Mimoun had taken part in the European Championships - taking silver in the 5000 and 10,000m behind…Zatopek.
So it was that as he prepared for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, Mimoun had become known to some as "Zatopek’s Shadow".
Four years earlier in Helsinki, Zatopek, already champion in the 5,000m and 10,000m had made a late decision to enter the marathon – which he won in an Olympic record of 2 hours 23min 03.2sec.
Four years on it was the only one of his Olympic titles he was defending. His preparations had been disrupted by a six-week stay in hospital following a hernia operation - against doctors’ orders, he had resumed training the day after he had been discharged.
By contrast, fortune appeared to be running in the direction of his perennial French rival - or at least so Mimoun, then 35, believed.
He had converted from the Muslim to the Catholic faith in 1955, and shortly before leaving for Australia he had gone on a pilgrimage to the Basilica of St Therese in Lisieux in France.
He was also very aware of a historical detail. French runners had won the Olympic marathon title at Paris in 1900 - Michel Theato in 2:59:45 – and Amsterdam 1928, when M Boughera El Oaufi, like Mimoun of Algerian birth, had won in 2:32:57.
Twenty eight years further on, Mimoun felt history would be on his side.
He was also wearing on his blue singlet the number 13 - his lucky number.
And the day before his race he heard that his wife Germaine had given birth to a daughter, named Olympe.
While Zatopek was no longer involved in the 5,000m and 10,000m - both won in Melbourne by the rising force of the Soviet Union’s Vladimir Kuts – Mimoun did take part in the latter event, finishing 12th.
To some it appeared as if he was a fading force. But it later became clear that the 10,000m was entered as preparation for what would be his first marathon run.
One of Mimoun’s room-mates in Melbourne was Michel Jazy, then 20, who failed to reach the 1500m final but would win Olympic silver behind Herb Elliott four years later, He also won European titles in 1962 over 1500m and in 1966 over 5000m and set a mile world record of 3min 53.6sec in 1965.
For the article about the 50th anniversary meeting, Jazy had described to L’Equipe Mimoun’s behaviour in the days before his marathon debut.
"He had prepared himself in secret and had disputed the 10,000 m before the marathon just to get ready," Jazy recalled.
"He was very focused. He had become so unliveable-with in the last week, irascible, aggressive, that I felt he was going to do something."
As David Wallechinsky relates in his Complete Book of the Olympics, there were two firsts in a marathon final that got underway in crushing heat - the temperature went up to 38 degrees in the shade during the race - at 3.13pm inside the Melbourne Cricket Ground, with 46 competitors present from 23 nations.
It was the first time the field had been given an optimum line painted on the ground, and it was the first time a marathon field had false-started.
By 20 kilometres Mimoun was in a group of five leaders that also included John J Kelley of the United States, and the two men broke away, with the American briefly leading.
But Mimoun moved to the front during an uphill section, and by the 25kms mark he had opened up a 50-second gap that no one would be able to close.
Not that he knew that at the time, of course. After 30km he began very obviously to tire. He said afterwards that at this most difficult stage of the race he had thought back to all he had endured during his long years of military service.
However, it was a detail of a more mundane kind - and a propitious moment of circumstance - that served to propel him towards victory with renewed vigour.
Mimoun had been running with a soaked white handkerchief on his head, embroidered with his wife’s initials, as protection against the sun. But at that point, as he later described it, the make-do bandanna "felt like a ton", and he threw it down onto the road.
He then saw "a pretty blonde girl" pick it up and blow him a kiss.
Suddenly regenerated, he accelerated away towards gold, not bothering to take up any of the cups of water that were available on tables along the course.
During his 50th anniversary meeting Mimoun recalled the inner torment of those moments.
"An interior voice was telling me: 'Don't stop! You will lose seconds!'"
He recalled how he insulted himself, telling himself he could not stop, that he was stronger than that. He said he thought of his mother, and of his wife, and of the child at home that he did not yet know...
"He knew he had an insurmountable lead when two police officers on motorbikes appeared at his side to escort him,"Wallechinsky writes. "When he entered the stadium the roar from the crowd of 110,000 was so loud that it was, in the words of Mimoun, 'like an atomic explosion"...
"At the finish line Mimoun waited for his old friend Emil Zatopek, who trotted home in a trance four-and-a-half minutes later. 'Emil.' he asked, ‘'why don’t you congratulate me? I am an Olympic champion. It was I who won.'
"Zatopek snapped out of his trance, took off his cap, saluted Mimoun and then embraced him. '‘For me,' Mimoun recalled, 'that was better than the medal.'"
It was the first time Mimoun had beaten Zatopek in a race, and it was the last time they faced each other.
Mimoun later commented: "When I entered the stadium’s tunnel and came out on the track, cheered by 100,000 spectators, I experienced the finest minutes of my life."
A crowd of 15,000 awaited him at Orly Airport in Paris, and there followed three months’ worth of receptions in his honour. Among the occasions was a meeting with the French President, Charles De Gaulle, who congratulated him on his wartime and peacetime achievements, adding: "You and I have something in common: We last."
As the fanfares died down, Mimoun returned to his old job as a waiter…
Looking back on a career that also included victories in the International Cross Country Championships and a legion of veteran events, Mimoun reflected: "I look at my career as a castle: my London silver medal is the foundation, my two Helsinki silver medals are the walls; my gold medal at Melbourne, the roof."
"I was sure Emil was there at my heels," Mimoun told Sports Illustrated in 1972. "I was hoping he would be second. I was waiting for him. Then I thought, well, he would be third. It would be nice to stand on the podium with him again. But Emil came in sixth, oh, very tired. He seemed to be in a trance, staring straight ahead. He said nothing."
Upon hearing the news of the death of Zátopek in November 2000, Mimoun - who himself died on June 27, 2013 aged 92 - commented: "I have not lost an opponent, I have lost a brother."
Mimoun told biographer Pat Butcher that he had been well-prepared for racing the Melbourne Olympics marathon. "I gorged myself on 40 km a day for two years, without telling a soul," he said,
"He would train three times a day, running a daily total distance of 35 kilometres. It was certainly not for the 10,000m race, even though he had told me that he would not contest the marathon," said Mimoun's wife, Germaine, during an interview in 2006 with Agence France-Presse.
Jazy, meanwhile, had learned something hugely important from his Melbourne experiences.
"I came to realize down there in Melbourne what glory was and what sacrifices were necessary in the years ahead to obtain it," he said. "Alain Mimoun opened my eyes to what I needed to do. I became hungry. I had got the message."