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Stampfl, Franz Ferdinand (1913–1995)

by Richard Broome

This article was published:

Franz Ferdinand Leopold Stampfl (1913–1995), athletics coach, was born on 18 November 1913 in Vienna, fourth of seven children of Josef Stampfl, surgical instrument maker, and his wife Karolina Katerina, née Josepow. As a young man Franz studied art and showed promise in skiing and javelin throwing (junior champion, 1935). He was an assistant trainer with the Austrian team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where German militarism shocked him.

In 1937 Stampfl went to England partly because of disquiet at Nazism, but not persecution, as he was Catholic. He studied at Chelsea Art School, and then moved to Northern Ireland where he coached athletics, experimenting with novel methods. Returning to England, he taught at Queen Elizabeth’s School, Barnett, Hertfordshire, in early 1940 before his arrest and internment as an enemy alien to be deported to Canada. His ship the SS Arandora Star was torpedoed and sunk on 2 July and he spent several hours in the water before being rescued. On 10 July he was transferred to HMT Dunera for its notorious voyage to Australia. After being interned at Hay, New South Wales, then Tatura, Victoria, and employed in fruit picking, he enrolled in the Citizen Military Forces on 8 April 1942 for service with the 8th Employment Company. He completed courses in physical training, unarmed combat, and lifesaving, and was a corporal (1945) when discharged on 11 January 1946.

Later that year Stampfl returned to Northern Ireland and coached for the province’s Amateur Athletic Association (AAA). In April 1947 he was joined by Patricia Mary Cussen, a librarian and granddaughter of Sir Leo Cussen, whom he had met in Australia. They married on 8 May at the registrar’s office in Belfast. After moving to London Stampfl coached freelance and was hired by several clubs and institutions, including the John Fisher School at Purley—winner of the Public Schools Challenge Cup (1952 and 1953)—and the Oxford University Athletic Club (1954–55). He perfected his system of interval training: athletes completing multiple repetitions over a specific distance. Guided by a stopwatch, he varied their speed and distance at each session.

In late 1953 Stampfl coached Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher, and advised (Sir) Roger Bannister in his quest to break the four-minute-mile barrier. On 6 May 1954 in blustery conditions at Iffley Road track, Oxford, Bannister—paced successively by Brasher then Chataway, and guided by Stampfl, who bellowed ‘relax’ in lap two—ran the distance in 3 minutes 59.4 seconds. Stampfl, supporting an exhausted Bannister at the tape, was integral to surpassing the ultimate human physical obstacle of its day. His book, Franz Stampfl on Running (1955), professed interval training, the power of will, and coaching as both science and art. More than five hundred thousand copies were sold.

By May 1955 Stampfl had been engaged to coach by the Victorian AAA and Women’s AAA, the Department of Education, the National Fitness Council, and the University of Melbourne. After arriving in Melbourne in August, he trained potential Olympians and praised their prospects. To encourage the participation of women in athletics, he advised them that they would not ‘lose their charm’ by competing. That year he was appointed as a lecturer in physical education at the University of Melbourne (later adviser on athletics) and began writing a column for the Argus newspaper. He became an Australian citizen on 12 November 1956, prior to the Melbourne Olympic Games. While he trained successful athletes in a range of track and field events, he developed champions in middle-distance running. His coaching rivalry with Percy Cerutty descended into name-calling as their protégé milers, Merv Lincoln and Herb Elliot respectively, battled on the track. In 1968 he guided Ralph Doubell to an astonishing victory in the 800 metres at the Mexico Olympic Games. Doubell’s time of 1 minute 44.4 seconds equalled the world record, and set a long-standing Australian record.

Stampfl held court at his fibro hut beside the University of Melbourne’s athletics track until his retirement in 1978, remaining thereafter as honorary coach. In this role he shared his ideas about athletics, art, and philosophy of the mind with elite and amateur runners. He was a strong, fit man, tallish at about 180 centimetres, with brown eyes and curly hair. In summer he was often bare-chested and tanned at track side, in winter decked in gloves and a sheepskin coat, his massive voice booming, instructing his squad. He was appointed MBE (1981), made an associate of the Sport Australia Hall of Fame (1989), and posthumously inducted into the Athletics Australia Hall of Fame (2013). Like Cerutty, with whom he shared a passion for athleticism and a rampant individualism, he never became a national athletics coach; their independence made officialdom wary.

In November 1980 Stampfl was left a quadriplegic after his sports car was ‘rear-ended’ at an intersection. He coached on, using the force of his voice, intellect, and gigantic personality. Survived by his wife and their son, Anton, he died on 19 March 1995 at Hawthorn and was cremated. He remains a towering figure in modern athletics coaching; he is the subject of a biography, Franz Stampfl: Trainergenie und Weltbürger: Biografie e–ines Visionärs (2013) by Andreas Maier, and a documentary, ‘A Life Unexpected: The Man Behind the Miracle Mile,’ in production (2015).

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Argus (Melbourne). ‘Franz Stampfl’s Advice to Girls: Athletics Won’t Spoil Your Charm.’ 28 July 1956, 20
  • Bannister, Roger. Twin Tracks: The Autobiography. London: The Robson Press, 2014
  • Doubell, Ralph, and Franz Stampfl. Interview by Amanda Smith, 28 July 2000. The Sports Factor, ABC Radio National. Accessed 1 June 2010. http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/sportsfactor/ralph-doubell--franz-stampfl/3470140. Copy held on ADB file
  • Larkin, John. ‘Actor, Father Figure, Philosopher and One of the Last of the True Eccentrics … COACH.’ Age (Melbourne), 9 December 1978, 17
  • Lebensaft, Elisabeth, and Christoph Mentschl. ‘The Man Behind the Four-Minute Mile: Franz Stampfl.’ Translated by Antonia Lehn. Dunera News, no. 90 (April 2014): 12-15
  • National Archives of Australia. A446, 1956/57146
  • National Archives of Australia. B78, 1956/STAMPFL F
  • National Archives of Australia. B884, V377434
  • National Archives of Australia. MP1103/1, E40712
  • National Archives of Australia. MP1103/2, E40712
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Stampfl, Anton. Personal communication

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Richard Broome, 'Stampfl, Franz Ferdinand (1913–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stampfl-franz-ferdinand-21316/text31718, published online 2019, accessed online 20 August 2022.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

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