In 1955, Laszlo Tabori became the third man to break the four-minute barrier in the mile. A year later, he competed in the Melbourne Olympics, where he finished fourth in the 1,500 meters and sixth in the 500 meters. For a period during the 1950s, Tabori held the world record in the 1,500 meters.
More than 30 years later, Tabori--at 56--is still running, and inspiring others to do the same. The classes he leads at the Los Angeles Valley College track have turned many joggers into runners, weekend athletes into marathoners.
"He's a very rare man, dedicated to runners and running like no one I know," said John Marshall, a reporter for KNBC-TV. Marshall, who runs seven miles per day, first approached Tabori for help eight years ago. They pair have since become friends and frequent running partners.
Jacqueline Hansen, who once held two world records in the marathon, recently resumed training with Tabori. She said she has always appreciated that he agreed to work with her in the mid-1960s, when most male coaches scoffed at the idea of female runners. "I was flabbergasted to find someone of such ability who treated us like men," said Hansen.
The atmosphere surrounding Tabori today contrasts sharply with the political turmoil that endured for most of his youth in Hungary. First, the Nazis invaded. Tabori's strongest memory of those days is laying in the grass with playmates and watching planes battle overhead.
Tabori talks reluctantly about the war. "I never bring up the subject," he said. "I don't want to remember."
Mention running, however, and Tabori turns into a chatterbox. He tells how he took up the exercise as a favor to his father, who needed someone to deliver messages to people living six or seven miles from the railroad station where the elder Tabori worked.
"While my dad was at home resting, I was doing his work," said Tabori, smiling at the memory. "It was the first time I used my legs for more than walking."
He picked up the Hungarian equivalent of a few cents from his father in return, just enough change to afford semi-regular trips to the movies. "I was doing it professionally," he joked.
More importantly, he ran smoothly and easily, unencumbered by the shortness of breath and wobbly legs that plague many fledgling runners. Although Tabori did not take running seriously, he knew he could do it well.
He was not a fanatical runner, merely a confident one. "I would not say I'm addicted, but I have a sports heart," Tabori said.
That sports heart continued to pump him to victory, so much so that Hungarian track officials began to take note of the budding star in their midst. Tabori, who originally wanted to sell shoes, put that career on hold to pursue running.
By 1954, he had become exceptional, finishing the 1,500 meters in 3:47, only five seconds off the world record. That accomplishment enabled Tabori to travel to England in 1955, where he experienced his greatest moment as a runner.
In May that year, Tabori and his countrymen competed against an English team. Then--as now--England had some of the best milers in the world, which explains why 50,000 people jammed the stadium that day.
Tabori recalls every detail. The weather was "typically English, gray and wet." His coach told him to "stick with the (English) guy with the red hair."
Tabori followed directions--for a while. But as the race neared the end, Tabori drew even with his supposedly unbeatable rival. The Hungarian eventually crossed the finish line 8/10 of a second ahead.
The spectacle of a 23-year-old upstart from abroad defeating esteemed English runners made Tabori a media favorite. Back in Hungary, Tabori and his colleagues were greeted by a huge crowd, including seemingly every Communist Party chief and military leader.
In October, 1956, as Hungarian athletes prepared for the Olympics, Soviet troops entered Budapest to crush the liberal regime of Premier Imre Nagy.
"The bullets were flying again, just like the Second World War," said Tabori. His team waited four agonizing days before flying on a French plane to the Olympics in Australia.
Because of the Soviet invasion, the Hungarians received a tremendous greeting upon arriving in Melbourne. The team, however, was thinking too much about the war back home to do well.
"We competed, but our mind was not there," said Tabori. After practice or events, members raced back to their quarters to listen for the latest bulletins from Budapest.
As a world-class athlete, Tabori had more freedom to move than the average Hungarian. The idea of returning to a country overrun by Soviet tanks and the KGB did not appeal to him. After the Olympics, he accepted an offer to participate in a series of races in the United States.