Laszlo Tabori, Celebrated Hungarian Runner Who Bolted to U.S., Dies at 86

Laszlo Tabori becoming the third man to run the mile in under four minutes in a historic race in London in 1955 in which two others also broke that mark: Chris Chataway, left, and Brian Hewson.

Laszlo Tabori, who in 1955 became the third man to run a mile in under four minutes, defected to the United States a year later from a Hungary in turmoil and was later an outstanding distance-running coach, died on Wednesday in Los Angeles. He was 86.

His wife, Laurie Tabori, said the cause was complications of abdominal surgery he had undergone at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he died.

Tabori was one of three Hungarian runners — the others were Sandor Iharos and Istvan Rozsavolgyi — who together broke 23 world records, all under the renowned and fiercely demanding coach Mihaly Igloi, who also defected to the United States in 1956.

But none of the three had breached the magic four-minute barrier, which was broken the year before by Roger Bannister of England (3 minutes 59.4 seconds) and, six weeks later, by John Landy of Australia (3:57.9). (Bannister died in March.)

In 1955, just before an important mile race in London, Igloi told Tabori that a few weeks earlier, an English official had asked him which runners he was bringing to London. When he mentioned Tabori, Igloi said, the official was upset.

“They didn’t want a second-rate runner,” Igloi told him, quoting the official.

Tabori, a slender 5 feet 9 inches and 134 pounds, was hardly second rate. In a historic race in which three men broke the four-minute mark, he finished first with a time of 3:59.0. He was followed by two Englishmen, Chris Chataway and Brian Hewson, both timed in 3:59.8.

Six weeks later, Tabori equaled the world record of 3:40.8 for 1,500 meters. He was also a member of a 4x1500-meter relay team that broke world records three times.

Hungary had high hopes for Tabori and his fellow runners at the coming Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, in 1956. But they lost training time when the Soviet Union, unhappy with Hungary’s new liberal government, sent in troops only weeks before to reinforce Communist rule, provoking a short-lived but bloody revolt.

In Melbourne, Tabori did not do as well as expected, finishing fourth in the 1,500 meters and sixth in the 5,000.

“We competed,” he said years later, “but our mind was not there.”

Members of the team had been bitter about the Soviet invasion when they arrived in Melbourne on Nov. 12, 1956, greeted by a roaring crowd of about 2,000 Hungarian expatriates. Only days earlier Soviet troops had crushed the uprising in a conflict that left more than 2,500 Hungarians and 650 Soviet troops dead and forced about 200,000 Hungarians to flee as refugees.

“The gathering jamming the Olympic hangar raised the roof with ancient Hungarian battle cries,” The New York Times reported. “The spectators sang their national anthem, ‘God Bless Hungary,’ and then shouted, ‘Long live Free Hungary.’ ”

Members of the team later tore down and mutilated the Communist flag of Hungary and hoisted another representing a “free” Hungary.

Tabori and Igloi, like many other Hungarian Olympians in several sports, defected after the Games were over, choosing to remain in Australia and seek political asylum there rather than return to their occupied homeland. Richard Neal, the assistant publisher of Sports Illustrated, sponsored the Hungarians’ entry to the United States, The Times said.

Tabori ended up in Los Angeles, where he worked as a janitor by day and learned English at night while continuing to compete in events across the country.

After retiring from running in 1962, he designed wheelchairs, utilizing a background in mechanical engineering that he had gained in Hungary. He also opened a store that sold running shoes and operated it in some ways like a coach. He would insist that he, and not the customer, choose shoes because he was sure that he knew which ones would work best.

His coaching career began in 1967 with the San Fernando Valley Track Club, where he remained for 35 years. He also coached at Los Angeles Valley College for 10 years.

Most notably, he coached men’s distance runners and the Men of Troy running club team at the University of Southern California. One of his Trojan protégés was Duane Solomon, an 800-meter specialist who was named an All-American and competed for the United States at the London Olympics in 2012.

In addition, he coached marathon runners, including Jacqueline Hansen and Miki Gorman, who between them won five New York City and Boston Marathons and broke two world records. Like Igloi, Tabori preached interval training, which involves frequent repetitions of the same distance, with slight rest periods between.

He worked with elite runners as well as recreational ones and could be demanding.

Kevin Smith, a California high school coach who ran for Tabori, recalled: “He would be patrolling the track under the stadium lights, barking directions in his thick Hungarian accent. There was never any question what you should do.”

Tabori was born Laszlo Talabircsuk on July 6, 1931, in the city of Kosice, in southern Slovakia. He grew up in Abaujszanto, in northern Hungary.

His father worked at a railroad station, and Laszlo delivered messages for him to people who lived six or seven miles away. Tabori ran all the way, he said. “It was the first time I used my legs for more than walking,” he once recalled.

He further developed as a runner during World War II, when, he said, he would steal food from German occupation troops and then dash off before he could be caught.

He served in the Hungarian army from 1953 to 1955 and afterward, in an era before there was professional track, worked in a leather factory.

He was elected to the Hungarian Hall of Fame in 1995 and in 2002 received Unesco’s Fair Play Award for lifetime achievement.

His first wife, Kata, died in 2005. He married Laurie Kulchin in 2009. In addition to his wife, Tabori, who lived in Oak Park, Calif., is survived by two daughters, Gabrielle Tabori Sabharwal and Ildiko Tabori; a sister, Elizabeth Gallusz; and three grandchildren.

Tabori outlived his two fellow Hungarian champion runners of the 1950s. Iharos died in 1996 at 65 and Rozsavolgyi in 2012 at 82. Their coach, Igloi, died in 1998 at 89.

After his defection, Tabori would not talk about his last days in Hungary. “I never bring up the subject,” he said. “I don’t want to remember.”

But he was willing to speak of his adopted country. “Here,” he said, “I didn’t have to be afraid of a knock on the door at 3 or 4 in the morning.”

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