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January 28, 2009

When Milers Ruled the Earth

Admin note: I've mentioned before that I'm student of the sport of distance running. More accurately, I'm the awkward, pimply nerd sitting in the front row completely enraptured by each day's lesson. If for some reason you didn't believe me before, consider this series - and the following article in particular - Exhibit A in my claim to be one of the biggest track geeks around.


Chasing Roger Bannister

Part 2: When Milers Ruled the Earth

Roger Bannister nearly retired from running in 1952 - two years before he would run the world’s first sub-four-minute mile. That year, he ran in the Olympic 1500m race at Helsinki, and was on schedule to finish his medical studies at Oxford within the next two years. He knew that his matriculation as a physician would prevent him from training well enough to be competitive in the next Olympic cycle.

However, two factors ultimately persuaded him to stay in the sport for two more years. His disappointing - he was the pre-race favorite - 4th place Olympic finish caused many in the British press to question the validity of his training methods, which he could only justify by setting a world record. He also believed that he should accomplish all that he was capable of in his athletic career before he left it for good and focused, in his words, “on my considerable hospital duties.”

At the time, he was 22 years old.

Today it would be anachronistic for world-class athletes to pursue “real jobs”, or to walk away from a sport they dominate at such a young age – but Bannister was very close to doing just that. Truthfully, the idea wasn’t at all unusual in the 1950s.

Bannister’s chief rival was Australian John Landy (at right, after breaking the world record), who was the second man to break the four-minute mile, eclipsing Bannister’s world record just 46 days later. Landy’s competitive career lasted a mere two years longer than Bannister, as he retired after the Melbourne Olympics in 1956.

The next great miler was Herb Elliott, another Australian. From 1958 through 1960, he ran 17 sub-4 miles, set 3 world records, and was undefeated in all of his races. After winning the gold medal at Rome in 1960, at age 22, he retired from running and never returned.

In other words, the three greatest milers the world had ever seen only raced competitively for a combined total of eight years.

These men all retired for essentially similar reasons: there simply wasn’t any money to be made by being track stars. Elliott (at right, in the Rome Olympics) in particular had a family to support, and there was never any question as to where his priorities lay. Interviewed years later, he said, “Running is just something I did. It’s a sport. It wasn’t my life. My family is my life.”

This was the age of true amateurism, when athletic competition was a young man’s passion - one to be thoroughly quenched before taking on the normal responsibilities of life. A couple more decades would pass before an athlete could parlay his talent into the financial rewards of prize money and corporate sponsorships.

Ironically, although they could barely make a living, the great milers of the 1950s were amongst the most famous and most recognized athletes in the world.

Most of us are too young to ever remember a time when track and field was a large spectator sport, but for many years it enjoyed enormous popularity. Fifty years ago, the NFL didn’t yet exist, the NBA was a novelty act, and stock cars were still used for running moonshine. Track athletes were second only to baseball players in their ability to draw American interest, and were even more popular internationally.

Perhaps the best illustration I have for this point comes from my own family. After reading my previous article about Bannister’s sub-4 mile, my mom sent me the following e-mail:

I remember that well. My dad used to talk about it [the four-minute mile] all the time. I remember how surprised we were when he did it.

On the surface, the statement’s not too remarkable – but let me break it down a bit. My mom was six years old in 1954, living in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her father was a middle-aged man with no personal experience as a runner. And yet, one of my grandfather’s favorite topics of discussion with his young daughter was the one-mile world record (not to mention his conviction that a sub-4 would never happen). This ordinary family man in middle America made a regular habit of following results of events that took place overseas – events with no American athletes involved.

I mean … could this ever happen today? It would be like a modern family having dinner conversation about whether Gebreselassie has another world record left in him [2009 update: he did], whether El Guerrouj will finally win Olympic gold [2009 update: he did, too], or when someone will finally defeat Bekele in cross-country [2009 update: we're still waiting]. Sure, these topics may be regular dinner fare at my house - but do normal families ever talk like this? Can anyone reading this even name three world-class 1500m runners?

However, it’s a tough argument to claim that things were better back in Bannister’s day. Despite the decline in popularity of track and field, most developments in the sport over the past five decades have been enormously beneficial.

For athletes, it is now possible to become very wealthy (although, regrettably for runners, not on nearly the same scale as NFL or NBA players) with appearance fees and corporate sponsors, which allows them to stay in the sport throughout their physical primes. From a fan’s standpoint, it’s thrilling to follow the careers of the great distance runners as they mature, establish their dominance as the world’s best, and later fight to hold their place as the newest young lions roar onto the scene. One career overlaps another in a long story arc that evolves in a natural progression.

How much could Bannister, Landy, or Elliott have achieved if they had competed against each other into their late 20s and beyond? We can only speculate. Landy and Bannister, in particular, always inspired the best in each other, traded the world record, and so captivated the world’s attention that their ultimate showdown at the Empire Games in 1954 was dubbed “The Mile of the Century”. I imagine that a sports fan’s greatest disappointment is that these two great champions couldn’t repeatedly race head to head like heavyweight fighters (think of Ali vs Frazier) pushing each other to new levels of greatness.

(Bannister passing Landy in the "Mile of the Century")

Fortunately, back in 1952, Bannister made the fateful decision to postpone retirement by two years to chase after the four-minute mile, and eventually ran into the history books. No matter how fast future men may cover the distance, there will never be a more watershed performance in track than his fateful run at Oxford in 1954 – because it’s virtually certain that the one-mile (or 1500m, for that matter) footrace will never command the world stage in such a manner again.

Perhaps it is fitting then, that the most pivotal moment in our sport’s history belongs to a runner from that golden age of running, when achievements were pursued solely for personal challenge and fulfillment, with the whole world eagerly attentive – for if a similar achievement happened on today’s track landscape, there’s a good chance that it might slip by generally unnoticed.

See previous installments of this series on sidebar at right.


Dave 1/29/09, 6:24 AM  

"Sure, these topics may be regular dinner fare at my house - but do normal families ever talk like this?"

puts my family into the "not normal" then. How many 7 year old boys sit down with you to watch the 400 M Race in the Olympics with the comment, "Dad, lets see which ones the gorilla climbs on in that last turn." I mean really how many 7 year old boys want to see which runners crator from lactic acid threshold. :) (maybe because he has experienced it himself?)

Makita 1/29/09, 9:31 AM  

I've enjoyed this series - very informative! I hope to be one of the "not normal" families.


Bob - BlogMYruns.com 1/29/09, 2:07 PM  

and part of it is picking the right race (hint: not Leadville!)
LOL ya no kidding, what is funny is this race is on my dream list but have to get more miles under my belt hit or get close to that 24 hour mark... and finally show up 2 weeks before to acclimate :-) ahhhh this ultra stuff is easy huh --haha

Thanks comment and will pack up more fortune to bring for Umstead.

and yes I like being in the "Not normal" family :-)

David 1/29/09, 7:26 PM  

You would think, with Americans' short attention spans, that the 4-minute mile races would be right up their viewing pelasure alley.

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