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the perfect mile

19 April 2004

In the past eighty years, the world record for the mile run has come down almost half a minute. Paavo Nurmi ran a mile in just over 4:10 in 1923; Hicham El Gerrouj ran 3:43.13 in 1999. During the years 1945-54, the mile record stood stubbornly, it seemed unbreakably, at 4:01.4, the mark set by the great Swedish runner Gundar Hägg. By the end of 1954, Australian John Landy had shaved a few seconds off Hägg's record – to 3:58 – but the intervening struggle had become one of the great dramas in sport history.

The four-minute mile is an arbitrary conjunction of time and space. It's simply two round numbers – actually, the mile, 1609.34 meters, is not even particularly round by metric standards. There have been better coincidences: the 10-second 100-meter dash comes to mind. But rarely have the numbers, the athletes, and international attention combined to produce something like the four-minute-mile mania of the early 1950s.

Neal Bascomb's new book The Perfect Mile recounts the quest of three great athletes for the mark. Roger Bannister of England, Wes Santee of the United States, and Landy of Australia spent most of their time after the 1952 Olympics (where all were also-rans) in coming desperately close to the four-minute threshold. Bascomb interviewed all three men in preparing The Perfect Mile. The result is a narrative with the pace of a thriller and the social insights of a cultural-studies treatise in sport history.

Bannister, of course, was literally first past the post. But the rivalry among the three did not stop there. The three men continued to compete to edge Bannister's record even lower. Across three continents, they "raced" one another in terms of stopwatches and teletypes. Only two of them – Bannister and Landy – faced off in person, and then only once. That race, in the summer of 1954 in Vancouver, is in fact the "perfect mile" of Bascomb's title. Revealing its outcome would be a perfect spoiler.

When Bannister finally faced Landy, neither one needed an artificial pace to be pushed to his limit. Bannister's initial record run, however, was paced by Chris Chataway and the late Chris Brasher, friends who maintained the phenomenal pace needed over the first three laps so that Bannister could go into his legendary kick in the fourth. Bannister, a medical researcher, availed himself of controlled conditions – a fact that hardly lessened his feat of covering 1,760 yards in 3:59.4. Whenever Wes Santee tried to work with pace-setters, however, the American AAU threatened to invalidate his time.

In fact, Santee, the awesomely gifted American runner, is the forgotten hero of 1952-54. He was clearly the best miler in the world for some of that time, and clearly had 4:00 potential. But bad luck with the weather ruined some of his attempts, and a hitch in the Marines precluded others. And while Bannister and Landy were well-off research students in their native countries, Santee was a penniless scholarship kid at the University of Kansas, running draining relays for Jayhawk glory and coming under hypocritical scrutiny from the AAU. A main theme in The Perfect Mile is the virulent corruption of "amateur" athletics in the US. The AAU officials who slammed Santee for taking excessive (though still measly) gifts from meet organizers were often the same meet organizers who had enticed him with the gifts.

All three men, however, have had distinguished post-track careers. They come across in Bascomb's narrative as gracious and modest, appreciative of their opponents – attitudes that flourish in the track community. The golden anniversary of the Perfect Mile has found a perfect commemoration in Neal Bascomb's prose.

Bascomb, Neal. The Perfect Mile: Three athletes, one goal, and less than four minutes to achieve it. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.