Sports stories have a short shelf life. Yesterday’s box scores are old news and last week’s heroics are already forgotten. That is why sports columnists’ compilations of their work never sell well. Yet there are some moments in sports that are so compelling that the images are seared into our consciousness and persist long after the exploits themselves have receeded into the past. Michael Jordan soaring to the hoop , seemingly suspended in mid-air, the basketball cradled in one hand as he prepares to stuff it through the hoop. The U.S ice hockey team piled on top of one another at center ice, delirious with joy at having beaten the Russians at the Lake Placid Olympics in in 1980. Y.A. Tittle,circa 1961, a Giant quarterback at the end of his career, kneeling down in the mud, his bald head helmetless, his face streaked with mud and blood, the very picture of defeat.
And then there is the image of the British miler, Roger Bannister, breasting the tape as he clocks the first sub- four minute mile in history. He is striding to the finish, his head thrown back , his face mirroring his supreme effort as he pushes himself to the limits of endurance and beyond and yet, somehow, oddly triumphant. It is an image that is still fresh in my memory even though it happened in 1954 more than fifty years ago.
Today, the record for the mile is around 3:43, seventeen seconds or so below that once insurmountable barrier of four minutes. Bannister’s feat today hardly seems noteworthy but, in 1954, it was indeed a very big deal. Then, and for a couple of years before, it was a topic of great interest in our house.My father, a very good athlete and a sprinter of note in his college days, followed the sports news avidly as Bannister and his rivals strove to be the first to break the four minute barrier. I was too young then to understand and I didn’t know most of the details. I remembered enough though to want to read The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb when I came across it in the library.
In The Perfect Mile Bascomb chronicles the events that culminated in Bannister’s triumph. He details the exploits and the heartaches not only of Bannister but of his close competitors, John Landy of Australia and Wes Santee, the farmboy from Kansas. All three of them had failed in the Helsinki Olympics of 1952 and wanted to redeem themselves by being the first to break the 4-minute barrier.We can feel the tension as one and then the other gets closer and closer to the magic mark until Bannister finally breaks it in 1954 with a 3:59.4. Scant weeks later, Landy was to shatter it in Turku, Finland with a 3:58 mile. almost a second and a half faster than Bannister. This set up their epic confrontation at the Empire Games in Vancouver in what was to become known as The Mile of the Century or The Perfect Mile. In setting the record, Bannister had had the benefit of two pacemakers, Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway, who set a torrid pace for the first three laps and spurred him to his record breaking performance. While this was perfectly legal, some people felt that this took some of the luster off Bannister’s feat since he was running against the clock rather than against genuine competition. In Vancouver, Bannister would be going head-to-head against John Landy who had broken his record so decisively and the public was agog with excitement.
In his book Bascomb captures all the drama of that race and the events leading to it. We get to know Bannister, Landy and Santee, three magnificent young men of widely varying backgrounds.Bannister, the Oxford medical student, who approached his running from a very scientific viewpoint and saw it as only one part of his life. Landy, the lone wolf, largely self-taught who liked to take the lead and grind his competition into the ground. Santee who suffered a horrifying childhood at the hands of his brutal father and came of age as the star of the Kansas U. track team.
Along the way, Bascomb treats us to different sidelights such as training methods over the ages, Santee’s childhood, the politics of the American Amateur Union which controlled amteur athletics in the U.S with an iron hand etc. It is fascinating stuff.
The record books will tell you that Bannister won The Perfect Mile in 3:58.8 with Landy in second 5 yards behind. They will not tell you about the heartstopping drama as Landy led almost from the start only to have Bannister unleash his terrific final ‘kick’ and overtake him in the final stretch. They will not tell you how Landy , unable to sleep , went for a walk barefoot and gashed his foot on a photographer’s broken flash bulb less than two days before the race. Or how he strove to hide the injury because he didn’t want to use it as an excuse if he lost. Or of Santee, forced to comment on the race from New York , and denied a chance to battle the other two head to head.
While nothing can tarnish Bannister’s feats, one can’t help feeling sorry for Landy, and particularly for Santee. Unlike Bannister who had a strong support system of friends and a coach who motivated him ( and the help of two pacemakers during his first record setting mile) Landy was essentially alone and was handicapped by the slow tracks and the lack of competition in Australia.He retired after placing third in the 1500 meters at the Melbourne Olympics of 1956. Santee had to fulfill his obligations as a member of the Kansas University track team and was so busy running relays that he couldn’t concentrate on the mile. Then , he ran afoul of the AAU and had to report to the Marines upon graduation. He came tantalizingly close but never broke the four minute barrier , his amateur career cut short by the vindictive despots at the AAU.
All in all, this is a glorious book and I highly recommend it , even to those of you who are not sports fans. In fact, I think parents could profitably give it to their teen-agers. It provides a salutary lesson in the effort and sacrifice that people have to make when they set out to do something great.