Stuck In the 20th Century, The Mile Is Due For A New Record
Roger Bannister’s death earlier this month at the age of 88 reminded us of another era when running the mile under 4 minutes was the track athlete’s elusive goal.
On May 6, 1954, twenty five-year old Bannister was running a race against Oxford University as a member of an amateur all-star team when he broke away from the pack, took the lead, and won the competition.
Bannister had completed the mile in 3:59:40, the first person to ever clear the distance in under 4 minutes. He became an instant global celebrity and his feat is still remembered as a seminal moment in the history of sports.
Still embedded in the American and British psyche, the mile remains the only non-metric distance recognized by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the main body responsible for record keeping.
Today, high school kids routinely conquer the 4-minute mile. Advancements in scientific training, shoes, and nutrition have progressively shrunk the 1.61 km length from the early days when foot-pounding hopefuls dreamed of cracking that psychological time barrier.
Bannister retired almost immediately after his groundbreaking moment to pursue a career in medicine. In the following decades, his running successors would break the mile record no less than 18 times.
The first person to surpass the English master’s pivotal finish was Australian John Landy, who claimed the contest in 3:58:00 only weeks later on June 21, 1954.
But 12 runners and 45 years on, the shrinking mile would come to its final rest stop. Morocco’s Hisham El Gherrouj took the distance in a record 3:43:13 on July 7, 1999 and held it until today.
The time difference between El Gherrouj and Bannister was just over 16 seconds. Had they both been in the same race, the North African would have beaten his counterpart by over 100 meters.
Between 1954 and 2018, the men’s mile was broken on average every 3.56 years. But for the past 19 years, no athlete has been able to undercut El Gherrouj and the record remains frozen in the 20th century.
The women’s chase shows a similar pattern. Russia’s Svetlana Masterkova is the last champion to post a record mile, clocking at 4:12:56 in 1996. Prior to her finish, the ladies’ mile was broken on average every 2.42 years.
Clearly, athletes today are stronger, faster and better equipped, but the nearly 2-decade vacuum signifies that something has changed, or perhaps has been neglected.
One reason for the record draught might be the implementation of stricter and more reliable drug tests. Another could be that the mile has fallen off as a popular middle-distance marker in favor of the metric mile (1,500m), which is now standard at most track meets.
But that doesn’t fully explain the unusual longevity of El Gherrouj’s top finish. The Moroccan foot racer has also held the record for the 1,500m since 1998 (3:26:00), even predating his own ‘miracle mile’.
The missing component might simply be a mindset factor rather than a physical trait. As part his training, Bannister relentlessly visualized busting through the forbidden 4 minutes in order to create a sense of certainty in his mind and body.
Once his goal was achieved, the law of attraction took over and the hero was quickly followed by peers who tore through the same mental gate that had historically kept them out.
The 21st century mile hero might just be the one who obsesses not with beating the clock, but with breaking a 20-year record.
BASKETBALL February 14, 2010 The NBA holds the 59th edition of its All-Star game at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The Eastern Conference beats the Western 141-131 with Dwayne Wade (Heat) scoring 28 points and winning the MVP award. Coaching the West was George Karl (Nuggets) and the East Stan Van Gundy (Magic). LeBron James (Cavaliers) topped the All-Star ballots followed by Kobe Bryant (Lakers).
FOOTBALL February 12, 2000 Tom Landry, first Head Coach of the Dallas Cowboys, dies at the age of the 75. Spending 29 seasons with the Cowboys (1960-1988), Landry racked up 20 winning seasons and two Super Bowl titles, VI and XII. The Texas native created many new formations and was voted Coach of the Year twice. In his early days, he played for the NY Giants and won the NFL championship in 1956.
BOXING February 11, 1990 Buster Douglas upsets Mike Tyson at the Tokyo Dome in Japan to win the undisputed world heavyweight boxing title. A 42-1 underdog, Douglas ended up knocking out an undefeated Tyson in the 10th round. The bout was widely seen as a warm-up fight for Tyson before taking on Evander Holyfield, the #1 heavyweight contender at the time. Douglas retired in 1999 with a record of 46-38-6-2.
OLYMPICS February 13, 1980 The Winter Olympic Games open in Lake Placid, New York. Thirty-seven nations send over 1,000 athletes to the quaint upstate village, which had hosted the event before in 1932. East Germany emerges with most medals at 23 (9 gold), followed by the USSR at 22 (10 gold) and the U.S. at 12 (6 gold). Americans secure gold in ice hockey, defeating the Soviets in what became known as ‘Miracle on Ice’.