Here's a mystifying bit of track lore you could probably massage into a killer bet in one of those sushi-Perrier-couscous-espresso bars in midtown Manhattan, especially in the wake of Jos�-Luis Gonz�lez's victory in the Mercedes Mile, formerly the Fifth Avenue Mile, last Saturday. Simply demand to be told when an American male last won that most glamorous of races, the Olympic 1,500 meters, the metric mile. Then sit and wait, while people hunker down into their mashed yeast.
Americans have mastered every other Olympic distance in recent Games. But it's been 78 years since Mel Sheppard won the 1,500. Moreover, since 1954, when Roger Bannister first broke four minutes, only one American has held the world mile or 1,500 record. That was Jim Ryun, with runs of 3:51.3 and 3:51.1 in the mile (1966 and '67) and 3:33.1 in the 1,500 (1967). We love the mile. We just can't win it.
Of course Ryun was as good as they come. He just had terrible racing luck, hitting his prime in 1968, when the Olympics were at Mexico City's 7,349-foot altitude. Kenya's Kip Keino (whom Ryun had beaten in his world-record 1,500 in Los Angeles the year before), taking full advantage of having grown up in such thin air, led at a searing pace and put Ryun soundly in second.
In 1972, in Munich, Ryun was tripped in his heat, fell, lay stunned too long and never got his chance for revenge. Aside from Ryun and Marty Liquori, who was top-ranked in 1969 and '71 but was hurt in Olympic years, and Steve Scott, whose 3:47.69 in 1982 was then the second fastest ever, but who gets overlooked because he, too, came up short in the Olympics, we have not even had any gallant losers lately.
Look at the list of Olympic 1,500 champions and world-record holders and you find a host of guys from small countries. Twelve men have held the mile record since Britain's Bannister first broke four minutes in 1954: two Australians, two New Zealanders, a Frenchman, a Tanzanian, an American ( Ryun) and a remarkable five Britons.
The Olympic 1,500 since 1948 has gone to two New Zealanders ( Peter Snell and John Walker) and runners from Sweden, Luxembourg, Ireland, Australia, Kenya, Finland and Great Britain ( Sebastian Coe, who won the last two). The only great nation worse than the U.S. in developing milers is the Soviet Union.
Why? It's certainly not because nobody cares. Tens of thousands of high school and college milers train and race furiously. The rewards are there, waiting. If Edwin Moses, a 400-meter hurdler, can grow rich and respected by dominating an event few knew about until his amazing streak, what could a winning miler reap? "Just imagine," says Jon Hendershott of Track and Field News, "if Seb Coe were American."
Well, if he were, he probably would have run for his high school and college, and that, say the knowledgeable, would have left him jaded or hurt.
"We used to laugh about it," says 1964 Olympic 800- and 1,500-meter champion Snell, who is now a research instructor in physiology at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Dallas. "When we came over for races, here were these talented college runners having to double or triple and take a leg on the medley relay. I knew guys who entered college as promising 4:12 milers and who graduated as 4:12 milers."
Britons Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram (the current record holder with 3:46.32) share those sentiments. They have pointed out that the miler is a strange beast, half sprinter, half distance runner, and thus oddly delicate. No matter how obviously talented when young, he reaches his potential only after years of careful strengthening.