No objective in sport seemed more unattainable for a longer period of time than track's four-minute mile. It would be difficult to pinpoint the moment when men began to speculate seriously about running a mile in less than four minutes—perhaps in 1923 when Paavo Nurmi's 4:10.4 clocking lopped more than two seconds off the record. Over the next 20 years the gap narrowed in erratic bursts, but by the beginning of World War II, a still-formidable 6.4 seconds remained to be closed.
The climax came between 1942 and 1945 when two Swedish distance men ran a series of brilliant races that lowered the mile record by five seconds, and the inevitable suddenly seemed imminent. Then, just as the magic barricade appeared ready to collapse, their track careers ended in a ruckus over amateurism, leaving the four-minute mile (by then only 1.4 seconds away) untouched for almost another decade. To this day, speculation persists that if Gunder H�gg and Arne Andersson had been permitted to continue running for another season, one of them would certainly have broken through.
There is the suggestion of gladiatorial commitment about these H�gg-Andersson races, which were fought out before vociferous crowds in neutral Sweden during the summers of World War II. World records fell again and again. No rivalry in the history of track and field—not Brumel and Thomas, not Owens and Wykoff—matched its drama or impact on the public consciousness. With most of the world preoccupied with a global conflict, it would not have been astonishing if the feats had passed barely noticed. To the contrary, the races made headlines around the world, and H�gg was even invited to run in the United States during the height of our struggles in Europe and the Pacific.
In Sweden the races were cast along lines of social and geographic rivalry. Gunder H�gg was the country boy, a woods dweller who had run and skied in the forests almost from infancy, of slimmer build than Andersson but tough as teakwood and seemingly inexhaustible. He symbolized the Swedish pastoral ideal: purity, simplicity, strength. Andersson, in turn represented to many the ordinary man in the street, the city dweller contending against the rude assault of the unsophisticated wonder boy from the northern forests. Andersson showed you didn't have to be a special animal to be a good runner. He was the Marty Liquori of his time. H�gg was his Jim Ryun.
H�gg now acknowledges the importance of having grown up in solitude. "Perhaps you learn to think differently and more deeply, not rushing about amid cars and buses, always disturbed by the telephone. Just wandering alone hour after hour in the forest, you live more within yourself. You get quite a different balance than the town dweller does."
Andersson seemed to have more ambition, a higher-strung competitive temperament. His approach to racing even incorporated a passion for iron files, which he used to sharpen his spikes (French files, he found, were the best). His running style, characterized by an excessively vigorous action, featured a great bounding stride and flapping arms. But in time, to hold his own against the smooth-running H�gg, Andersson had to correct these flaws. This adjustment probably prolonged and heightened their remarkable rivalry.
H�gg first came to world notice in 1941 with two record-breaking 1,500-meter performances in a single month—the first (3:48.6) setting a new Swedish record, the second (3:47.6) lowering Jack Lovelock's world mark by .2 of a second. Seven yards behind in the second race was Arne Andersson. It took him two years to get any closer.
In the summer of 1942 H�gg went on an astonishing tear, breaking 10 world records at seven different distances. One of the times, a 13:58.2 in the 5,000 meters, was to stand for 12 years before Emil Zatopek exceeded it. H�gg's own 1,500-meter record was next, down to 3:45.8 on a sloppy track that required the runners to stay outside the second lane. Then, for the first time, there was nobody between H�gg and the four-minute barrier. In a race at Goteborg he broke Sydney Wooderson's mile record by .2 seconds with a 4:06.2. Andersson equaled H�gg's time in a succeeding race. Then, on Sept. 4 at Stockholm, behind a suicidal pacesetter who ran a 56-second first lap, H�gg had abandoned all thought of another record and was merely going for the win when he began hearing the roars of the crowd on his last lap. He pulled out a sprint that clipped another 1.6 seconds off the world record. He was now just 4.6 seconds from the once-distant wall.
For all his fluid style, H�gg was an undisciplined runner by today's standards. His intermediate times were seldom regular. He would listen carefully to his coach's instructions beforehand and then get out on the track and go mad. He ran what he was invited to run, and the promoters staged races over any distance that would attract the largest crowd. H�gg's only loss in 1942—in fact, the only one he suffered over 16 months and 39 races—was as a member of a 6,000-meter relay team.
Andersson at this point was definitely suffering from feelings of inferiority. He had beaten H�gg only once, and he was determined to get on even terms. That next winter he worked on his sprint—which despite his natural speed had been deadened by the end of a mile. He forcibly condensed his stride and arm action, and after some weeks it all began to click. He could even change gear now at the end of a mile, and he steadfastly stayed away from meets until he had the new action under control. When he was ready for H�gg, unfortunately, he found H�gg wasn't there. He had gone to tour America for the summer. And so, in Sweden, Andersson ran against the clock and he took a clean two seconds off H�gg's mile record—lowering it to 4:02.6. Now Andersson was king at home, and the crowds poured back into the stadiums. Andersson obliged them by breaking H�gg's 1,500-meter record as well. Meanwhile, in the States, H�gg took the news calmly. It had not been an exceptional tour for him. Running well, he had never been pushed by the opposition, and his times were un-memorable. By the time he returned to Sweden he was tired and out of shape.