Why did we ever try to break the four-minute-mile barrier in 1954? Fifty-eight years of modern sport had passed since the revival of the Olympic Games in 1896, and athletes had been edging toward this goal, the simple act of putting one foot after another faster than any man had done before. Partly it was the time we lived in; the 1950s were an age of exploring and attempting to smash physical barriers in a world liberated from war in which we were neither soldiers nor bombed and rationed civilians. My first unsuccessful world-record bid was in 1953, the year Queen Elizabeth II was crowned. Everest was unclimbed, the world not yet navigated by a single-handed non-stop sailor and the moon landing only dreamed of.
My two university companions, Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway, and I perhaps seemed more privileged than we actually were. We were labeled young Elizabethans, possessing more than a touch of single-mindedness, optimism and that now unfashionable quality, patriotism. Breaking world athletic records offered us an opportunity of intensely personal achievement. Pindar, the Greek poet, captured this idea when he wrote in 500 B.C., "Yet that man is happy and poets sing of him who conquers with hand and swift foot and wins the greatest of prizes by steadfastness and strength." Nineteen fifty-four was my annus mirabilis, with the four-minute mile, beating John Landy at the British Empire Games in Vancouver and winning the European 1,500-meter championship.
I ran almost daily for the next 20 years, but I never competed again. Astonishment at that decision would have been quickly allayed if the questioner had glimpsed my life. As an intern at St. Mary's Hospital, in London, I looked after some 50 "beds," a round-the-clock schedule which permitted only a few snatched hours of sleep. It was a punishing (and since much-revised) make-or-break initiation to a teaching-hospital training for a consultant physician, but also an enormously rich and enthralling experience. Medicine, and neurology in particular, the teasing, endless puzzle of how the brain controls, as it does, our every thought and activity, has captivated me to this day.
Since 1954 there has been a revolution in athletic training. Instead of working out for half an hour five days a week, athletes now run for up to three hours a day over two sessions. As a result of this longer, harder training and faster synthetic tracks, the world mile record has been lowered by several great athletes, whom I have enjoyed meeting and watching in action. Herb Elliott took the largest slice from the record, lowering it by 2.7 seconds to 3:54.5 in 1958, though Peter Snell was probably the stronger miler. He brought the record to 3:54.1 in 1964. But I rate Jim Ryun as the most talented natural runner, though he was not the best competitor. Ryun was only 19 when he ran 3:51.3. For this record he was aided by the technique of altitude training, which athletes stumbled upon when faced with the prospects of the Mexico City Olympics, held at 7,500 feet. In preparation, in 1967 Ryun went to a training camp at 7,400 feet. Then twice within six weeks he raced at sea level and lowered world records on each occasion. Unfortunately, this preparation was to no avail in the Olympics, and it was a sad sight when Ryun was beaten in the final, altitude having wrecked any predictability.
Filbert Bayi of Tanzania brought the record down to 3:51. He illustrates a second factor responsible for distance record-breaking: the advantage of Africans dwelling at high altitudes. Even while they sleep they are training their bodies to transport oxygen efficiently from the thin air to their muscles. A wise athlete of the future will choose African parents to gain this environmental advantage!
Like Snell, John Walker, another great miler from the past two decades, comes from New Zealand, which has a healthy antipodean Anglo-Saxon tradition of sport. He brought the record below 3:50 (3:49.4), but his Montreal Olympic gold medal in the 1,500 was somewhat tarnished by the fact that Bayi had been withdrawn from the race, robbed of his chance by African politicians using their sportsmen as pawns in a political battle against apartheid.
Within two weeks last month, Sebastian Coe, a 22-year-old economics student, brought back to Britain both the 800-meter and mile world records. Just when we were beginning to believe that progress would come only from runners with massive physiques like that of Alberto Juantorena, the Cuban whose 800-meter record Coe broke, the slightly built Coe ran both races with an apparent ease that is a promise of more records to come. It is certain that world-record milers of the future must be capable of running very fast 800-meter races. With nearly a billion Chinese and more than 600 million Indians waiting in the wings and about to enter the world sports stage, I foresee a continuous and steady progress in athletic record-breaking. A 3:30 mile by the turn of the century is not impossible, provided some harmony still prevails in our uneasy world and that the sheer stupidity of political chicanery is held at bay.
Shakespeare spoke of "vaulting ambition," and brilliant technical advances at times enable athletes to vault beyond the records of others. Dick Fosbury gave a new angle to the slope of the progress curve for the high jump when he flung himself backward over the bar, adroitly lowering his center of gravity. So started a new trend. Similar ingenuity, this time exploiting the tensile elasticity of fiber glass, enabled pole vaulters to flick themselves higher, dramatically hand-standing at the top of their poles to bring about 18-foot vaults never predicted in the '50s.
Is there any record that may never be broken? Possibly Bob Beamon's Mexico City long jump. With a sublime disdain for the conventional niceties of record-breaking almost amounting to impertinence, he leaped 29'2�", omitting the distance of 28 feet altogether, to leave the existing record of 27'4�" way behind him. Ernst Jokl, a medical expert on record-breaking, called this a "mutation" performance, the product of excellence, low air resistance and reduced gravity. Unless the International Olympic Committee is unwise enough to take the Games to altitude again, this record may last forever, though in fairness it should be labeled "altitude assisted."
The public needs a sharp reminder that every single person who achieves Olympic selection is an exceptional human being. For a tiny handful of athletes to detach themselves from the already exceptional is a glorious feat indeed, though distinction is not always achieved by victory alone. Occasional personalities are so unusual and captivating in mind and physique that they stamp themselves on the collective memory of the world (a Nurmi, a Zatopek, a Comaneci). This amazing factor transcends national loyalties. No journalist, however eager to boost the home team, fails to recognize immediately this spark. A salutary generosity is dredged from the most chauvinistic, who can salute not just the victor (though this helps) but also his character.