In the heat of
Olympic competition these speedy rivals are likely to be faster still. When
Landy came out of a year's retirement this winter to reel off the 3:58.6 mile
that put him right back on top, his comment on his second-best effort was one
that few experts would care to gainsay. "My time can easily be equaled by
European runners," he said. "To win in the Olympics, I must be able to
run a mile in 3:55 or 3:56."
WHERE IS THE
What has become
of the great mile tradition in the United States? Where are the successors to
Cunningham, Bonthron, Fenske and their like? One answer is suggested by the old
but relevant remark, attributed to a British wit who was asked whether he did
not think the national humor magazine Punch had slipped. "Punch is not what
it used to be," he conceded, "but then it never was." While America
has been turning out top milers for several decades, it is now nearly half a
century since any American has managed to win the Olympic metric mile.
Indeed, since the
1908 Olympics only one American has captured any Olympic event of longer than
800 meters (although a couple of others have come agonizingly close) and he was
no miler. Significantly, when Horace Ashenfelter finally turned the trick in
the Olympic steeplechase at Helsinki in 1952, by beating Russia's Vladimir
Kazantsev in a stirring stretch duel after catching him at the last barrier, it
was heralded as a major upset. A Finnish sports-writer, sharing in the general
astonishment, went so far as to compare Ashen-felter's feat to that of an
Eskimo winning the 100-meter dash in a fur parka.
less than flattering, the comparison contained more than a particle of point.
It put the finger on an American weakness in distance events that can only be
described as chronic.
Even apart from
Olympic showings, the record books bear testimony to this long-standing
deficiency. They show that while U.S. athletes have consistently captured most
of the world records in the majority of track and field events, the number of
Americans who have managed to set world marks at races of a mile or longer
during the last half century can practically be counted on one hand. American
runners have, with a few brief exceptions, generally lagged behind European and
world standards at any given time by anything from precious seconds in the mile
to minutes in the longer events. For example, Olympic Champion Ashen-felter's
present U.S. two-mile record of 8:49.6 is more than 16 seconds behind the best
European and world marks for the distance.
American distance men do better? Track coaches have discussed and debated the
problem for years, meanwhile dipping into the more successful European distance
running techniques and training methods. This has brought results—up to a
point. The lead in adapting European practice was taken by the late E. C.
(Billy) Hayes of Indiana University, who made a thorough study of the Flying
Finns back in the early '30s when Paavo Nurmi and his countrymen dominated the
distance field. Hayes helped popularize in the U.S. a Scandinavian training
procedure that, with modifications, has since become known as "interval
running." This is simply the use of change of pace through a nonstop
practice period—a mixture of speed work, jogging and walking instead of sole
accent on maintaining a set pace.
required his runners to change the lead among them at the end of each 220 or
440 yards during a practice race, finding this helped to combat fatigue and to
key them up for topflight competition. Hayes's success certainly seemed to
justify his methods: his star pupil, Don Lash, ripped off a two-mile in 1936
that wiped out Nurmi's five-year-old world mark. Other Hayes men—Tommy Deckard,
Campbell Kane, Fred Wilt, Mel Trutt and Jimmy Smith—joined with Lash in
dominating the American distance and cross-country scene for years.
But the Hayes
lead was still not enough to bridge the gap between American distance men and
the best from Europe; Lash's two-mile record was bettered by a Finn within a
few months. Casting about for an even better training gimmick, many American
coaches were attracted by the success in the '40s of G�sta Holmer, Swedish
Olympic coach, whose stable of milers, led by Guilder Haegg and Arne Andersson,
staged a succession of spectacular races that drove the world mile mark down
almost a full five seconds to 4:01.4 in the brief space of four years.
secret, he revealed, was a system known in Swedish as fartlek, or "speed
play." This was simply a bucolic variation on that earlier Scandinavian
cinder-path smorgasbord called interval running, done on meadows and forest
trails. During an hour or two of this, a small group of runners indulges in
every form of locomotion from fast sprints to leisurely walks—Holmer suggesting
that the walks be taken "listening to the song of the birds. It is not only
the body that gets tired," he said, "but the mind as well." Besides
its esthetic benefits, this form of training was designed to avoid the monotony
of daily track work, shorten the stride, improve muscle tone and build