extraordinary thing about the once elusive four-minute mile in recent weeks has
been the almost casual manner in which its latest conquerors have achieved it.
Derek Ibbotson, the 23-year-old Yorkshireman shown above, made it three weeks
ago as the consequence of a promise to a girl friend: a three-miler by trade,
he entered the mile in the News of the World meet at London's White City
Stadium in exchange for an extra ticket to the postmeet banquet that a girl
friend of his girl friend's wanted to attend. And three-miler Ibbotson, with no
more thought in the world about the race than that, suddenly found on the final
lap that he could crack the magic barrier—and did. That same weekend, in
distant Budapest, Istvan Rozsavolgyi broke the world record for 1,500 meters,
the Olympic's "metric mile," with an amazing 3:40.6, a zestful 0.2
seconds faster than the prevailing world's record (which he had shared with
fellow Hungarian Laszlo Tabori and Gunnar Nielsen, the redheaded Dane) and the
equivalent of a 3:57 mile.
The second most
extraordinary thing about these performances is that American milers are
nowhere in them—nowhere near them, in fact. In all the growing family of
four-minute milers pictured on these pages there is not a single U.S. runner,
nor, now that Wes Santee has forcibly retired, a single man who has come even
close. And for a nation with a track and field record as proud as that of the
U.S., this is a most singular fact indeed. It is as certain as anything in
sports at the moment that the United States will not win a single foot race of
more than 800 meters in the Melbourne Olympics.
In every other
respect the U.S. track and field team that goes to Australia in November may
well be the strongest in history. It is several deep in crack sprinters,
hurdlers, jumpers, pole vaulters, shotputters, discus and javelin throwers and
middle distance runners—an impressive number of them already holding world
records. And yet the discomfiting fact remains that in five of the 11 running
events for men, the longer ones, Americans are entirely outclassed by foreign
Neither in the
Olympic metric mile nor in any of the longer classics—5,000 and 10,000 meters,
steeplechase and marathon—do the best of U.S. runners stand anything but the
most wildly improbable chance of picking up a gold medal among them. Indeed,
they may consider themselves lucky even to place or show in these events next
Such, at any
rate, is the dismal outlook in the longer races as pre-Olympic training gets
under way in earnest next month. Conceivably, things could change for the
better in one or two events between now and November. But distance men rarely
achieve greatness overnight; they normally require years of hard work and
topflight competition to show any marked improvement. And it would take a heap
of doing for any American Olympic runner to find within himself, in the few
weeks remaining, the power to meet the amazing new standards set abroad in
recent years, at just about every distance from 1,500 meters to the marathon,
by an assortment of record-happy Russians, Britons, Hungarians, Finns,
Australians and Poles.
THE BLUE RIBBON
Nowhere is this
American weakness in longer events more apparent, or more galling, to track and
field buffs than in the mile, the blue ribbon fixture on every meet program.
The U.S. mile tradition is a proud one, made so by a succession of such stars
as Bonthron, Cunningham, Fenske, Zamperini, San Romani, MacMitchell and Dodds.
When Wes Santee breezed to the fore with repeated assaults on the four-minute
barrier, his eventual triumph seemed only a matter of time, of meeting up with
top foreign competition on a fast track. But that was not to be.
disbarment for expense account irregularities was a bitter blow that wrought
immediate change in the American mile picture. This past season, with Santee
sidelined and his shadow, Fred Dwyer, on sick report most of the time, the
painful realization dawned on meet officials and fans alike that no home-grown
successor was immediately available.
All that kept the
winter indoor season from being completely ho-hum in the classic mile was the
weekly presence of Ireland's Ron Delany, a fleet Dubliner camouflaged in
Villanova colors. Delany proved so superior to the local talent that he could
dally through most of any race and still win it handily with a last-lap kick.
Once Delany did extend himself to 4:06.3 in taking the Hunter Mile, coming
within 2.7 seconds of an indoor mile record (4:03.6) that is already obsolete
by world outdoor standards. But he could also amble to victory in the hallowed
Baxter Mile in a lackadaisical 4:14, as bored fans booed and tossed paper cups
onto the Madison Square Garden track where faster miles were run a quarter
century ago. And in June, in Compton, Calif., Delany showed what he really
could do when he was pushed to the limit by Nielsen, beating him by one tenth
of a second in 3:59.
In the outdoor
season, the truth about American milers was driven home even more forcibly. Jim
Bailey, an Australian running under Oregon colors, beat the legendary John
Landy in 3:58.6 at Los Angeles. There wasn't an American runner in sight when
that race was decided. The truth is that even the best of the U.S. milers have
fallen several strides behind the best foreign competition. Even if Wes Santee
had been reinstated in time for the Olympics, no fewer than eight foreign
milers still in active competition have cracked the four-minute mile that has
so long eluded Wes's best efforts.