May 06, 2004
A little sports nostalgia

Fifty years ago today, Roger Bannister ran a mile in under four minutes.

Fascination endures with the four-minute mark, which many at the time believed was physically impossible.

"It still seems strange to me that the intrinsically simple and unimportant act of placing one foot in front of the other as fast as possible for 1,760 yards was heralded as such an important athletic achievement," Bannister wrote in his book, "The First Four Minutes."

"I suppose the appeal lies in its very simplicity, four laps in four minutes it needs no money, no equipment and, in a world of increasingly complex technology, it stands out as a naive statement about our nature."

Bannister was the favorite at 1,500 meters entering the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland. His goal was to win gold and retire to pursue his medical career.

Instead, he finished fourth, thrown off when Olympic officials inserted an extra round of heats, forcing him run three straight days.

The failure prompted him to shelve retirement and pursue the record, which was being chased by many, including American Wes Santee and Australian John Landy.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Bannister recalled: "I thought, 'Well, I can't leave on this sour note, feeling failure, disappointment, letting people down letting the country down.'

"I thought, 'I can just go on somehow, combining medicine with my running until '54, two years.'"

Bannister chose the first meet of the 1954 season Oxford vs. the Amateur Athletic Union to attempt to break the record with friends Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway as pacemakers.

The weather was typically English: rainy, cool and blustery. He nearly abandoned the attempt, but around 6 p.m. the wind subsided.

"I calculated there's a 50-50 chance of my doing it," Bannister said. "I said, 'If there's a 50-50 chance and I don't take it, I may never get another chance to beat Landy to it.' So I said, 'Let's do it.'"

Bannister's record stood for 46 days before Landy ran 3:57.9 in Turku, Finland, on June 21.

The current record is a hair over 3:43. For comparison, I note that the fastest marathoners run at a pace slightly faster than five minutes per mile.

Meanwhile, Kevin remembers the USFL, which had its heyday 20 years ago. I was a fan of the USFL, and I think it could have been a threat to the NFL given enough time and money. They certainly had some great players - check out the All USFL team at the end of the piece.

The San Antonio Gunslingers played in the 20,000-seat high school stadium right across the street from the Trinity campus (sorry, can't remember the stadium's name). They weren't much of a team, or much of a draw - I have no memories of any crowds or crowd noise from games. I do recall that a redheaded Trinity coed, who later became a weather reporter for one of the local Happy Talk newscasts, got some attention on campus for being a Gunslingers cheerleader. Hey, at least I remember something about the team.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 06, 2004 to Other sports | TrackBack

The technology has changed a little. ABC did a little story about this on World News Tonight. The track he ran on is now a composite; it was cinder/ash back then. They cited estimates that the track added a few tenths to his time.

Posted by: Linkmeister on May 7, 2004 1:36 AM

Bannister's mile was perhaps the purest moment in sports history. Of course, now, there would be shoe endorsements, year-round full time training and a stipend from the British Olympic Committee so he didn't have to do his real job (medicine, what's that?). There were no blood-doping, nutritional supplement or steroid scandals and no questions about whether or not the record was aided by wind or altitude.

Now, as for the USFL, the problem was not lack of money but the people that owned the teams. Steve
Young's contract was an albatross, however, Donald Trump as owner of the New Jersey Generals was the Yoko Ono of the USFL. The idea of spring football does sort of work as seen with NFL Europe, and the idea could work here, but there has to be no delusions of competing with the NFL.

The USFL did produce a very good standard of play, unlike that witnessed by the XFL. I'm trying to remember, however, if the San Antonio Gunslingers were originally the Tampa Bay Bandits or the Washington Federals. I know they were a relocated franchise.

Posted by: William Hughes on May 7, 2004 7:51 AM

According to the DMN article, the Gunslingers were an expansion team, not a relocated team.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on May 7, 2004 7:58 AM

Ah, yes, the USFL. I actually followed that one a bit. The caliber of play was closer to the NFL than any of the other challenging leagues I can recall. (Well, okay, there was the AFL, but they merged with the NFL, so I don't count that.)

As I recall, the awful Washington Federals became the Orlando Renegades.

The USFL probably could have worked reasonably well as a spring league, though in the long run they probably couldn't keep paying the salaries of top players once the novelty wore off. Their decision to move to the fall -- directly against the NFL -- in the (aborted) 1986 season was the final nail in the coffin. I don't think *any* football league can compete directly with the NFL. Spring leagues can work and even work *with* the NFL -- witness NFL Europe and Arena football. But if you're going to schedule games during the NFL's season -- or if you're competing for their draft picks and signing their free agents -- you will be buried. (Insert image of Khrushchev banging his shoe here.)

Posted by: Tim on May 7, 2004 8:20 AM

Tim wrote: As I recall, the awful Washington Federals became the Orlando Renegades.

I can't believe I'm married to someone who knows that.

I saw the Bannister story on World News Tonight last night, too, and thought it was interesting when they talked about how the gap between men's times and women's times for the mile and marathons have grown closer over time. We're not getting faster, we're just increasing our endurance, which makes sense. There was speculation that the fastest someone will ever run a mile will be about 3:30, which isn't much lower than what the record is now, I think.

I guess the anniversary was fodder for "best sports accomplishment" debates, but I just don't see how you can compare Bannister's accomplishment with something that took somebody 10 or 20 years to do.

Posted by: Sue on May 7, 2004 8:37 AM

Chuck, I think the redhead in question was named Siobahn Anders. I had a couple of classes with her. Not only was she pretty darned cute, she was as nice as she could be.

Posted by: Patrick on May 7, 2004 1:21 PM