Stuck In the 20th Century, The Mile Is Due For A New Record
Roger Bannister’s death earlier this month at the age of 88 reminded us of another era when running the mile under 4 minutes was the track athlete’s elusive goal.
On May 6, 1954, twenty five-year old Bannister was running a race against Oxford University as a member of an amateur all-star team when he broke away from the pack, took the lead, and won the competition.
Bannister had completed the mile in 3:59:40, the first person to ever clear the distance in under 4 minutes. He became an instant global celebrity and his feat is still remembered as a seminal moment in the history of sports.
Still embedded in the American and British psyche, the mile remains the only non-metric distance recognized by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the main body responsible for record keeping.
Today, high school kids routinely conquer the 4-minute mile. Advancements in scientific training, shoes, and nutrition have progressively shrunk the 1.61 km length from the early days when foot-pounding hopefuls dreamed of cracking that psychological time barrier.
Bannister retired almost immediately after his groundbreaking moment to pursue a career in medicine. In the following decades, his running successors would break the mile record no less than 18 times.
The first person to surpass the English master’s pivotal finish was Australian John Landy, who claimed the contest in 3:58:00 only weeks later on June 21, 1954.
But 12 runners and 45 years on, the shrinking mile would come to its final rest stop. Morocco’s Hisham El Gherrouj took the distance in a record 3:43:13 on July 7, 1999 and held it until today.
The time difference between El Gherrouj and Bannister was just over 16 seconds. Had they both been in the same race, the North African would have beaten his counterpart by over 100 meters.
Between 1954 and 2018, the men’s mile was broken on average every 3.56 years. But for the past 19 years, no athlete has been able to undercut El Gherrouj and the record remains frozen in the 20th century.
The women’s chase shows a similar pattern. Russia’s Svetlana Masterkova is the last champion to post a record mile, clocking at 4:12:56 in 1996. Prior to her finish, the ladies’ mile was broken on average every 2.42 years.
Clearly, athletes today are stronger, faster and better equipped, but the nearly 2-decade vacuum signifies that something has changed, or perhaps has been neglected.
One reason for the record draught might be the implementation of stricter and more reliable drug tests. Another could be that the mile has fallen off as a popular middle-distance marker in favor of the metric mile (1,500m), which is now standard at most track meets.
But that doesn’t fully explain the unusual longevity of El Gherrouj’s top finish. The Moroccan foot racer has also held the record for the 1,500m since 1998 (3:26:00), even predating his own ‘miracle mile’.
The missing component might simply be a mindset factor rather than a physical trait. As part his training, Bannister relentlessly visualized busting through the forbidden 4 minutes in order to create a sense of certainty in his mind and body.
Once his goal was achieved, the law of attraction took over and the hero was quickly followed by peers who tore through the same mental gate that had historically kept them out.
The 21st century mile hero might just be the one who obsesses not with beating the clock, but with breaking a 20-year record.
MOTOR RACING May 30, 2010 Britain’s Dario Franchitti wins the Indianapolis 500, completing the 200-lap chase in 3:05:37 with an average speed of 162 mph. It was his 2nd victory at the famed race, which he would repeat a 3rd time in 2012. No stranger to the winner’s circle, Franchitti won the IndyCar series four times and the 24 Hours of Daytona once. He retired in 2013 after suffering serious injuries in a crash.
HOCKEY May 26, 2000 The New Jersey Devils top the Philadelphia Flyers 4-3 at the NHL Eastern Conference Final. The Devils overcame a 3-game deficit to take the series in the 7th match, with Patrick Elias netting the winning goal of the tournament. New Jersey would go on to face the Dallas Stars at the Finals and win the Stanley Cup 4-2, with games 5 & 6 going into 3 and 2 overtime periods, respectively.
SOCCER May 23, 1990 Italy’s Milan beat Portugal’s Benfica 1-0 at the Euro Cup Final, the continent's most prestigious club competition. The winning goal came from Frank Rijkaard in the 68th minute. Rijkaard was one of three Dutch players who fielded a front for the Italian team, with the others being Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten. It was Milan’s 2nd consecutive victory at the Euro Cup and 4th overall since the tournament began in 1955.
BASKETBALL May 16, 1980 The Los Angeles Lakers become NBA champions after defeating the Philadelphia 76ers 4-2. It was the 7th national title for the West Coast team who were last crowned in 1972. Rookie Magic Johnson took home the MVP Finals award, scoring 42 points and grabbing 15 rebounds in Game 6. It was the first NBA Finals that used the 3-point line, which was introduced that season.