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.
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