Here's a mystifying bit of track lore you could probably massage into a killer bet in one of those sushi-Perrier-couscous-espresso bars in midtown Manhattan, especially in the wake of Josè-Luis Gonzàlez's victory in the Mercedes Mile, formerly the Fifth Avenue Mile, last Saturday. Simply demand to be told when an American male last won that most glamorous of races, the Olympic 1,500 meters, the metric mile. Then sit and wait, while people hunker down into their mashed yeast.
Americans have mastered every other Olympic distance in recent Games. But it's been 78 years since Mel Sheppard won the 1,500. Moreover, since 1954, when Roger Bannister first broke four minutes, only one American has held the world mile or 1,500 record. That was Jim Ryun, with runs of 3:51.3 and 3:51.1 in the mile (1966 and '67) and 3:33.1 in the 1,500 (1967). We love the mile. We just can't win it.
Of course Ryun was as good as they come. He just had terrible racing luck, hitting his prime in 1968, when the Olympics were at Mexico City's 7,349-foot altitude. Kenya's Kip Keino (whom Ryun had beaten in his world-record 1,500 in Los Angeles the year before), taking full advantage of having grown up in such thin air, led at a searing pace and put Ryun soundly in second.
In 1972, in Munich, Ryun was tripped in his heat, fell, lay stunned too long and never got his chance for revenge. Aside from Ryun and Marty Liquori, who was top-ranked in 1969 and '71 but was hurt in Olympic years, and Steve Scott, whose 3:47.69 in 1982 was then the second fastest ever, but who gets overlooked because he, too, came up short in the Olympics, we have not even had any gallant losers lately.
Look at the list of Olympic 1,500 champions and world-record holders and you find a host of guys from small countries. Twelve men have held the mile record since Britain's Bannister first broke four minutes in 1954: two Australians, two New Zealanders, a Frenchman, a Tanzanian, an American (Ryun) and a remarkable five Britons.
The Olympic 1,500 since 1948 has gone to two New Zealanders (Peter Snell and John Walker) and runners from Sweden, Luxembourg, Ireland, Australia, Kenya, Finland and Great Britain (Sebastian Coe, who won the last two). The only great nation worse than the U.S. in developing milers is the Soviet Union.
Why? It's certainly not because nobody cares. Tens of thousands of high school and college milers train and race furiously. The rewards are there, waiting. If Edwin Moses, a 400-meter hurdler, can grow rich and respected by dominating an event few knew about until his amazing streak, what could a winning miler reap? "Just imagine," says Jon Hendershott of Track and Field News, "if Seb Coe were American."
Well, if he were, he probably would have run for his high school and college, and that, say the knowledgeable, would have left him jaded or hurt.
"We used to laugh about it," says 1964 Olympic 800- and 1,500-meter champion Snell, who is now a research instructor in physiology at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Dallas. "When we came over for races, here were these talented college runners having to double or triple and take a leg on the medley relay. I knew guys who entered college as promising 4:12 milers and who graduated as 4:12 milers."
Britons Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram (the current record holder with 3:46.32) share those sentiments. They have pointed out that the miler is a strange beast, half sprinter, half distance runner, and thus oddly delicate. No matter how obviously talented when young, he reaches his potential only after years of careful strengthening.
Coe came up with a nice proof of that last week when, only a few days shy of his 30th birthday, he ran a personal best in the 1,500 of 3:29.77. (And for sheer staying power, consider what Walker did on Sept. 10 in the Mobil Grand Prix mile in Rome. Eleven years after becoming the first man to break the 3:50 barrier with his 3:49.4, he ran a mile in 3:50.93, behind Scott's winning 3:50.28.)
The temperament of a miler is equally a balance between a sprinter's competitiveness and a distance runner's humility. "Sensitive macho guys," says Roscoe Divine, who ran 3:56.3 for Oregon. If a miler is rushed, with too many races or too much hard track training, he may briefly be good, but he almost certainly will burn out.
The British system, which is used in Australia and New Zealand as well, brings milers along from adolescence, in clubs where members run arduous but salubrious cross-country for much of the year. In such clubs lasting bonds are formed between coaches and runners. Record breakers Herb Elliott of Australia, Snell, Walker, Ovett, Cram and Coe all were coached from the time they were teenagers by the same men—respectively, Percy Cerutty, Arthur Lydiard, Arch Jelley, Harry Wilson, Jimmy Hedley and Peter Coe, Sebastian's father—men who took long, protective views of their charges' careers.
But when an American miler shows talent in high school, his coach is happy to wring as many varsity points out of him as he can. Even if coach and runner begin to grope toward a sensible training plan, the runner's career is jolted when he's handed over to a college coach. "And long-term planning is difficult on a short-term scholarship," says Snell. A notable American exception was Ryun. From the time Ryun entered Wichita East High School through his college career at Kansas, Bob Timmons was able to continually oversee his training. A more recent exception is Sydney Maree, a naturalized U.S. citizen who grew up in South Africa, where the English training ethic prevails. And when Maree came to here, he attended Villanova, where he trained under the late Jumbo Elliot, a coach who served his milers well.
American college cross-country is over by Thanksgiving, and many milers go straight to indoor track—or, lately, to road racing—then directly to the outdoor season. Most are exhausted when the big European races begin in midsummer. (Scott, long out of school, has survived because of innate stamina and by switching to a European calendar.)
Between college races, American milers are required to do far more track training than their counterparts elsewhere. This is where we get to the peculiar fragility of middle-distance runners. Without a balance between relatively gentle, aerobic running and severe interval training, a miler soon goes sour. Ryun was famous for doing 20 quarter miles in 60 seconds apiece, with only a minute's recovery time in between. This became a lethal heritage. Not only was Ryun ready to quit by the time he was a college senior, but Timmons acknowledges that he compromised the careers of many other Kansas runners with the volume of such workouts, not realizing that Ryun was almost freakish in his ability to withstand and improve under such anaerobic stress.
"Ryun's workouts ruined a lot of people, and not just at Kansas," says Cordner Nelson, the founding editor of Track and Field News. "Overworking by U.S. coaches is a historic factor." It leaves Americans ready to retire at an age when European runners consider them still to be children.
Runners who continue to improve after college all seem to be steeplechasers, distance runners or marathoners. "We rarely have a miler who develops inside the system," says Hendershott. Which is to say we rarely have a miler.
Another element must be cultural. The rest of the world grows up playing soccer, a game that emphasizes running endurance. Both Cram and 1,500 record holder Said Aouita of Morocco played it for years. And miling is hard. Its call must be taken up with sustained passion. "Look at all the opportunities for achievement here," says Snell. "In a small country like New Zealand [or Kenya or Morocco], those avenues are fewer, so the real achievers are channeled."
A second advantage enjoyed by runners from small countries is freedom from cutthroat Olympic trials and double peaking. Their milers go to the Olympics fresh and hungry.
Meanwhile, young U.S. milers are starting further back than ever. The last time a U.S. schoolboy ran a mile in under four minutes was in 1967, when Liquori did it. "You could argue that since you're not getting the amazing abilities that you once did," says Snell, "the lack of long-term coaching relationships is really hurtful. It can't be compensated for by freakish talent."
If Snell is right, he foretells a melancholy future. Barring a revolution that splits American schools from American track, the mile will go on this way, a peculiar event, strangely, unintentionally, undeniably abused.