Cover image for The perfect mile : three athletes, one goal, and less than four minutes to achieve it
Title:
The perfect mile : three athletes, one goal, and less than four minutes to achieve it
Author:
Bascomb, Neal.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Boston : Houghton Mifflin Co., [2004]

©2004
Physical Description:
xii, 322 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Language:
English
ISBN:
9780618391127
Format :
Book

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Summary

Summary

There was a time when running the mile in four minutes was believed to be entirely beyond the limits of human foot speed. And in all of sport it was the elusive holy grail. In 1952, after suffering defeat at the Helsinki Olympics, three world-class runners set out individually to break this formidable barrier. Roger Bannister was a young English medical student who epitomized the ideal of the amateur -- still driven not just by winning but by the nobility of the pursuit. John Landy was theprivileged son of a genteel Australian family, who as a boy preferred butterfly collecting to running but who trained relentlessly in an almost spiritual attempt to shape his mind and body to this singular task. Then there was Wes Santee, the swaggering American, a Kansas farm boy and natural athlete who believed he was just plain better than everybody else.
Santee was the first to throw down the gauntlet in what would become a three-way race of body, heart, and soul. Each young man endured thousands of hours of training, bore the weight of his nation's expectations on his shoulders, and still dared to push to the very limit. Their collective quest captivated the world and stole headlines from the Korean War, the atomic race, and such legendary figures as Edmund Hillary, Willie Mays, Native Dancer, and Ben Hogan. Who would be the first to achieve the unachievable? And who among them would be the best when they raced head to head? In the answer came the perfect mile.
In the tradition of Seabiscuit and Chariots of Fire, Neal Bascomb delivers a breathtaking story of unlikely heroes and leaves us with a lasting portrait of the twilight years of the golden age of sport.


Author Notes

Neal Bascomb was born in Denver, Colorado in 1971.

Neal graduated from Miami University (Ohio) with dual degrees in Economics and English Literature.

Neal's first book was Higher (Doubleday) which was chosen for a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Award. His other works include Perfect Mile (Houghton Mifflin), Red Mutiny (Houghton Mifflin), and Hunting Eichmann (Houghton Mifflin).

In 2014 his title, The Nazi Hunters: How a Team of Spies and Survivors Captured the World's Most Notorious Nazi, made The New York Times Best Seller List.

(Bowker Author Biography)


Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

The attempt by three men in the 1950s to become the first to run the mile in less than four minutes is a classic 20th-century sports story. Bascomb's excellent account captures all of the human drama and competitive excitement of this legendary racing event. It helps that the story and its characters are so engaging to begin with. The three rivals span the globe: England's Roger Bannister, who combines the rigors of athletic training with the "grueling life of a medical student"; Australia's John Landy, "driven by a demand to push himself to the limit"; and Wes Santee from the U.S., a brilliant strategic runner who became the "victim" of the "[h]ypocrisy and unchecked power" of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU). Although Bannister broke the record before Landy, Landy soon broke Bannister's record, and the climax of the book is a long and superb account of the race between the two men at the Empire Games in Vancouver on August 7, 1954. Bascomb provides the essential details of this "Dream Race" which was heard over the radio by 100 million people while Santee, who may have been able to beat both of them, was forced by AAU restrictions to participate only as a broadcast announcer. Bascomb definitively shows how this perfect race not only was a "defining moment in the history of the mile and of sport as well," but also how it reveals "a sporting world in transition" from amateurism to professionalism. (Apr.) Forecast: With Bascomb's narrative skills, it's no surprise that movie rights have already been optioned and by the team behind the Seabiscuit film. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Choice Review

Also the author of Higher: A Historic Race to the Sky and the Making of a City (2003), Bascomb (a freelance journalist) looks at a physical feat once considered unattainable. Fifty years ago, the four-minute mile was a big quest in athletics, and it attracted enormous public attention. The author provides a dramatic retelling of the competition among three world-class runners--Roger Bannister, an English medical student who epitomized amateurism and formulated a plan using science; John Landy, a well-to-do Australian agricultural student renowned for his exhaustive training; and Wes Santee, a Kansas farm boy--as they vied for the glory of breaking the record. Landy neared the record, but Bannister ultimately beat him, breaking the barrier at an obscure meet and beating the world record by two full seconds. A psychological barrier was broken along with the record, and the achievement became a lot easier--indeed, Landy smashed Bannister's record a month later. Heavily based on personal interviews with the runners and other principals, this book is a terrific (though not a scholarly) read. ^BSumming Up: Highly recommended. Extensive academic collections supporting the history of sport, all levels; public libraries. S. A. Riess Northeastern Illinois University


Library Journal Review

May 6, 2004, marks the 50th anniversary of a breakthrough achievement that had once seemed impossible the first running of a sub-four-minute mile. Bascomb describes the buildup to the event, including how three main competitors came together to race on that memorable day. It was an American, Wes Santee, who boldly claimed that he would be the first person to run the sub-four-minute mile. The other two protagonists, Englishman Roger Bannister and Australian John Landry, were as determined as Santee. The race captured the imaginations of people around the globe, sharing headlines with the Korean War, Elizabeth's coronation, and another considerable human accomplishment, Edmund Hillary's conquest of Everest. This is an engaging tale that features detailed notes for each chapter, plus eight black-and-white photos. Bascomb (Higher: A Historic Race to the Sky and the Making of a City) is a former editor and journalist who has appeared in documentaries on A&E and the History Channel. Recommended for all sports collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/03.] Larry R. Little, Penticton P.L., B.C. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

PrologueHow did he know he would not die?" a Frenchman asked of the first runner to break the four-minute mile. Half a century ago the ambition to achieve that goal equaled scaling Everest or sailing alone around the world. Most people considered running four laps of the track in four minutes to be beyond the limits of human speed. It was foolhardy and possibly dangerous to attempt. Some thought that rather than a lifetime of glory, honor, and fortune, a hearse would be waiting for the first person to accomplish the feat. The four-minute mile: this was the barrier, both physical and psychological, that begged to be broken. The number had a certain mathematical elegance. As one writer explained, the figure "seemed so perfectly roundfour laps, four quarter miles, four-point-oh-oh minutes that it seemed God himself had established it as man's limit." Under four minutesthe place had the mysterious and heroic resonance of reaching sport's Valhalla. For decades the best middle-distance runners had tried and failed. They had come to within two seconds, but that was as close as they were able to get. Attempt after spirited attempt had proved futile. Each effort was like a stone added to a wall that looked increasingly impossible to breach. But the four-minute mile had a fascination beyond its mathematical roundness and assumed impossibility. Running the mile was an art form in itself. The distanceunlike the 100-yard sprint or the marathon required a balance of speed and stamina. The person to break that barrier would have to be fast, diligently trained, and supremely aware of his body so that he would cross the finish line just at the point of complete exhaustion. Further, the four-minute mile had to be won alone. There could be no teammates to blame, no coach during halftime to inspire a comeback. One might hide behind the excuses of cold weather, an unkind wind, a slow track, or jostling competition, but ultimately these obstacles had to be defied. Winning a footrace, particularly one waged against the clock, was ultimately a battle with oneself, over oneself. In August 1952 the battle commenced. Three young men in their early twenties set out to be the first to break the barrier. Born to run fast, Wes Santee, the "Dizzy Dean of the Cinders," was a natural athlete and the son of a Kansas ranch hand. He amazed crowds with his running feats, basked in the publicity, and was the first to announce his intention of running the mile in four minutes. "He just flat believed he was better than anybody else," said one sportswriter. Few knew that running was his escape from a brutal childhood. Then there was John Landy, the Australian who trained harder than anyone else and had the weight of a nation's expectations on his shoulders. The mile for Landy was more aesthetic achievement than footrace. He said, "I'd rather lose a 3:58 mile than win one in 4:10." Landy ran night and day, across fields, through woods, up sand dunes, along the beach in knee-deep surf. Running revealed to him a discipline he never knew he had. And finally there was Roger Bannister, the English medical student who epitomized the ideal of the amateur athlete in a world being overrun by professionals and the commercialization of sport. For Bannister the four-minute mile was "a challenge of the human spirit," but one to be realized with a calculated plan. It required scientific experiments, the wisdom of a man who knew great suffering, and a magnificent finishing kick. All three runners endured thousands of hours of training to shape their bodies and minds. They ran more miles in a year than many of us walk in a lifetime. They spent a large part of their youth struggling for breath. They trained week after week to the point of collapse, all to shave off a second, maybe two, during a mile racethe time it takes to snap one's fingers and register the sound. There were sleepless nights and training sessions in rain, sleet, snow, and scorching heat. There were times when they wanted to go out for a beer or a date yet knew they couldn't. They understood that life was somehow different for them, that idle happiness eluded them. If they weren't training or racing or gathering the will required for these efforts, they were trying not to think about training and racing at all. In 1953 and 1954, as Santee, Landy, and Bannister attacked the four-minute barrier, getting closer with every passing month, their stories were splashed across the front pages of newspapers around the world, alongside headlines about the Korean War, Queen Elizabeth's coronation, and Edmund Hillary's climb toward the world's rooftop. Their performances outdrew baseball pennant races, cricket test matches, horse derbies, rugby matches, football games, and golf majors. Ben Hogan, Rocky Marciano, Willie Mays, Bill Tilden, and Native Dancer were often in the shadows of the three runners, whose achievements attracted media attention to track and field that has never been equaled since. For weeks in advance of every race the headlines heralded an impending break in the barrier: "Landy Likely to Achieve Impossible!"; "Bannister Gets Chance of 4-Minute Mile!"; "Santee Admits Getting Closer to Phantom Mile." Articles dissected track conditions and the latest weather forecasts. Millions around the world followed every attempt. When each runner failedand there were many failureshe was criticized for coming up short, for not having what it took. Each such episode only motivated the others to try harder. They fought on, reluctant heroes whose ambition was fueled by a desire to achieve the goal and to be the best. They had fame, undeniably, but of the three men only Santee enjoyed the publicity, and that proved to be more of a burden than an advantage. As for riches, financial reward was hardly a factorthey were all amateurs. They had to scrape around for pocket change, relying on their hosts at races for decent room and board. The prize for winning a meet was usually a watch or a small trophy. At that time, the dawn of television, amateur sport was beginning to lose its innocence to the new spirit of "win at any cost," but these three strove only for the sake of the attempt. The reward was in the effort. After four soul-crushing laps around the track, one of the three finally breasted the tape in 3:59.4, but the race did not end there. The barrier was broken, and a media maelstrom descended on the victor, yet the ultimate question remained: who would be the best when they toed the starting line together? The answer came in the perfect mile, a race fought not against the clock but against one another. It was won with a terrific burst around the final bend in front of an audience spanning the globe.If sport, as a chronicler of this battle once said, is a "tapestry of alternating triumph and tragedy," then the first thread of this story begins with tragedy. It occurred in a race 120 yards short of a mile at the 1,500- meter Olympic final in Helsinki, Finland, almost two years to the day before the greatest of triumphs.Copyright 2004 by Neal Bascomb. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. Excerpted from The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It by Neal Bascomb, Kingfisher Editors All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prologuep. ix
Part I A Reason to Runp. 1
Part II The Barrierp. 69
Part III The Perfect Milep. 195
Epiloguep. 256
Author's Notep. 273
Acknowledgmentsp. 275
Notesp. 277
Indexp. 307