Before Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute mile barrier over 60 years ago, he had an earlier, somewhat bizarre, attempt. When the gun went off, Bannister rocketed off the line with Don MacMillan acting as a rabbit. While Bannister and MacMillan sped off towards a 1:59.7 first half-mile, the other man in the race, Chris Brasher, dawdled off the line. As Bannister recollected in his book, Brasher ran “the first two laps at snail’s pace.” But when Bannister was coming up on Brasher to lap him, Brasher darted into the lead, acting as the secondary rabbit once MacMillan had completed his duties. Brasher spent the next lap and a half, not only pacing Bannister but also shouting over his shoulder, encouraging the runner to drive forward. Despite the theatrics, Sir Roger fell just short of the barrier, running 4:02 for the mile.
This type of pacing is illegal by today’s standards, but more interesting is Bannister’s reaction, “All things considered it could hardly be called a race, I accept full responsibility for running in it, though I did not organize the details…”
Sixty-three years later, we will witness another such attempt with artificial circumstances, as three top-flight marathoners circled a racetrack with not just one pacer rotating in, but armies of them. Despite sixty years of technological progress, the desire to break a barrier is a strong pull.
Past Barrier Breaking
And here we sit, in a similar, yet different, position to Bannister all those years ago. Bannister. The desire for a barrier breaker might be even stronger now, but was Bannister vs. Landy vs. Santee, as outlined in the wonderful book The Perfect Mile. Although romanticized now, it was three men trying to take down the symmetrical barrier. Landy chasing in Australia and Europe, Santee in America, and Bannister in the UK.
While Bannister ultimately won the battle, the intrigue continued, as Bannister and Landy finally raced at what was dubbed the “Miracle Mile,” in which Bannister famously swung by Landy entering the final curve, at just the moment Landy glanced over his shoulder to see where Sir Roger was. This iconic picture and race were viewed by a jam-packed stadium of 35,000 fans.
It’s easy to get caught up in the comparison between sub-4 and sub-2, but as barriers go, there’s much to be learned from the mile attempts. Even before Bannister and crew came along to take their shot, two Swedes named Arne Anderson and Gunder Hagg had whittled the mile record down to 4:01.4 during the 1940’s when the rest of the world was at war. These two men battled each other, exploiting each other’s weaknesses, attempting to win and lower their bests. In addition, they lowered the 1,500m record to a remarkable 3:43.0 which showed they were capable of running 4:00, if not faster in the mile.
Either in person, or via competing to reach the record first, we knew the runners trying to get there. The public at the time was regaled with stories of Santee, Landy, and Bannister in the 50’s and the battling Swedes beforehand. The runners had names. They had stories. They had intrigue. It was man versus barrier.
Modern Barrier Breaking
Which brings us to current day, where we have a Nike-funded plan to attack the barrier, along with an Adidas shoe project, and a group of researchers in the Sub 2 project attempting their own barrier attack. As a fan of the sport, I am certainly intrigued by the question of what could an athlete do, even if it’s a contrived situation. It still carries intrigue and captures attention. But what I’m worried about is where does that attention go once this attempt likely fails (or even if it succeeds). Will it move the needle, bring our sport back from the dead?
It’s with some irony that the same week in which we have on company targeting an unfathomable record, that we have an announcement of the complete rollback and reset of the track and field World Records. We have our own governing bodies acknowledging the complete mess that the record book is in, while at the same time, telling the public, trust us, if someone runs 3 minutes faster than the current WR, it is legitimate and clean. The contrast in the messages being sent is apparent.
Perhaps, it’s time to venture off away from the records driven culture that we’ve relied on for decades. Desperate for a Usain Bolt to come along and perform the unbelievable. Anxious to set up marathons in the middle of nowhere, restricting press access, so that we can see just how fast a person can run. If we’ve learned anything from the past several decades of track and field plunging further and further towards irrelevance, is that this pursuit of times and records by itself, does not attract fans. Is it intriguing to see Bolt run 9.6 in the 100m? Yes, but if I did not have a clock on it, I could not tell the difference between a 9.5 and a 9.9 100m. What made Bolt’s run astounding was the way in which he did, the way in which he demolished a world class field. If astonishing performances and records were all we would need, thanks to Bolt, our sport should be in the best spot it has been in decades. It is not.
Am I saying ditch the watch and records? No. Records, just like in other sports like baseball, hold hallowed regard in track. But, just as baseball doesn’t need the single season home record to be set every few years, or for someone to bat over .400 to attract fans, we should not be reliant on fast times and records to do so. When our sub 4 barrier pursuers decades ago were attacking the barrier, it was often simply about achieving the goal. But the intrigue was in the race to do so. There was a storyline, a plot, a drama unfolding.
Storylines and competition sell sport.
And as we’ve pursued faster and faster times, we’ve forgotten to create and explain the drama and intrigue that should come alone with it. We have done a poor job in developing and creating stories. All that the even somewhat educated public knows about Desisa and Tadese is that they are fast. If we are lucky, thanks to his major wins, they may know a tad more about Kipchoge. But the reality is, even the educated running public sees it as three almost random East African runners, wearing the same branded equipment, trying to run fast. It might be Tadese vs. Desisa vs. Kipchoge on the line. And maybe Bekele, Kimetto, Kipsang, and others all lining up to take their shot in the future.
But this isn’t Bannister vs. Landy vs. Santee in search of a barrier.
Instead, it’s Nike vs. Adidas vs. Sub 2 Project.
Maybe I’m cynical, or perhaps romanticizing the past, but I echo Sir Roger’s words so many years ago after his own contrived attempt, “My feeling as I look back is one of great relief that I did not run a four-minute mile under such artificial circumstances.”