The Perfect Mile

Neal Bascomb

Read July 2005

I ignored this book when it first appeared last year, assuming it was just another book trying to capitalize on the publicity surrounding the anniversary of Roger Bannister's run. It is perhaps that, but it's much more, a book that covers much about the evolution of sport in general. I'm glad Kathi picked it up!

The three central figures in Bascomb's book are Bannister, John Landy of Australia, and Wes Santee of the US. The book is ostensibly a chronicle of their concurrent efforts—fully cognizant of each others' efforts (though sometimes frustrated by slow communication)—to run the four-minute mile. It goes beyond Bannister's famous run, concluding with a chronicle of a remarkable race some months later in Vancouver that saw Bannister face off Landy, with Santee sadly relegated to commentary.

The book explores numerous sub-plots. The most significant one is the status and evolving face of amateur athletics. We also see the growth and influence of coaches, and a fair display of over-the-top and absurd coaching methods. We get to take sides in the controversy over pacing. There is, also, an interesting Imperial undercurrent—witness the nationalities of the runners (and recall Britain's struggle to reconcile her economic situation with her past glories). Bascomb also gives us just enough background about the runners to set up a pretty interesting interplay of personal stories and personalities.

The writing is perfectly reasonable, indeed quite good for the sports genre. Bascomb does have a tendency to inflate people and events a little, but not so much that I was annoyed. He has, remarkably for someone who isn't a sports-writer (or perhaps because of it?), developed a perfect pitch for narrating races; I found his account of the Vancouver race especially gripping.

There were two irritants. First, Bascomb offered very little discussion about the other runners, especially the remarkable Denis Johansson, the Finn who did much to encourage John Landy, then running in an Australia that cared not a whit for track-and-field, by bringing him to running-crazy Finland, while competing himself. Second, he never discusses the crucial aspect of timekeeping!

Most of all, the book instilled in me a real sense of the drama in a mile run. Bascomb points out that the distance is nearly ideal: not so short that one can sprint it, nor so long that there are significant parts where nothing interesting happens. With four laps, each lap counts, and provides a framework in which a runner can outline his strategy (and indeed, the three runners in this book approach the distance in significantly different ways). I know I'll never be able to watch a 1500-meter race the same way again.