Book Review: The Perfect Mile
The Perfect Mile recounts the race towards history’s first sub four-minute mile—and beyond.
Posted Tuesday, 4 May, 2004
By now, most are aware that May 6 will mark the 50th anniversary of history’s first sub four-minute mile. On that date in 1954, a young English medical student named Roger Bannister achieved what many felt to be beyond the limits of human performance, as he sped four laps at the Iffley track in Oxford in three minutes, 59, and four-tenths seconds. Bannister’s mile was the most significant and perhaps greatest running achievement of the 20th century. Certainly it is history’s most remembered and celebrated run, with the possible exception of the trek by Phidippides in ancient Greece, which led to the modern-day marathon.
Like most landmark historical moments however, there was much more to Bannister’s run than what took place on May 6, 1954. Providing the historical backdrop that led to the history-making moment is what elevates The Perfect Mile. Author Neal Bascomb transports the reader back to the early 1950s, when in post-war society the world seemed full of promise, especially in the realm of athletics. The color barrier was broken in professional baseball and mountaineers were closing in on the world’s highest peak, Mount Everest. In addition, three top middle distance runners from points distant on the globe had their sights set on the world record in the mile, 4:01.4 by Sweden’s Gundar Haegg, a mark that had stood for the better part of a decade.
The Perfect Mile sets the stage, offering the reader insight into the hopes and dreams of those three athletes: Australian John Landy, American Wes Santee, and the Brit Bannister. As with most watershed moments in athletics, the euphoria of triumph for one meant bitter disappointment for others. The later fate befell both Landy and Santee, who felt for certain the first sub four-minute mile would be theirs to capture. Both had numerous chances—as did Bannister—before history was made in May of 1954. In many ways however, during the buildup to the record it seemed as if Bannister had fate on his side. At that moment in history, Britain was still considered the world’s cultural center, destined to create and shape history. Indeed, Bannsiter’s fellow countryman Edmund Hillary had become the first to conquer Everest just a year earlier.
One pleasantly surprising aspect of The Perfect Mile is that it does not conclude with the first sub four-minute mile—far from it. The book follows the three men in the months thereafter, during which many more interesting developments ensue. One of those occurs just weeks later, when Landy improves Bannister’s record by nearly two seconds, to 3:58:00. That performance validates Landy’s feeling that he is indeed the superior runner and should have run history’s first sub-four himself, had a little more luck been on his side. For Bannister, Landy’s quick improvement of the record is unsettling, leaving him with the feeling that history will forget it was actually he that ran the first sub four-minute mile. Of course, we know now that Bannsiter’s place in history was cemented on that day in Oxford, and that it was Landy who became a historical footnote.
The rivalry between Bannister and Landy reached its greatest heights however (Santee had joined the service and for most part given up the sport), in the months following Bannister’s 3:59:4 and Landy’s 3:58:00. The Empire Games in 1954 proved to be the setting that would determine—at least in the minds of the two runners—who was truly the greatest miler of that era. Although The Perfect Mile paints a rich portrait of the personalities involved in pursuit of history’s first sub four-minute mile, the reader knows how that turned out before beginning the book. Thus, for those who are not experts in running history, the later part of the book pulls the reader in even further, as it builds tension and suspense toward the day in Vancouver when the pair would once and for all settle their rivalry.
The Perfect Mile not only recounts one of history’s greatest athletic achievements, it recalls a bygone and in many ways forgotten era in running, a time when science and technology played insignificant roles in performance, and perhaps more importantly, when motivation was not fueled by financial reward. Rather, greatness was forged purely by the strength of individual guts and will, the simple desire to excel. No great achievement is created in a vacuum however, a fact well detailed in The Perfect Mile. The name Roger Bannister is etched in history, but only with help from his friends and rivals. How that came to be is more than enough reason to read the Perfect Mile.
The Perfect Mile
By Neal Bascomb
305 pp. Boston: Houghton Mifflin $24.