"Perfect . . . An absolute page-turner . . . Do we have another Seabiscuit here? Yup." Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights
"A book with a breathtaking sense of time and place . . . Bascomb reminds us all of the purity of sport for sport's sake." Tim Layden of Sports Illustrated
In this day and age of superathletes whose bodies have become machines carefully calibrated to accomplish their respective feats, it's difficult to imagine a record that can't be broken. But there was a time, fifty years ago, when one record seemed truly out of reach . . .
May 6, 2004, marks the fiftieth anniversary of what Sports Illustrated named the twentieth century's greatest sporting achievement the breaking of the four-minute mile. In The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It, Neal Bascomb tells the story behind the story of that pivotal moment in sports history and describes the individual paths three men followed in their quest to accomplish the impossible.
The story is as captivating as Seabiscuit. In fact, the same team who made that book into an Oscar-contending film has optioned the rights to this story.
The three principal characters, all of whom are alive today (and live near the place where they made their first attempts at overcoming the mile barrier), were driven by very different forces in their pursuit of the sub-four-minute mark:
Roger Bannister, a young English medical student, epitomized the idealistic amateur motivated not by winning but by the nobility of the quest in a world fast being overrun by professionals and the commercialization of sports. Bannister wanted to capture the four-minute crown to demonstrate that athletic greatness did not have to be achieved at the expense of all other endeavors in life; his guiding principle was that running should be one part, and only one part, of a much larger, fuller existence. The four-minute mile, then, wasn't an end in itself for Bannister; rather, says Bascomb, it was "proof of his theorem of sport and life."
John Landy was the privileged son of a genteel Australian family. Though more interested in collecting butterflies than in running, he trained relentlessly, with an almost spiritual rigor, to school his body to this single task. His resolve and discipline were extraordinary. Once he returned from the 1952 Olympics, where he had been inspired by the superior European runners, he didn't miss a single training session. It was a pure exercise of will, and running brought out the best in him.
Wes Santee was the brash American a Kansas farmboy and born athlete who believed that with his raw talent he was simply better than everybody else. (Few knew, however, that behind his swagger lay the scars of a brutal childhood; he had turned to running as an escape from his abusive father's control.) According to Bascomb, "of the many top athletes in America, Santee embodied better than most sport's changing landscape. Playing to the spectators and generating excitement was the name of the game, and he loved doing both. The days of quiet achievement and quieter heroes were over."
It is no surprise, then, that Santee was the one to throw down the gauntlet, publicly announcing his intention to be the first to shatter the four-minute barrier. Bannister and Landy hoped to prove him wrong, and it became a three-way race of body, heart, and soul, as well as of their respective nations' honor.
The three men mesmerized the world and stole headlines from the Korean War, the atomic race, and such sports legends as Edmund Hillary, Willie Mays, Native Dancer, and Ben Hogan. Who would be the first to achieve the unachievable? "Wes Santee . . . John Landy . . . Roger Bannister . . . Who is going to be the first to reach the end of the rainbow and run the fabled four-minute mile?" wondered the Associated Press. The question was answered on May 6, 1954, when Bannister ran the mile in 3:59.4.
But, a mere seven weeks later, Landy shattered Bannister's record and set a new world record of 3:58. The question then became who would win in a head-to-head competition. Bannister and Landy met at the Empire Games in Vancouver in August 1954 for an epic showdown "a world title fight," Landy remembers. Bannister finished in first place, at 3:58.8, and Landy came in second, at 3:59.6. "In the race of the century, in the contest between the first two milers ever to break four minutes, both runners had once again crossed the threshold," Bascomb writes. "It was perfection." Here was a defining moment in the history of sport the perfect mile.
Bascomb, a former editor and journalist, had full access to and support from Bannister, Landy, and Santee, as well as a host of their running and training companions, while writing his book. The athletes provided him with many anecdotes and details, especially about their formative years, that have never before been documented. As a result, Bascomb offers the most complete and personal account to date of the three-way race.
The Perfect Mile is more than just a great track and field drama; it is as much about individual personalities, courage, and determination as it is about the sport of running itself. It is a story, also, of the changing face of athletics in the 1950s, when sports became a serious business.
In the tradition of Seabiscuit and Chariots of Fire, Bascomb delivers a breathtaking tale of unlikely heroes and leaves us with a lasting portrait of the twilight years of the golden age of sport.
Neal Bascomb is the author of Higher: A Historic Race to the Sky and the Making of a City
. A former editor and journalist, he has appeared in documentaries on A&E and the History Channel. He has also written for the New York Times
. A major motion picture based on The Perfect Mile
is currently being developed by the team behind the movie Seabiscuit
. A native of St. Louis, Bascomb now lives in New York. More information can be found at www.nealbascomb.com
Advance Praise for The Perfect Mile
"The Perfect Mile is my idea of the perfect sports book. It is an absolute page turner in the quest of what may well be the greatest athletic achievement of all time. It is written with delicious attention to detail. And it is about character, the character of men who once upon a time pursued sports for the sake of something else besides money and endorsements and their own empire-building. Do we have another Seabiscuit here? Yup." Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights
"Neal Bascomb has written a book with a breathtaking sense of time and place, artfully bringing back to life a simple, yet vital era in the history of sport . . . Bascomb reminds us all of the purity of sport for sport's sake, contested by young men motivated only by their passion, true amateurs." Tim Layden of Sports Illustrated
"Neal Bascomb has unearthed the entire dramatic and compelling story and has delivered it with exceptional grace, intelligence and style. Moreover, he has drawn three unforgettable portraits of three wholly different athletes and interwoven them into a fast-paced read. The end result is a fascinating look at the nature of human endeavor. From start to finish, The Perfect Mile is a winner." Glenn Stout, series editor of The Best American Sports Writing
"Neal Bascomb skillfully brings the chase for the perfect mile to life while illuminating those men in the shadows, largely forgotten by history, like Wes Santee and John Landy, who not only had the pluck and verve to spur Bannister along with astounding miling feats of their own but, for the odd twist of fate, may have even beat him to it. Sports fans will relish Bascomb's tale of the days when the mile was much more than just a footrace." Chris Lear, author of Running with the Buffaloes
"Bascomb's excellent account captures all of the human drama and competitive excitement of this legendary racing event . . . With Bascomb's narrative skills, it's no surprise that movie rights have already been optioned." Publishers Weekly
"Using exhaustive primary research including interviews with the three athletes and hitherto unexamined archive material The Perfect Mile provides a fascinating account of the events that led to Bannister's historic achievement." Bookseller (London)