By DAVID MILLER News Sports WriterSClBIs it just my imagination, or has the sport of track and field faded to relative obscurity?
Seems to me that when I was a youngster, many of those who excelled at one of the track or field events were household names. Quick, other than what’s his name Bolt, who are the top stars in the sport today?
What got me to thinking about this was the recent death of Roger Bannister. At one time there were fewer names any bigger in the world of sports than Bannister’s. He was a middle distance runner and sports fans my age need little reminder that he was the first athlete to run the mile in less than four minutes.
That was a huge deal when he accomplished the feat in 1954. The four-minute mile had been a barrier that had stumped lots of talented runners for years. As a youngster, I read and heard some speculation that running a sub-four-minute mile would never be achieved. Some even went as far as to guess that there was something in the human body (maybe like a governor on an automobile) that wouldn’t permit such a speed. Under this theory, a 4:00.5 mile might be possible, but never a 3:59.5.
My Dad told me about a famous Kansan, Glenn Cunningham, who was an accomplished miler. Cunningham ran in the 1,500-meter race in the 1932 and 1936 Olympics and was a silver medalist in 1936. He had set the record for the mile in 1934, running it in 4:06.6. Cunningham set his goal at running the mile in less than four minutes, but failed. Many, like my Dad, said that if Cunningham couldn’t do it no one could. You see, Mr. Cunningham had been severely burned as a child and many of his leg muscles had been damaged to the point that doctors were recommending amputation. Through hours of hard work and therapy, Cunningham not only regained the ability to walk, but he pushed himself to be an Olympic-quality runner.
Many, including Cunningham, gave God the credit for his amazing recovery and some felt that God had ordained him to break the long-elusive four-minute mark. Alas, Cunningham’s best mile was 4:04.4, a time he achieved in 1938. Later, Cunningham’s family would claim that he had run a mile in less than four minutes in a practice setting as far back as 1920. But since it couldn’t be proven, the claim wasn’t taken very seriously.
Another American who some thought might break the 4-minute mark was Wes Santee, also from Kansas.
Santee was an outstanding high school miler in Ashland, Kan., and went to the University of Kansas. In the early 1950s he came close to breaking the mark but couldn’t quite get over the hump, confirming in my Dad’s mind that no one would ever be able to do so.
My knowledge of the situation focused primarily on Santee, since he was a fellow Kansan. But there were others on the world stage, notably Bannister from the UK, and John Landy from Australia, who were threats to break the elusive four-minute barrier.
The radio in our house blared out the news on May 6, 1954 that some guy across the Atlantic Ocean had run the mile in 3:59.4 minutes. I was stunned. I had just about joined Dad in his opinion that no one would break the mark. If it was to be broken, I had always hoped that Santee would be the one to do so.
As it turned out, Bannister’s record didn’t last long. Only 46 days later Landy ran a mile in 3:58. I was even more devastated than I was when Bannister recorded his accomplishment.
Bannister had become my hero and when Landy did his thing, I felt let down once again. I felt vindicated somewhat when Landy and Bannister competed in the British Empire Games in August, 1954. The event was billed as the “Miracle Mile” and lived up to its billing. Landy led for most of the race, but Bannister was able to pass him at the very end and finish with a mark of 3:58.8. Landy came in at 3:59.2 and if memory serves me correctly it was the first race where more than one runner ran the mile under four minutes. That was to be Bannister’s best time. Santee continued to flirt with the 4:00 mark, but when he eventually retired his best time in the mile had been 4:00.6.
When Bannister’s death was announced last week, I read the AP story in addition to looking him up on the internet.
I remember that on the big day of May 6, 1954, Bannister had been identified as a medical student at Oxford University. Later in his life he was asked if his accomplishments as a runner gave him the most satisfaction. His response was that he felt his contributions to the field of neurology was the most satisfying.
“I wouldn’t claim to have made any great discoveries, but at any rate I satisfactorily inched forward in our knowledge of a particular aspect of medicine,” he was quoted as saying.
“I’m far more content with that than I am about any of the running I did earlier.”
As I indicated before, I did not like John Landy, probably because he broke Bannister’s record so soon after it had been set. But in reading about Landy this week, I was reminded of something that should have made me like him better.
In the 1956 Olympics, Ron Clarke, who had beenleading the pack in the 1,500-meter event was tripped by another runner and fell to the track, Landy stopped to check on Clarke and help him to his feet. As it turned out, Landy was able to make up the ground he had lost by stopping and eventually break the tape at the finish. That has been cited as one of the greatest displays of sportsmanship ever shown in Olympic history.
Closing off the discussion of famous milers, I just happened to witness the first sub-4-minute mile in high school history. The runner who accomplished this task was Jim Ryun of Wichita East High School, who ran a 3:59.0 mile in the Kansas High School State Track Meet, which happened to be held in 1964 at Kansas State University. Ryun went on to break the four-minute barrier four times in high school, the best of which was 3:55.9. His high school record stood for 36 years. Ryun’s personal best in the mile was 3:51.1. He won a silver medal in the 1968 Olympics, getting beat by Kip Keino of Kenya.
Returning to the original thought — I really don’t think the sports world pays as much attention to track and field as it once did. I am sure today’s athletes are better at what they do than those of years past. But we (maybe I should speak for myself) don’t hear as much about them.
I would be hard pressed to name many great American track athletes of today. When I was a youngster I knew about such guys as Bill Nieder and Al Oerter. They weren’t fleet of foot, or at least that wasn’t what they were known for. Nieder threw the shot put and Oerter also threw the shot, but was best known for throwing the discus.
Just like the mile competition had its barrier (4:00 minutes) for a long time, shot putters also had a barrier (60 feet). Nieder was the first high schooler to break the barrier with a 12-pound shot and then became the first collegiate athlete to break the 60-foot mark throwing a 16-pound shot.
Nieder won a silver medal in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, second behind Parry O’Brien of the U. S., and then won gold in the 1960 Rome Olympics.
Nieder tried boxing after he retired as a shot putter, but retired from that sport after getting knocked out in his first fight.
According to Wikipedia, at the age of 77, Nieder helped subdue a passenger attempting to enter the cockpit of American Airlines flight 1561 headed to San Francisco on Sunday, May 8, 2011.
Oerter had the distinction of competing in four Olympics, in 1956 in Melbourne, in 1960 at Rome, in 1964 in Tokyo and in 1968 in Mexico City. He won gold medals in the discus in each of the four.
At the age of 44, tried out for the 1980 Olympics and in the process set his own personal best for the event, even though he finished fourth in the qualifying rounds. It didn’t matter that he didn’t qualify. The Americans ended up boycotting the 1980 Moscow Olympics and staying home.
Billy Mills was another big name in track that comes to my mind. Mills was Native American and was a cross country and long distance runner at Haskell Institute before doing those things at the University of Kansas. Mills ran the 10,000-meter run and the marathon in the 1964 Olympics and he won gold in the 10,000. Mills was a relatively unknown athlete and for a long time in the race was no better than fourth. But at the end he came on strong and passed all the others to win. I read somewhere that Dick Bank, a color announcer for the 1964 Olympics began screaming “Look at Mills, look at Mills,” when he was making his remarkable finish. Lead announcer Bud Palmer didn’t seem to notice. After the telecast, Bank was fired, presumably for making Palmer look bad.
I happened to notice that there is a common thread in some of my commentary about track stars. That common thread is KU track coach Bill Easton, who had Mills, Oerter, Nieder and Santee on his team at various times.
When I attended KU the one year I did, Easton was more revered than basketball coach Dick Harp, football coach Jack Mitchell or any of the other Jayhawk coaches. He had the best parking spot at the athletic offices and other than Phog Allen, had the best seats in Allen Fieldhouse. According to information supplied by the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame, Easton’s outdoor track teams won back-to-back NCAA titles in 1959 and 1960. He also coached the school to two seconds, a third and a fourth. His KU cross country teams won 16 conference championships and the 1953 NCAA title. Easton-coached athletes at Kansas set four world records, four Olympic records, fourteen American records, fourteen intercollegiate records, seven NCAA records, and two national college freshman records.
By the way, when I was at KU folks were still talking about Easton having coached Wilt Chamberlain. Chamberlain obviously was known for his basketball talent, but he was a very athletic individual. Again referring to Wikipedia, as a member of the Jayhawk track and field team he ran the 100-yard dash in 10.9 seconds, shot-putted 56 feet, triple jumped more than 50 feet, and won the high jump in the Big Eight track and field championships three straight years.