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The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It Paperback – April 6, 2005

4.6 out of 5 stars 182 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The attempt by three men in the 1950s to become the first to run the mile in less than four minutes is a classic 20th-century sports story. Bascomb's excellent account captures all of the human drama and competitive excitement of this legendary racing event. It helps that the story and its characters are so engaging to begin with. The three rivals span the globe: England's Roger Bannister, who combines the rigors of athletic training with the "grueling life of a medical student"; Australia's John Landy, "driven by a demand to push himself to the limit"; and Wes Santee from the U.S., a brilliant strategic runner who became the "victim" of the "[h]ypocrisy and unchecked power" of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU). Although Bannister broke the record before Landy, Landy soon broke Bannister's record, and the climax of the book is a long and superb account of the race between the two men at the Empire Games in Vancouver on August 7, 1954. Bascomb provides the essential details of this "Dream Race"â€"which was heard over the radio by 100 million peopleâ€"while Santee, who may have been able to beat both of them, was forced by AAU restrictions to participate only as a broadcast announcer. Bascomb definitively shows how this perfect race not only was a "defining moment in the history of the mileâ€"and of sport as well," but also how it reveals "a sporting world in transition" from amateurism to professionalism.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From The New Yorker

On May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister, a British medical student who squeezed in track workouts between hospital rounds, became the first man to run a mile in less than four minutes. It was a feat that had widely been thought impossible, but within seven weeks an even faster time was posted by the Australian John Landy, setting up a showdown later that year in a race that was billed as the "Mile of the Century." In masterly fashion, Bascomb re-creates the battle of the milers, embellishing his account with fascinating forays into runner's lore. (In the seventeenth century, athletes had their spleens excised to boost speed; in the nineteenth, they were advised to rest in bed at noon naked.) It's a mark of Bascomb's skill that, although the outcome of the race is well known, he keeps us in suspense, rendering in graphic detail the runners' agony down the final stretch.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker

Product Details

  • Paperback: 344 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; Reprint edition (April 6, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618562095
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618562091
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (182 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #73,984 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

NEAL BASCOMB is the national award-winning and New York Times bestselling author of Hunting Eichmann, The Perfect Mile, Higher, Nazi Hunters, and Red Mutiny. A former international journalist, he is a widely recognized speaker on the subject of World War II and has appeared in a number of documentaries. He lives in Seattle, Washington.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Based on ample first-hand details gleaned from interviewing Roger Bannister, John Landy and Wes Santee, "The Perfect Mile" provides a nuanced character study of what drives these three great men toward breaking the most elusive of athletic goals: the four-minute-mile. While serious students of the sport will know the outcome of this tale before reading it, Neal Bascomb is able to create and maintain a fair amount of suspense by allowing the reader to experience events leading up to the 1954 Empire Games showdown from three very different perspectives.

Roger Bannister is the thinking man's runner, with the classic middle distance athlete's long stride and finishing kick as well as insights into the scientific principles that underlie cardiovascular exertion. These strengths, however, are offset by the demanding medical studies that severely limit his training time and by his tendency to become overwrought before big races.

John Landy is the workhorse of the trio, logging more miles than the others and able to bring a single-minded focus to the task. But he lacks the closing speed and power of the classic milers, forcing him to run the legs out of his competitors from the front.

Wes Santee, the least famous and accomplished of the three, may well be the most talented. Yet the demands of his University of Kansas track schedule, military commitments, and confrontations with track and field's governing body are impediments that prove too difficult to overcome.

For me, the best part of this book was the fact that these three men pursued this historic goal in a noble and dignified fashion that made you really pull for each of them somehow to be the first.
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Format: Paperback
The Perfect Mile is about the conquest of the four-minute mile, which like the ascent of Mt. Everest, stood in the early 50s as one of the last great frontiers of human endeavor. Three runners emerged as candidates to be the first to break through this barrier. One, Roger Bannister, was British. A full-time medical student and intern, he approached sport of track as the last of the consummate amateurs in the traditional mold. He had little coaching and devised his own training methods. Perceived by many in England as the potential resurrection of British athletics, in a sad state at the time, he carried the heavy load of hopeful expectations thrust upon him by a grim British nation suffering through post-war shortages and austerity. Considered aloof by his enemies in the British press, he possessed two powerful secret weapons: an advanced medical knowledge of the causes of and the techniques to combat fatigue and muscle failure, and an incredible capacity to ignore pain in the late stages of a race and unleash an extraordinary kick.

The Australian, John Landy, competed by seeing to it that he was the best conditioned athlete on the track. In the early 50s Australia was an athletic backwater. After returning home to Australia from the disappointment of failing to even make the semifinal qualifying heat in the mile at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, Landy embarked on a brutal training regimen, inspired by the physical fitness guru and great Czech runner Emil Zatopek who won gold at Helsinki in the 5000 meter, 10,000 meter and marathon events, and who Landy humbly approached as an acolyte near the close of the games.
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I found the climax of this story-Bannister and Landy's race in Vancouver in 1955-to be almost impossibly gripping. This whole book is just about perfect. It is about a particular athletic quest, and it is also about a key transition period in sport.

There were two related aspects to change at this time in track and field (and by extension other already professional sports). The more obvious was the glaring contradiction between the old, 100% pure amateur model on the one hand, and the growing business and media phenomenon we know today on the other. This subtext is brought out in the second part of the story, and especially in the sad tale of the straight-talking American, Wes Santee.

But this was also a period of radical change in training methods. Emil Zatopek, the Czech runner who won the 5,000 meter, 10,000 meter, AND marathon runs at the 1952 Olympics, is the key figure at the outset of the book. His successes taught runners like Bannister, Landy, and Santee that more training, and harder training, would yield faster times. The author outlines older ideas of conditioning that look ridiculously precious and half-hearted by modern standards. As a masters athlete I was especially struck by this phase of the story, and the author does a good job of recapping the sorts of training the runners did throughout.

The three are so characteristic of their countries, they could almost be fictional types. American Wes Santee is brash and outspoken. It is he who calls the financial bluff of the Neanderthal-like powers that ruled amateur athletics in his day, and it is he who is most severely victimized in the process. (In a kind of entrapment scenario, he was given extra money by one set of AAU officials, and then banned for life by others.
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