May 2004

ALL MILING, ALL THE TIME! That’s certainly the impression you’ll get from reading the front part of this month’s edition of the magazine, as we take the theme of Roger Bannister’s historic first sub-4:00 mile and continue on through an analysis of what’s up with today’s crop of U.S. milers and then pay a long visit to reigning mile king Hicham El Guerrouj on his home stomping grounds.

It’s a lot of space to devote to one event, but then, the mile is the general fan’s favorite race, is it not?

It certainly used to be, but I suspect that years of brutal assault by the governing bodies (USATF and NCAA generally choosing to run the no-logic 1500 instead; the high school federation foisting the abomination of the 1600 upon us) have robbed it of a significant part of its appeal. It’s just not the same when milers aren’t running the 1760y (or 1609.44m or 5280ft—your choice) race, the way the gods intended.

If the mile has been replaced by anything—and there are certainly those who will say it was always secondary thereto—it’s the 100. Americans have always shown a marked predilection for speed events in general and the 100, be it meters or yards, fits the bill perfectly. Run the length of a football field as fast as you can.

I used to be more of a mile guy, but in recent years I’ve come to fancy the 100 (although as an aside I must say that I’m not sure that I wouldn’t prefer to watch just about any well-contested and well-presented field event to any race). I think my conversion to a century man began when I got deeply into the announcing game, and rather than sparing only half an eye to the early rounds in the straightaway dashing, was forced to watch intently at the big championships.

You can learn a lot by paying close attention to four rounds of racing over the course of two days. Even if those seemingly by-the-numbers first couple of sessions come out just as everyone predicted, with not a single surprise, you can pick up all kinds of hints as to who is in what kind of shape, whose start has been honed to a razor-sharp edge, who looks gimpy, etc., etc.

You can learn something from 100s that have just heats and a final, but I think it takes three rounds minimum to get the full picture. And if you’re lucky enough to get to a four-round meet, do yourself the favor of watching all the rounds with a critical eye.

Of course, you can always get sandbagged. When Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson staged their epic duels of Rome ’87 and Seoul ’88 each time I fearlessly predicted after the semis that Carl would eat the Canadian’s lunch, which of course was clearly not the case. And I didn’t even learn the lesson after the first time.

(By the way, never mind that Ben was dirty; the key here was that he was able to mask his real form so well before the races that counted.)

Now if only they’d go to four rounds in the mile…