Great Matchups: Liquori Beats Ryun In The Dream Mile

With a lap to go, Marty Liquori had a narrow lead over Jim Ryun that he would maintain to the finish. Byron Dyce (United) & Reggie McAfee trailed. (ALBERT SESSION)

TRACK’S HISTORY is full of great head-to-head clashes. To kick off our new series of trips to the T&FN vaults to find coverage of some of the most memorable battles, we take you back to our II May 1971 edition for a legendary 4-lap clash pitting Jim Ryun against Marty Liquori. That issue featured a pair of stories on the Dream Mile, first a news piece by Jim Dunaway & Bob Hersh and then an accompanying feature by Hersh. How we reported it then:

A Long Kick Strategy By Liquori Snaps Ryun
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, May 16: Super-highlighted by one of the great—and most highly publicized—mile dụels in history, the third Martin Luther King International Freedom Games second-featured enough topflight performers and performances to stand out as an exceptional meet even without the mile.

But the majority of the 20,000-plus fans gathered in the raw weather (55° and drizzling rain) were there to see one race only, the “Dream Mile.”

Manhattan frosh Joe Savage went to the front of the 11-man pack at the first turn and held the lead through the initial 660. Marty Liquori and Jim Ryun stayed in the middle of the pack, being in 4th and 6th at the first 440 in 61.1 and 61.4.

West Virginia’s Mike Mosser assumed the lead from Savage momentarily before Ryun took over, leading Mosser and Liquori through the half in a tightly bunched 2:03.3 for each. With some 700y remaining, Liquori made his move, accelerating strongly down the backstretch with Ryun in tow. Surprising Reggie McAfee of Brevard moved into 3rd at this juncture, shadowed by Byron Dyce. Liquori maintained his strong pace, and at the gun his 3:00.0 gave him an 0.3 bulge on Ryun.

The distance between the two stayed the same until the final curve, where Ryun pulled onto his rival’s outside shoulder. But he got no closer, as Liquori held the narrow margin to the tape, with both clocking 3:54.6, a PR by 2.6 seconds for Liquori and the fastest race for Ryun since his World Record 3:51.1 in ’67. After the race, Liquori appeared to have more left than Ryun. Liquori’s strategic homeward kick from far out yielded a blistering 1:51.3 last half and a 54.6 final quarter—significantly faster than anything he has produced before in a quality race.
[Ed: Note that a subsequent reading of the film on the Bulova Phototimer adjusted Ryun’s time to 3:54.8, 0.2 behind Liquori.]

Meanwhile, halfmiler Dyce finally unleashed his lethal kick in the last 220y to top McAfee, 3:59.6–4:00.0. McAfee’s time is the fastest ever by a Black American, surpassing Harry McCalla’s 4:00.8 set in Ryun’s ’67 record race. All the placers behind the top two had trouble finishing, as an eager mob of friendly athletes, officials and pressmen quickly surrounded Liquori and Ryun.

The II May 1971 cover featured Liquori & Ryun and coverage of the Dream Mile. (ALBERT SESSION)

The Dream Mile Becomes A Reality
“Jim made it boring by being so good. Maybe we can make it interesting again.” They sure did.

Jim Ryun, who for years dominated America’s milers, and Marty Liquori, who wanted to “make it interesting” but had other objectives as well, renewed their track rivalry at the Martin Luther King International Freedom Games. Their race was a classic, every bit worthy of the excited anticipation which had preceded it, which is saying a lot.

The premeet interest, not only for track nuts but among sports fans generally, was a story in itself. The buildup was probably the greatest for any single footrace since the historic “Miracle Mile” at Vancouver in ’54, which matched Roger Bannister and John Landy, at the time the world’s only 4:00 milers.

Seventeen years and more than 400 four-minute miles by over 100 four-minute milers later, the public still turns on to the 4:00 mile. For reasons which some serious track buffs find incomprehensible, the mile has always been a “glamor event” in this country. As a result, every 4:00 mile is greeted with far-greater applause and headlines than would be given the 400th-best performance in any other event.

Because he is the World Record holder in the mile, Ryun was the nation’s best-known runner at the time he announced his retirement from track in ’69. This retirement followed his first loss to Liquori in the NCAA Championships and his dropping out during the second lap of the mile in the AAU meet a week later, a race which Liquori also won.

When Ryun announced his return to competition during the indoor season this past winter, it was obvious that a “rematch” with Liquori would have great public interest. What made this prospect even more intriguing was the development of Liquori into an even-better runner during the interim period.

There remained a question, however, of just how good Liquori was. In an article in Athletics Weekly, the British track magazine, in December, noted track expert Dick Bank, in assessing America’s Olympic prospects, said, Liquori “is obviously overrated in the United States (some actually believe he is in Ryun’s class)…”. Bank later explained that he was referring mainly to the fact that Liquori’s best times did not approach Ryun’s. And he had a point. Before the Freedom Games, Liquori’s best mile was the 3:57.2 he recorded in the Astrodome in February.

But others felt that Liquori was capable of much faster and that he had competitive superiority which could not be measured by a stopwatch. The track world awaited a real test of this competitive ability.

There also emerged a quasi-sociological aspect to the race. As Neil Amdur of the New York Times wrote, “In many respects, the two Americans have come to symbolize sectional ideologies as much as separate personalities… Ryun was born in middle America… He is a shy, sensitive athlete who prefers personal privacy to public displays… Liquori… is candid, colorful and combative, on and off the track …” And there it was—the brash kid from the East against the modest, all-American boy from Kansas.

Except insofar as their personalities may affect their competitive ability, they should be irrelevant. But it was inevitable that track would succumb to the transformation from technical to human interest which has marked other sports. When Muhammad Ali fought Joe Frazier in March, millions of people took sides on the basis of their attitudes toward the fighters’ philosophies and saw the outcome of the fight as a vindication of Frazier’s more moderate position on political issues. And whenever Joe Namath has a pass intercepted, there are many fans who see it as a triumph of good over evil and as demonstrable evidence of the moral inferiority of his libertine lifestyle.

Since New York Jets games sell out and the Ali–Frazier fight grossed $20 million, there are clearly advantages to the creation of recognizable personalities in sport. But being both amateurs and gentlemen, Ryun and Liquori downplayed this aspect of the race. As Ryun put it, “A lot of people refer to Liquori as a bad guy, but he’s not.”

The race was also fascinating from a technical point of view. It was generally assumed that if Liquori had any advantage over Ryun, it was his great strength, which would be tested against Ryun’s superior speed. Most observers felt Ryun could not lose a slow-paced race because Liquori could not match the speed of his finishing kick. So, Liquori would benefit from a quicker pace over the first three laps. “I wanted us both sagging in the stretch, looking more like boxers, both dead, like we were running on sand,” said Liquori later. Ryun’s chances therefore, seemed to be buoyed by the last-week withdrawal of Arne Kvalheim and Chris Mason, both logical “rabbits.”

There was even interest in the venue of the meet. While in most sports, and even in most track meets, the home court is an advantage, there was speculation as to the effect of the fact that the race would be run in Philadelphia, presumably Liquori territory. Both runners seemed to feel that, if anything, this would put more pressure on Liquori because he would feel more ashamed to lose in front of “his” fans—who, ironically and inexplicably, roundly booed him after his introduction while cheering Ryun.

The race, then, had all the elements you might want. It soon acquired a title: “The Dream Mile,” in reference both to the ideal race and to the late Dr. Martin Luther King’s quote, “I have a dream,” a speech quotation which became the inspirational motto of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference which sponsored this meet in his memory.

In the weeks preceding the race, the excitement grew. The wire services ran long stories on the meet, which newspapers all over the country printed. In New York, two hours away from the meet site of Franklin Field, newspapers received dozens of phone calls inquiring about ticket availability. Though hundreds of press tickets were printed, the demand eventually exceeded the supply.

(The interest was even further stimulated by the announced possibility that ’68 Olympic 1500-meter champ Kipchoge Keino of Kenya might return to the Freedom Games to avenge his loss to Liquori in last year’s meet. It’s not very clear why Keino didn’t come, but it appears there was a fatal failure somewhere in the chain of communication among the meet director, Keino, the AAU and the Kenyan AA.)

With the flood of publicity came great pressure on the runners, who tried in turn to avoid the exaggeration of the importance of the race. Ryun commented, “This race will not be the pinnacle of our careers, not with the Olympics coming up. I don’t expect to be at my best this year until June, July and August.”

Liquori agreed. “This race isn’t for a national title and it’s still early in the season.”

Jumbo Elliott, Marty’s coach at Villanova, added, “It’s not a one-race proposition. If we get beat, we’ll look forward to the races later this summer. It won’t be the end of the world. “

One young fan had a dream come true when he scored an autograph from Liquori. (ALBERT SESSION)

Still, there was no doubt the race was important to both Ryun and Liquori. To Ryun, it meant his first opportunity to avenge his losses of ’69 and reestablish his supremacy over America’s milers. To Liquori, it was a chance to prove he could compete successfully with Ryun in a race not tarnished by the fatigue and stress which Ryun appeared to suffer from in ’69. There was also the small detail that both runners are highly competitive creatures who don’t much like to lose.

With so much anticipation, the race itself could easily have been anticlimactic, but it turned out to be even greater than people had expected. After a slow 2:03.3 first half, Liquori took the lead with about 700y to go. “I hadn’t planned to move that early,” said Marty later, “but the pace was so slow thought I had better pick it up.”

Liquori passed the three-quarter mark in 3:00.0 with Ryun 0.3 back: “When I heard the time of 3:00, I thought I was a dead duck. I was afraid that Ryun would just whiz past in the last straightaway with his great kick.”

Ryun thought so too. “I hoped I could move in the last 220,” the Kansan said. But he couldn’t. Liquori held on tenaciously, never relinquishing the lead and winning by a step in 3:54.6. They had run the last half in 1:51.3.

In analyzing the race, the surprising thing seemed not that Liquori was able to come off a 3:00 pace with a 54.6 final quarter, but that Ryun couldn’t do much better. The key to that lay in the third quarter. This was not a 59, 61, 60 pace through 3:00. Liquori ran his third quarter in 56.7, and that must have had the same effect in taking the sting out of Ryun’s kick that running an even-paced 2:56 might have had.

As he hit the tape, Liquori bore an ecstatic expression. He had proved his status as a miler to the world and to himself. “Every race makes you a better man,” he said. “It’s not beating another guy so much but triumphing over yourself.”

But there was no suggestion from Liquori that the race established his superiority over Ryun. Acknowledging that Ryun seemed a little short in training, Liquori pointed out, “It’s early in the season. In the next 6 weeks, he’ll do a lot of speedwork. He should be a different runner in the last 220y than he was today.”

Ryun seemed physically spent after the race, but not despondent over the outcome: “It’s only a year and two days since I began running again, so it’s not too bad progress. It was such a great race, a fast race, that I can’t be unhappy. The only thing I would liked to have seen different was me in front at the tape.”

In any event, the race is now history, and the runners as well as the fans are looking to the future. To both “dream milers” the future means the Olympics in ’72. After his defeat to Keino at altitude in ’68 and his championship losses in ’69, it is obvious that Ryun can prove to himself that he is the best miler in the world only by winning at Munich.

To Liquori, too, the Olympic title is an obvious goal and, after this important win, he must be regarded as one of the favorites. That prospect will draw the attention of the entire sports world to everything both runners do until then.

“Maybe we can make it interesting again.” Did they ever.