As the USA approaches one four-minute milestone, it appears we here in Australia might have been asleep at the wheel as we passed another.
As of last weekend, 393 Americans had broken four minutes for the mile. Speculation is mounting as to who will be the 400th and when – other than soon – it will happen.
One of the reasons the four-minute mile retains such fascination almost 60 years after it was achieved is that it still accords with that urge for mathematical simplicity – four laps, one minute per lap, four minutes.
Four hundred resonates right in tune with those other fours.
The impending US 400 prompted a few of us to wonder how many Australians had run under four minutes since John Landy became the first to do so in Turku, Finland on 21 June, 1954.
It appears we have missed a significant milestone in our own mile history.
Sometime in the past couple of years, someone became our 50th sub-4 minute miler. Unless I missed it, he did so without fanfare or comment.
We now have 51, by my reckoning. This puts us far ahead of the US, on a per capita basis. The Americans have about eight times as many sub-4 minute milers as we have, but almost 14 times the population (314 million versus 23). So, we’re doing about twice as well against the USA as we should.
Our 51 sub-four minute milers includes three who - thus far - have only done it indoors. This is in line with the US list and a comprehensive world register maintained by the British NUTS (that’s National Union of Track Statisticians).
There is an argument that only outdoor performances should be considered, as some runners are advantaged by the banked bends of indoor tracks. That’s true, but just as many are disadvantaged, while probably as many more don’t even get to run indoors at all.
In any case, three of the four most recent additions to our sub-4 list – Sam McEntee, Matt Gibney and Ryan Foster, did so in indoor collegiate races in the US. And with opportunities to race over the mile drying up, you’ve got to count every race over the distance that you can.
So, who is number 50? According to the Australian all-time list on the Athletics Australia website, 48 Australians have broken four minutes outdoors (some of the 48 have done it indoors as well) while the above three have done so indoor.
In another statistical oddity, Matt Gibney’s 3:58.12 was run on an oversize track in Seattle. For record purposes, the maximum indoor track is 200 metres. It’s still a smaller track than the standard outdoor 400-metre oval, however, and all the sub-4 lists carry the performance.
Finally, I think (there’s always another ‘stats quirk’ you haven’t thought of), Brenton Rowe and Peter O’Donoghue are both included on the Australian all-time list, despite representing other nations at different stages of their careers.
Rowe’s 3:58.06 last year is listed, even though he now represents Austria internationally. Brenton first broke four minutes in 2009. He said in his Runners Tribe blog (http://www.runnerstribe.com/article/8797-RT-Journals-Brenton-Rowe-World-University-Games) that he made the decision to opt for Austria only in 2011, so his 2009 run is definitely a ridgy-didge Aussie sub-4.
O’Donoghue ran a sub-4 early in 1993. He also broke four minutes in both 1982 and 1984 and won a Commonwealth 1500 bronze for New Zealand in 1990. His 1993 sub-4 was in January and he ran for Australia all that year – world indoors, world cross-country and world championships). Definitely an Aussie that year, I would think.
Assuming both Rowe and O’Donoghue count, then our 50th sub-four minute miler was – James Kaan, who ran 3:58.19 in Dublin on 8 July, 2011.
If either Rowe or O’Donoghue doesn’t count, the honour would go to Sam McEntee with his 3:57.86 on the Pennsylvania State University indoor track on 28 January last year.
I like those two scenarios as, either way, the accolade goes to one of our up-and-coming middle-distance runners.
Actually, there is a nice symmetry with James Kaan, as his run was in the same Santry Stadium in which Herb Elliott set a world record of 3:54.5 back in 1958.
Elliott’s is one of two world record performances on the Australian all-time list. The other is John Landy’s 3:57.9 in 1954, the second sub-four minute mile ever run. Landy also broke the 1500 metres world record en route.
In the unlikely scenario of neither Rowe nor O’Donoghue counting, our next sub-4 miler will be the 50th.
Of course, it’s no fun driving down memory lane unless you take a few detours, so let’s acknowledge a few more statistical oddities along the way:
-the current Australian record is held by Craig Mottram at 3:48.98.
-the first Australian under 3:50 was the previous holder of the record, Simon Doyle, at 3:49.91. The three fastest Australians all-time – Mottram, Doyle and Jeff Riseley (3:51.25) – all did their performances in Oslo’s famous Dream Mile.
-reflecting the diminishing number of races over the mile, perhaps, only one Australian in the all-time top 10 did his performance this decade. Ryan Gregson’s 3:52.24 in 2010 ranks him fifth.
-Ken Hall’s 3:55.2 in Gothenburg in 1975 was run behind New Zealand’s John Walker when Walker ran history’s first sub-3:50 mile.
-Harry Downes ran 3:59.7 in Bendigo in 1963 off the scratch mark in a handicap race. Running in the ‘pro’ ranks, and hence ineligible under the rules at the time to represent Australia, Downes twice broke four minutes on grass tracks under handicap conditions.
Note 1: You can see the NUTS sub-4 stats by going to their home page www.nuts.org.uk and following the link to the sub-4 chronicle under ‘What’s new’;
Note 2: My major source for Australians was the all-time rankings list as published on the Athletics Australia website. Apologies if I’ve missed anyone. All amendments welcome!