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The Perfect Mile

Release date: 05th April, 2004
Publisher: CollinsWillow

List Price: £16.99
Our Price: £11.89
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The Perfect Mile
By Neal Bascomb price £11.89 (rrp £16.99)

During the coming weeks and months, we can expect to be inundated with an avalanche of books, television programmes, videos and dvds which celebrate the 50th anniversary of Roger Bannister's first sub-four minute mile. Many of these offerings will, sadly, be of the 'cut and paste' variety; such is the nature of rampant commercialism in modern sport that earning a quick buck has become accepted practice.

The problem for the serious author such as Neal Bascomb is that 'The Perfect Mile' may, initially at least, be viewed as 'just another Roger Bannister book'. Such an assessment would be grossly unfair as Bascomb sets out to tell a different story which describes the efforts of Bannister's adversaries, American John Landy and Australian Wes Santee, to pip him in the quest to become the first man to run the mile in less than four minutes.

Essentially though, what differentiates this book from the majority of other, Bannister-themed, offerings is the quality of its writing and the spirit in which it is written.

The author admits that inspiration for the Perfect Mile came from the words of Alan Hoy who, in 1954, described how a good sports writer should go about his work: "It is not simply to write a technical treatise in which the performer is dissected like some laboratory specimenÖIt is drama and high excitement. It is victory and disaster. It is perspiration and the pungent whiff of liniment. It is the roar of the crowdÖAbove all, it is recapturingÖthe supreme effort of the [athlete] - the very heartbeats of the particular triumph or tragedy the reporter is striving to word-paint."

Bascomb has been true to his mentor's brief, which ensures that first and foremost, he tells a great story, but it is one ably supported by a meticulousness rarely seen in a sports book: the reference section runs to an astonishing 45 pages.

Between 1952 and 1954, the three athletes were effectively competing against each other, initially no doubt unaware of the target each man had set himself. The author has spent a considerable time interviewing Sir Roger Bannister as well as John Landy and Wes Santee during which it emerged that, independent of each other but at more or less the same time, each of the three men felt he could be the first to break the four minute mile barrier. Over the course of two years, each man was kept abreast of the other's race performances and times by press cuttings and word of mouth.

A picture emerges of three men on different continents striving to reach their individual yet joint goal. As with every other aspect of the quest, each athlete's life and preparation is described in great detail. Bannister, the medical student who epitomised the ideal of the amateur athlete; Landy, the Australian who preferred butterfly collecting to running and Santee, the son of a Kansas ranch hand, a natural runner and the quickest of the three.

The perfect mile was actually not the one which took place at Iffley Road, but the final climatic battle which took place three months later when Bannister and Landy went head-to-head in the Empire Games by which time the Australian had bettered Bannister's mile record by more than a second. Ultimately, it was Bannister who was to capture victory and run the perfect mile. Meeting him years later, Bannister, the author observes, "Östill exudes the determination and aggression that gave him his finishing kick." Perfect.

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