Thursday, May 31, 2001

You’d have to be my age, practically, to remember when the mile run was a glamour event in track and field. Part of it, I suspect, has to do with the shortening of American attention spans four minutes is a long time in the Nintendo scheme of things and even more of it has to do with the strange disappearance of the American miler. It has been 26 years since Jim Ryun’s world record fell, 13 since Steve Scott, our last great runner at that distance, called it a career.

So when a local kid, Alan Webb of South Lakes High in Reston, clocks a 3:53.4 in the Prefontaine meet in Eugene, Ore., obliterating a Ryun mark that had been undisturbed since ‘65, well, it’s hard not to get a little excited. But again, that’s because I know how riveting an event the mile can be especially when there’s an American rooting interest. If you grew up, as I did, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, you can probably still picture Jim Beatty sprinting across the finish line on “The Wide World of Sports” to set a world indoor record of 3:58.9 in the 1962 Los Angeles Times meet.

And I don’t think I’ve experienced a more thrilling 3:54.6 than when Ryun and Marty Liquori, the two greatest U.S. milers of their day, went head to head in the Martin Luther King Games in Philadelphia in ‘71. The build-up was incredible. The “Dream Mile” they called it. And if anything, the race exceeded expectations. For the last half-mile, it was just Ryun and Liquori. The rest of the field simply faded away.

“Seven hundred yards from the finish,” Liquori recalled in his autobiography, “On the Run,” “we were both sprinting like a bunch of kids running from the cops.”

Around the last turn they came Liquori, wearing his Villanova jersey, virtually shoulder to shoulder with Ryun, the letters USA emblazoned across his chest. (A Sports Illustrated photographer captured the moment, and the picture ran on the magazine’s cover that week.) But Ryun, though still just 24, had lost his killer kick. Liquori held him off down the stretch to win by two-tenths of a second.

We’re still waiting to see another mile like that. And Webb may provide us with one or even a few. Now that would be something to see: Alan Webb single-handedly reviving the mile in the U.S. It’s funny the reaction his feats of last weekend he broke Ryun’s prep record for 1,500 meters in the same race have gotten in some quarters. Many of my sportswriting colleagues, for instance, are, in a word, underwhelmed.

When I found out about Webb’s 3:53.4 during one of the Kemper Open rain delays Sunday afternoon and started trumpeting it to anyone within ear’s reach I was greeted with bemused silence. “He broke Ryun’s mark by nearly two seconds!” I fairly shrieked. “In the mile, that’s unbelievable! He topped his previous best [3:59.86 indoors in January] by more than six seconds! Practically unheard of.”

“So,” a columnist for another paper deadpanned, “how’d the Orioles do?”

OK, maybe we shouldn’t get too carried away with Webb’s exploits. After all, when Ryun ran his 3:55.3 as a high school senior, he was only 1.7 seconds off Michel Jazy’s world record. He also outkicked New Zealand’s Peter Snell, the Olympic 1,500 meters champ, to win the race. Webb’s time is more than 10 seconds slower than Hicham El Guerrouj’s world mark and he finished fifth in a star-studded field.

A year later, moreover, at 19, Ryun clocked a 3:51.3 to demolish Jazy’s record. (He lowered the mark another two-tenths of a second at 20.) Webb has a lot of work to do to move into world-record range. Indeed, El Guerrouj might be able to run faster than 3:43.13 himself.

Still, it’s fun to think about. What wondrous things might Webb be capable of by 2004, when the world next congregates for the Olympics? If he improves as much in the next three years as he has in the last three …

A U.S. man hasn’t won a medal in one of the middle distances since Dave Wottle in ‘72 (a gold in the 800 meters), but Webb has the potential to change that and to change the way the current generation of Americans looks at track. Right now, it’s considered a once-every-four-years diversion (if that). If Webb starts shooting for records in Oslo or Zurich or Brussels some summer, though, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the U.S. swept up in Mile Mania. It happened before. It can happen again.

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