three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
11-July-Aug-2004
By: 
Neal Bascomb
user_rating: 
0

Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It

A-PerfectMileFifty years ago, Roger Bannister achieved the near impossible. He ran a mile in 3:59.4, the first man to run it in under four minutes. Bascomb follows the stories of three world-class athletes who, in 1952, tried to overcome that four-minute "brick wall." They couldn’t have differed more. Barrister was a British medical student. Wes Santee was a Kansas farm boy. And Australian John Landy was an entomologist. Yet their common goal linked them across continents in a decade when, Bascomb argues, sports became more professional while still maintaining its innocence. "People wanted athletes who were confident and colorful," he writes. "And they wanted to see records broken." Records would be broken, but would the effort to organize a head-to-head race with the three milers succeed?
Houghton Mifflin. 322 pages. $24.

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"He lays their souls bare, examining what motivated them, the doubts and societal pressures that threatened to slow them down and the tensions that arose from a sport in transition. … Bascomb has penned a sports tribute book that transcends the genre." Joe Kurmaskie

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Bascomb moves things along at a swift pace and builds suspense not so much over the outcome as over all the steps in getting there. He writes sympathetically and admiringly about all three men, describes their different approaches to training and race strategies, and fills in a lot of interesting background about the history of the mile." Jonathan Yardley

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Occasionally, his scrupulous technique, tracing every detail back to an interview or a printed source, stops [Bascomb] from deciding between two versions of a story. … [An] enthralling book…" David Horspool

San Jose Mercury News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Bascomb does an excellent job of setting up the suspense as the runners—usually competing on different continents but still closely following the progress of the others—edged closer and closer to their goal, and yet also watched it repeatedly slip away in the final strides as their bodies faltered before the finish tape. … [But] the runners of The Perfect Mile are no match for the personalities in [Seabiscuit]." Mark Emmons

Boston Herald 3 of 5 Stars
"In Bascomb’s book, as the laps spin and the miles mount, one race can seem much like another; however, the author does a credible job of making each race feel like the race, as though today could be the day." Rob Mitchell

Chicago Sun-Times 3 of 5 Stars
"This is a fine, gripping book, perhaps the most exciting sports reading of the spring, although it does not quite live up to its accompanying hype. … The chapters on their fierce struggle to lower their times are uneven; for most of us, there is a little too much description of failed race after race, although the track and field wonk naturally would love this stuff." Henry Kisor

Critical Summary

In the wake of Seabiscuit’s popularity, Bascomb’s publisher is touting The Perfect Mile as another amazing human-interest story. The company that filmed the famous Depression-era horse tale has already purchased the movie rights. Critics agree that Bascomb’s two-legged tale lacks Seabiscuit’s drama and personalities. Still, Bascomb knows how to tell a story with sympathy and suspense. Interviewing the three athletes years after their feats, he uncovers their pressures, motivations, and inner battles and retells their stories in good, journalistic prose. Let’s face it: one race can resemble the next, and descriptions of the athletes’ struggles to lower their times can become tedious. But there’s payoff at the end: the exciting retelling of the "perfect" race at Vancouver’s Empire Games, when only one man would win.

Supplemental Reading

A-RunningBuffaloes.epsRunning with The Buffaloes A Season Inside with Mark Wetmore, Adam Goucher, and the University of Colorado Men’s Cross-Country Team | Chris Lear (2001): There are a number of cult running books—this is one for those serious about training. Just ignore the spelling and grammatical errors. "Running with the Buffaloes is to cross country what John Feinstein’s A Season on the Brink is to college basketball." USA Today n