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- Publié sur Amazon.com
The Perfect Mile is about the conquest of the four-minute mile, which like the ascent of Mt. Everest, stood in the early 50s as one of the last great frontiers of human endeavor. Three runners emerged as candidates to be the first to break through this barrier. One, Roger Bannister, was British. A full-time medical student and intern, he approached sport of track as the last of the consummate amateurs in the traditional mold. He had little coaching and devised his own training methods. Perceived by many in England as the potential resurrection of British athletics, in a sad state at the time, he carried the heavy load of hopeful expectations thrust upon him by a grim British nation suffering through post-war shortages and austerity. Considered aloof by his enemies in the British press, he possessed two powerful secret weapons: an advanced medical knowledge of the causes of and the techniques to combat fatigue and muscle failure, and an incredible capacity to ignore pain in the late stages of a race and unleash an extraordinary kick.
The Australian, John Landy, competed by seeing to it that he was the best conditioned athlete on the track. In the early 50s Australia was an athletic backwater. After returning home to Australia from the disappointment of failing to even make the semifinal qualifying heat in the mile at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, Landy embarked on a brutal training regimen, inspired by the physical fitness guru and great Czech runner Emil Zatopek who won gold at Helsinki in the 5000 meter, 10,000 meter and marathon events, and who Landy humbly approached as an acolyte near the close of the games. By the time the 4-minute mark was in Landy's sights, he was winning almost all of his races as "the human rabbit", leading from the starting gun and simply running the legs off his competition by setting a punishing pace.
The American, Wes Santee, was the youngest and probably the most naturally gifted of these runners. He competed for the University of Kansas, and was soon breaking records, including the world record for the 1500 meter event, and the American collegiate mile record, which he took from the legendary Glenn Cunnningham, former holder of the world record for the mile. Intensely competitive, Santee loved big crowds and high-impact races. His biggest handicaps were his cold and totally unsupportive father, and even worse, the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union), led by the ogre-ish Avery Brundage, which controlled U.S. track and field, and all eligibility for the Olympics with an iron fist. As Santee became more and more famous and independent, he began to be perceived more as a threat than as an asset to the power structure of so-called amateur athletics in America.
The perfect mile is a terrific page-turner and is packed with goodies from beginning to end. The writing is pitched just right: flowing, colorful, detailed, not dry, and never simplistic or trite. It starts with a brief thumbnail history of the mile event and the thinking that led many to believe of the 1886 record of 4:12.75, which stood for 31 years, "the probability is that this record will never be beaten." The complexity of each of the three milers' motivations is given breadth and scope, with particular attention given to the humiliating experience each suffered at the Helsinki Olympics. And The Perfect Mile doesn't stop with the breaking of the 4-minute mark, which occurs about halfway through the book. The second half of the book leads up to the inevitable showdown on the same track, the "perfect mile" of the title, one of the great classic races of all time. For each of these racers a victory in this showdown would have an intensely personal meaning as a reaffirmation or as a vindication of what they had achieved.
Although it helps to be interested in track (as is yours truly, although I have never run a race in my life), The Perfect Mile, like the very best sports books, is not ultimately about sport, but about the human beings who compete in it for a rich variety of human reasons.
13 internautes sur 14 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile
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I found the climax of this story-Bannister and Landy's race in Vancouver in 1955-to be almost impossibly gripping. This whole book is just about perfect. It is about a particular athletic quest, and it is also about a key transition period in sport.
There were two related aspects to change at this time in track and field (and by extension other already professional sports). The more obvious was the glaring contradiction between the old, 100% pure amateur model on the one hand, and the growing business and media phenomenon we know today on the other. This subtext is brought out in the second part of the story, and especially in the sad tale of the straight-talking American, Wes Santee.
But this was also a period of radical change in training methods. Emil Zatopek, the Czech runner who won the 5,000 meter, 10,000 meter, AND marathon runs at the 1952 Olympics, is the key figure at the outset of the book. His successes taught runners like Bannister, Landy, and Santee that more training, and harder training, would yield faster times. The author outlines older ideas of conditioning that look ridiculously precious and half-hearted by modern standards. As a masters athlete I was especially struck by this phase of the story, and the author does a good job of recapping the sorts of training the runners did throughout.
The three are so characteristic of their countries, they could almost be fictional types. American Wes Santee is brash and outspoken. It is he who calls the financial bluff of the Neanderthal-like powers that ruled amateur athletics in his day, and it is he who is most severely victimized in the process. (In a kind of entrapment scenario, he was given extra money by one set of AAU officials, and then banned for life by others.) He is also impeded by having to subordinate his individual goals to that of his college team's. John Landy is the hard-working Aussie, scrabbling along with the weakest home-grown competitive environment and the most grueling training routine. Roger Bannister is the idealistic, individualistic and long-suffering Brit. "When he goes out to run," one of his mates says, "he looks like a man going to the electric chair." The sportswriters are awfully grandiose in the England of his day, and Bannister's contemplative manner is indeed a bit Shakespearean.
I have only two small quibbles with this book. One is tiny, especially for the non-athlete: the author pokes good fun at old conditioning ideas, all the way back to the Greeks, but I would have preferred if he had brought modern physiological science to bear a little on the shifting trends of the early fifties. By modern lights Bannister, Landy, and Santee did an awful lot of hammering. This was much better than doing very little of anything, which was approximately the state of things before Zatopek came along. But now we know that there are distinct benefits to long, slow distance training, even for four-minute races. During his brief after-history of the mile record, the author mentions Peter Snell's twenty-mile training runs, but it's as if he's just another specimen in a zoo, and you're expected to merely roll your eyes and not care too much about the meaning of this.
The other quibble is slightly larger, and it's simply that I think Bascomb could have put a bit more comic relief in this work. Apart from the electric chair quote above, there are two incidents of celebrity mis-identification with regards to John Landy. That's it. I'm not looking for a barrel of monkeys hiding in the history of this very earnest endeavor, but as Hollywood knows, a bit of a tension/release cycle can heighten the ultimate effect of tension. I like an author who stays in the shadows, but I think he might have lightened the tone occasionally-oh, maybe in introducing some of the overblown headlines of the day. That sort of thing. The book is written in Landy's running style-one pace; relentless.
And make no mistake, it's an awesome book. Very important: you know who broke the four-minute mile barrier, but you probably don't know who won that Vancouver race. So don't look at the pictures in the middle of the book until you're done with that!!! The dramatic full-page shot on the left as Chapter 14 opens on the right? HIDE IT! Although as you see from my first sentence, knowing the outcome doesn't spoil things too much.