I've just finished Neal Bascomb's "The Perfect Mile" (Hougton Mifflin) and am happy to report that it is a very good and important book. Every track fan should read it, and we can hope that it will transcend the hardcore track world to appeal to a broader public.
Bascomb did a great deal of research for this book and it shows. He conducted extensive interviews with his three main subjects--Bannister, Landy, and Santee--as well as with many of their friends and associates. The resulting narrative provides lots of new detail (private conversations are believably recreated, for example) and a great sense of the individual character of these three stars. The narrative spans the period from the '52 Helsinki Games (at which all three were "also-rans") through the famous Bannister-Landy showdown at the ?54 Empire Games. This was clearly one of the greatest and most exciting two-year stretches in all of track history.
Bascomb is a good writer and propels his story along nicely, giving equal time to each of his three subjects. He succeeds in conveying the distinctly different personalities of the three, as well as the pressures and disappointments they coped with. The real revelation is Santee, who has been unjustly downplayed in earlier versions of this story. Santee was cocky, out-going, and immensely talented--and comes across as nothing less than a pre-"Pre." Unfortunately, he had less than ideal luck. Many of the peripheral figures are also handled reasonably well (although I suspect that characters like Chataway were a bit more lively than their portrayal here). While I sensed that he was not a runner himself, Bascomb does a good job conveying the tension and exhilaration of the actual races.
That said, "The Perfect Mile" is not quite perfect. The historical background that Bascomb periodically gives seems perfunctory and second-hand. He also could have provided a larger context for some of the central issues of the book: the amateur/professionalism debates, for example. Bascomb makes the point several times that this was an era of transition from an old (and presumably "good") kind of amateurism to a newly professional approach. This is an important issue, but its complexities are not examined at all. As a result, the full significance of Santee's ban for taking excess expenses is never made clear. (This could have been an ideal opportunity to cover new ground. I recall reading a recent interview with Chris Chataway in which he mentioned that the "little brown envelopes" [of cash] were common at the time. If Chataway is willing to talk about this now, I'd imagine others would be too.) Bascomb highlights Bannister as the epitome of the old-style amateur spirit, yet it is interesting to realize that the young doctor was by far the most "scientific" of the three in his approach, taking full advantage of state-of-the-art physiological experimentation and analysis. And, at a time when the amateur code frowned on "pacing," Bannister made blatant and repeated use of pacesetters. His 4:02 in 1953 was an absurdly artificial, private time-trial, and--as we know--the famous Oxford race was an exquisitely choreographed public time trial. By comparison, Landy and Santee almost always ran entirely by themselves, with precious little assistance from anyone else. (It is interesting, in this regard, that Bascomb's "perfect" mile turns out to be the Vancouver race.)
This book is clearly written for an audience that transcends the track world. As a result, times and dates are used in moderation. I understand this, but feel that such numbers are employed a little too grudgingly. At a of couple points in the narrative, Bascomb says--essentially--that X "raced every weekend for the entire spring." But without some recitation of races, times, and dates, we don't really know what this means. This problem could have been solved with the inclusion of a few appendices in the back: one for a brief recap of the three careers, for example; another listing the evolution of the mile record; etc. Both of these matters are dealt with in the main text, but too briefly. Bascomb's notes are useful, but I wish a bibliography could have been included.
I was also disappointed by the use of photographs--there are too few, and the selection struck me as distinctly odd and not as strong as it could have been. Notably, Bannister's own book made better use of visuals than this one.
Finally, the manuscript should have been read closely by a couple of track historians before going to press in order to eliminate a number of questionable assertions and foolish small errors. A partial list of such points:
p. 26: In describing Zatopek's reputation in the spring of 1952, Bascomb states that he "ran everything from the mile to the marathon." This seems to me poetic but inaccurate: I don't believe Zatopek had run a marathon at that time, and he was never known as a miler.
p. 38: the word "marathon" is used to describe 24- and 48-hour races.
p. 57 and 60: Walter George's mile time is given variously as 4:12.75 and 4:12.8. Both are incorrect--it was 4:12-3/4.
p. 62: In a brief table summarizing the Haegg-Anderson era, Bascomb lists six WR races with time, location, and date. Amazingly, the first four of these dates are wrong (and wildly wrong--common sense would tell us that no mile records were set in Sweden on January 1 of either 1942 or 1943). The problem would appear to have begun with some confusion between the European and American system of dates: day/month/year vs. month/day/year.
p. 93-94: On the virtues of even pacing, Bascomb writes: "In the mile more energy was used running laps of 58, 62, 64, and 66 seconds than four successive 60 second laps." This may be true, but I find it impossible to believe (can a 4:10 run this way really take more energy than an even-paced 4:00?) and Bascomb gives no source for his assertion.
p. 128: Bascomb uses the phrase "a diary of torture" to describe a seven week stretch of Landy's training in which he covered "over 300 miles, primarily in endurance runs." This represents less than 45 miles a week--hardly "torture" by today's standards, and not even by those of the mid-1950s.
p. 160: in the second line on the page, I suspect Bascomb intended to say "covert" instead of "overt."
p. 211: Bascomb relegates to a footnote the not insignificant fact that Landy's WR run was timed in 3:57.9 and rounded to 3:58.0. He then says, incorrectly, that Landy "had beaten Bannister's time by over a second and a half."
p. 260: Lon Spurrier is incorrectly called "Len."
p. 265: Bascomb states that Landy held the mile record "for 2 days shy of 4 years." Actually, he held it for 2 days shy of 3 years and 1 month.
p. 266: In a recap of the subsequent progression of the mile record, Ryun?s 3:51.3 is mentioned, but not his 3:51.1.
On the 6th page of the photo section, a caption is wrong: Chataway is listed as "at the far left" of the scene instead of on the far right.
The above is mostly nitpicking, I would admit, but it is frustrating that a book of this seriousness and quality should have any errors, however slight.
Last edited by kuha on Sun Apr 18, 2004 2:22 pm, edited 1 time in total.
Hopefully there will be another edition. Tell the editors. Great review. I'd be interested in your take on Sub Four to see what I missed in there.
Couple of comments:
"p. 57 and 60: Walter
>George’s mile time is given variously as 4:12.75 and 4:12.8. Both are
>incorrect—it was 4:12-3/4."
Isn't 4:12.75 the same as 4:12-3/4. I realize that you are saying something about auto timing and two decimal placers(I think) but if that is the case then wouldn't 4:12-3/4 be more accurately listed as 4:12.8?
"p. 93-94: On the virtues of even pacing, Bascomb
>writes: “In the mile more energy was used running laps of 58, 62, 64, and 66
>seconds than four successive 60 second laps.” This may be true, but I find it
>impossible to believe (can a 4:10 run this way really take more energy than an
>even-paced 4:00?) and Bascomb gives no source for his assertion."
I may be giving too much of the benefit of the doubt here to the writer as opposed to the editor but he probably meant that it is easier to run a 4:10 with even splits than the ones mentioned above.
Anyway, I am going over to Chapters(electronically speaking) and ordering the book right now.
MJD: I feel strongly that we need to be as precise as possible in reporting historical times. A 4:12-3/4 mile was timed with a 1/4 second watch, giving an accuracy of no more than plus or minus 1/8 second. When we say 4:12.8, we imply 1/10th second timing, and an accuracy of plus or minus 1/20th second. These are two different things, and the difference is respected by NOT "converting" times.
As for your second question, I was taking Bascomb at his word--he seems pretty clear in what he's saying, and what he says seems quite unbelievable to me.
On the matter of accuracy, I intended to note that 4:12.75 implies an accuracy to 1/100th second, with an error of only 1/200th either way--a vastly different notion of accuracy than 3/4 second represents.
thanks kuha ! I have meaning to buy the book for about 10 days now but this evening, for sure.
I like you take peverse delight in finding small factual errors in track articles and books. The only ones that are virtually error-free are T&FN and Sports Illustrated.
Off the subject a bit, but when it comes to incorrrect captioning of pictures, here's a worse one:
Looked through a book at Border's back in 2000 on "Greatest Olympic Heroes".... they had picked about 15 of them. Al Oeter of course one of them. Had a great action picture of "him"... only trouble was, it was a picture of Rink Babka. I wrote the publisher a letter about it but did not receive a reply.
Another minor one I saw lately in a book was in former Senator Bob Kerrey's Viet Nam memoir where we speaks of fellow Nebraska alum Charlie "Green."
I'm afraid my editing function is always in hyper-drive. I've written a number of books and I just HATE to find errors when it's too late--when the finished book is in your hand. As a result, I also have some awareness of how hard it is to make any published piece near-perfect. But we should strive for it...! The real issue is this: once something goes into print, it's out there "forever"--with the result that misinformation spreads far and wide and is often repeated endlessly.
>MJD: I feel strongly that we need to be as precise as possible in reporting
>historical times. A 4:12-3/4 mile was timed with a 1/4 second watch, giving an
>accuracy of no more than plus or minus 1/8 second. When we say 4:12.8, we
>imply 1/10th second timing, and an accuracy of plus or minus 1/20th second.
>These are two different things, and the difference is respected by NOT
As for your second question, I was taking Bascomb at
>his word--he seems pretty clear in what he's saying, and what he says seems
>quite unbelievable to me.
Well I guess we'll find out when you send him the letter.
>I'm afraid my editing function is always in hyper-drive. I've written a number
>of books and I just HATE to find errors when it's too late--when the finished
>book is in your hand. As a result, I also have some awareness of how hard it
>is to make any published piece near-perfect. But we should strive for it...!
...even with correspondence which I try to point out to my staff all the time. I think I now know why you were one of the ones screaming for the edit function here. A writer and a track geek. The poor guy didn't stand a chance. Here is a post I made to TC which is on topic. I cc'd the writer and it turns out that it was the athlete that made the mistake but I don't think it matters:
"Just a kid out of Southern Methodist University at the 1996 Olympics in
Atlanta, Tunks was youngest athlete in the competition at 21 years and
came away with experience but not much else."
"Tunks would be 40 years of age for his fifth Olympics."
I haven't had time to read the Lear book, although I have it sitting on the shelf... I have a particular interest in Bascomb's project and so took time away from my other reading (all related to a current writing project) in order to go through it. Just not enough time to do it all, unfortunately.
By the way, I see that this thread was moved to Current Events. I wasn't sure where to put it, but accept the transplant.
Satch: Don't even bother to get it. Bascomb uses a bunch of words that are more than four letters long, and he insists on writing in complete sentences and using conventional punctuation. Not your kind of thing at all.
>Satch: Don't even bother to get it. Bascomb uses a bunch of words that are
>more than four letters long, and he insists on writing in complete sentences
>and using conventional punctuation. Not your kind of thing at all.
That review is full of half truths and misconceptions. The athletics world knows that the first sub 4 mile was run by a black man , not the fables of this careless author Bascomb. For those high jumping cheepskates that can't afford to buy a book , I would suggest reading the book while at the bookstore , then put it back on the shelf when your finished. Satch has one correct point , that was one long winded , over bloated review Kuna , and you shouldn't cut and paste something off the Lets Run site, and pass it off as your own.
I'm really glad for this review. I also think it's important to maintain the accuracy in times and dates. I tend to forget how important those details are but I always appreciate the hard work that goes into it. Thanks.
This board IS best served by people like Kuha, who provides a well-considered service to the rest of us who probably share his tastes (track!). I won't be buying the book, but I very much do appreciate the thought and effort put into the review. Instead of sniping at him (yes, you two) you could be providing benefits so this board, as well.
The best posts are the ones based on (real) expertise and experience. Not the pot shots of cynics.
>I won't be
>buying the book, but I very much do appreciate the thought and effort put into
I already bought the book this weekend before I read the review, but I particularly like the review above. As evidenced from my posting history, I'm a bit of a stickler for accuracy. Some of those errors listed are such that it makes one wonder what other factual mistakes might be contained (in that book or in any other publication/message board posting) that the reader didn't pick up on.
That said, I'll still read it and with a rather biased starting point, will probably enjoy it.
Interesting that his last book was about a "race" too:
"It was into this celebratory, anything-goes atmosphere that three men all raised in poverty but now at the height of power would engage in a battle to erect the tallest building in New York City and the world."
Thanks, folks. The bottom line is that Bascomb's book IS well worth having--I really do highly recommend it--but, like all books, it needs to be read with a little caution (and it can't be considered the absolute final word in the subject).
>>I already bought the book this weekend before I read the review, but I particularly like the review above. As evidenced from my posting history, I'm a bit of a stickler for accuracy. Some of those errors listed are such that it makes one wonder what other factual mistakes might be contained (in that book or in any other publication/message board posting) that the reader didn't pick up on.<
I was forced by circumstances to spend today in a room where I could do nothing but read. So I read the Bascomb book. Your suspicions are well founded, Asterix. There were other mistakes, which included the consistent misspelling of the name of the 1952 Olympic 1500m Gold Medalist, inaccurate references to certain events unrelated to track, and some odd formalisms (like referring to the Drake Relays as the Drake University Relays or referring to Joe Galli as Joseph Galli).
The sum of these and other errors that I noticed, plus those that were mentioned by Kuha, left me unsettled. This was a great story, generally well told. But the author's utter inability to get facts straight in so many important ways left me with the uneasy feeling that perhaps the entire book was bullshit. I'm not sorry I read it, but I had something of an empty feeling when I put it down.
One final observation. The book was essentially the story of three runners--Bannister, Landy, and Santee at the peak of their careers. Each of them was protrayed sympathetically. But just based on these portrayals, I don't think I'd particularly enjoy spending an evening drinking and/or dining with any of them.
[p. 62: In a brief table summarizing the Haegg-Anderson era, Bascomb lists six WR races with time, location, and date. Amazingly, the first four of these dates are wrong (and wildly wrong—common sense would tell us that no mile records were set in Sweden on January 1 of either 1942 or 1943). The problem would appear to have begun with some confusion between the European and American system of dates: day/month/year vs. month/day/year.]
As long as you are being nitpicking you might want to check your own assumptions. How can 1/1/42 or 1/1/43 be misread either way they are January 1st. It must be a typo as Hagg broke the record on 7/1/42 (July) and Andersson did it on 7/1/43 (July). So, I believe his facts are correct just a typo on the publishers part. Not all errors in a book can be placed on the writer.
As for the rest of your review, I don't see how you can recommend it based on your opinions. You seem to have more negatives then positives. I'm sure the "Miracle on Ice" has some inconsistencies but it was still a good movie.
I have no problem with a story teller taking artistic license in telling a more exciting story. i.e. see the movie "The First Olympics" and then visit the web site listed above. It will contradict some of the events in the movie but it does not make the movie bad.
I have no problem
>with a story teller taking artistic license in telling a more exciting story.
>i.e. see the movie "The First Olympics" and then visit the web site listed
>above. It will contradict some of the events in the movie but it does not make
>the movie bad.
This is a very tough crowd. But there is clearly a difference between artistic license and factual errors. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. As I said to a business writer at the Globe recently:
"Every time I read something in the paper that I have a reasonable
knowledge about, I find numerous errors. Today's example is on the front
page of the Globe's business section where you say:..."
Do not believe anything you read I guess is the bottom line(unless it is TFN of course). Once Asterix is done with it and gives us his report, we should just send this thread to the editors.
One of the disconcerting things about all of this is that the book was published by Houghton Mifflin, a company that also publishes textbooks for school children. It makes you wonder what is being taught in schools these days, if both teachers and students rely on the factual accuracy of books that they publish.
I am now going to enter the realm of pure speculation, but knowing what I do about what goes on in corporate America these days, I imagine that at some point in the recent past, Houghton Mifflin downsized its staff and/or outsourced some of its work. Older, experienced, professional book editors were excessed and eventually replaced by either younger, less experienced, but cheaper, staff or by farming out their tasks to contract editors without adequate internal controls to assure that these people knew what the heck they were doing. This can happen in companies that worry more about their profits than about the quality of their products or their reputation.
Maybe not. Perhaps there's another explanation of how a book as full of factual errors could possibly be shipped by a formerly respectable publisher. Regardless of how it happened, however, it is a disgrace. If Houghton Mifflin were a publicly owned company (it is not), I'd go out and sell its stock short because there's a good chance that one of these days, something they publish with the same lack of accuracy will cause them sufficient embarrassment to undermine their credibility in markets that matter to them. And if I were in charge of purchasing textbooks for my school district, they would have a very tough time selling me anything. (Of course, I say that as one who does not purchase textbooks and has no idea what the world of textboook publishers looks like. It's possible that their competitors are worse, perish the thought.)
At any rate, these people should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.
At any rate, these people should be thoroughly
>ashamed of themselves.
I know it isn't exactly literature but I found typos in Grisham's latest along with a quote that went something like this:
"The company had 60,000,000 in sales and 20,000 employee in its hey day."
Do the math on that. The point was that some lawyers put them out of business with lawsuits. They would have gone out of business on their own with those numbers. I am assuming that Random House is a reputable publisher too.
"As long as you are being nitpicking you might want to check your own assumptions. How can 1/1/42 or 1/1/43 be misread either way they are January 1st. It must be a typo as Hagg broke the record on 7/1/42 (July) and Andersson did it on 7/1/43 (July). So, I believe his facts are correct just a typo on the publishers part. Not all errors in a book can be placed on the writer."
Jnathletics: That's why I said that I presumed the problem BEGAN with a misreading of the dates. A simple typo doesn't turn "7" into "January." My suspicion is that the author was going from poor xeroxes of some world record progression list and misread "7" for a "1", or something like that.
I appreciate all the above commentary--everyone needs to read this book for themselves and decide for themselves as to its merit. I repeat, however, that my quibbles and criticisms aside, I think this is a book well worth buying and reading. Bascomb's narrative is quite good and--hopefully--the book will appeal to an audience outside the hardcord track world. The problems lie in the inherent limitations of his background knowledge and (I'd guess) a slightly too-rapid production schedule that didn't allow for a couple outside readers and for more precise proofing.
Every book needs to be read critically. There's no such thing as absolute perfection, although we should all aim for it as best we can. Hopefully, every writer/researcher can learn from and build on what others have done--to learn both from what has been done well, and what may not have been done so well.
If we insist only on total perfection, rather than incremental movement TOWARD some ideal of perfection, then we'll never get off the starting line.
Last edited by kuha on Wed Apr 14, 2004 12:54 am, edited 1 time in total.