With all of the attention on game-fixing, dogfighting, doping in cycling, and the ongoing Barry Bonds story, I didn’t find out about Alan Webb breaking the American record for the mile until my Sports Illustrated arrived yesterday. Webb ran 3:46:9 in Belgium on Saturday to break Steve Scott’s 3:47:6 that had stood for 25 years. I can only hope there is no doping bomb on this one.
Webb’s achievement reminds me, in a backwards way, of a longstanding question that I’ve had: what happened to American-born middle distance runners? Whether in the 800m or 1500m (and mile), the U.S. once produced major figures. Jim Ryun held the world record in the mile from 1966 to 1975. He won an Olympic silver medal in the 1500 in 1968. Dave Wottle tied the 800m world record in 1972 and won Olympic gold (a very memorable race available on YouTube.) Rick Wolhuter was the world’s best 800m around between 1972 and 1976. Steve Scott was the third fastest miler ever when he ran just 0.3 seconds off of the world record in 1982. Marty Liquori ran 3:52:2 in 1975, Todd Harbour ran 3:50:03 in 1981; Jim Spivey ran 3:49:8 in 1986. Earl Jones won a bronze medal in LA in 1984 in the 800m. Johnny Gray ran the still-standing American record of 1:42:6 (within a second of the world record) in 1985. The same kinds of questions can be asked about UK-born middle distance runners where names like Bannister, Coe, Ovett, and Cram are legendary.
These kinds of “where have they gone” questions are not easy to answer. A quick response might be that the growth of middle and long distance running in East and North Africa has pushed American or British runners farther down. That maybe, but that answer is not as simple as it seems. From the late 1960s, African runners, especially Kenyans had already emerged. Further, the really puzzling thing is that American and British times fell off or flattened out relative to American and British times. Other than Johnny Gray and Mark Everett in the 800m, Rick Wolhuter’s times of the early to mid 1970s are comparable to what anybody is doing now. Joe Falcon in the late 1980s and Steve Holman in the 1990s, American mile-1500 times are all dominated by guys from the mid 1980s and earlier.
What other answers are out there? The financial incentives, at least internationally, have only grown for elite runners since those days. That leaves the possibility of decisions at young ages influencing the pool of talented runners. Substitution into other sports might occur at young ages precluding a talented young runner from ever developing. Also, the reduction in “status” and visibility of track and field in the U.S. relative to sports such as football might diminish the pool of young runners. However, these effects should show up in high school and junior times. I have not looked rigorously, but these times appear to be advancing more than the times of elite American senior level runners.