Nearly 50 years ago, the four-minute mile stood as an insurmountable barrier. It intimidated runners with an icy arithmetic: Could anyone run four laps averaging 15 m.p.h.?
The world held its breath as three runners - American Wes Santee, Australian John Landy, and Englishman Roger Bannister - mounted assaults on the mark. Experts said any athlete who attempted the feat could jeopardize his health.
Then on a blustery day on May 6, 1954, Oxford University medical student Roger Bannister ran 3:59.4 - the "miracle mile," shattering conventional wisdom and inaugurating a golden era for track and field.
The floodgates opened. In the next 12 months, no fewer than 300 runners broke four minutes. A decade later, American distance-running legend Jim Ryun used a superb finishing kick to run 3:59 - in high school. Two other teens, Marty Liquori and Tim Danielson, quickly followed. American dominance in the marquis middle-distance running events seemed assured.
But United States Olympic glory in the mile never materialized, and track and field faded from public view. After 1967, no American high school athlete ran the mile in under four minutes.
No one, that is, until Alan Webb. His 3:59.86 performance indoors this winter in New York re-energized the American track community, who hope Webb, leader of a talented new crop of high school runners, will help revitalize the sport.
"There could be nothing better than an Alan Webb breaking four minutes to really send [this nascent track] renaissance off the charts," says Amby Burfoot, former Boston Marathon winner and Runner's World magazine editor. Mr. Burfoot says the public's interest in track has fallen sharply from the days when dual meets between the US and USSR were televised, and Sports Illustrated magazine selected miler Ryun as its 1966 Sportsman of the Year.
So why the decline in interest in the mile, despite, ironically, the emergence of the jogging and road-racing movements?
"Other sports in a growing TV age did a much, much, much better job of promoting themselves," Burfoot offers. "And the national governing body for track and field in the US was truly a backward and dead organization for 25 years."
Others point to cultural factors. Ryun, now a congressman from Kansas, cites a loss of public interest due to "other distractions" for youths. Burfoot mentions the increased popularity of youth soccer and the prevalence of MTV and video games.
Marc Bloom, an award-winning track journalist, identifies three factors:
* Shoe companies stopped supporting track distance runners.
* American athletes developed an inferiority complex. Kenyan dominance in the distance races, including the mile, led to an attitude among US runners that the Kenyans were physiologically superior.
* US training methods changed. An "easy-does-it" approach - a byproduct of the adult-oriented running boom that emphasized long, slow, distance jogging - seeped into the high school ranks. Coaches feared pushing kids too hard.
"We just lost our focus on true excellence and true performance breakthroughs," Burfoot says.
By countering these trends with an equal mix of exuberance and steely determination, miler Webb seems to have single-handedly ended the American high school running malaise.
A former swimmer and soccer player, Webb didn't begin running competitively until his freshman year. His talent quickly became apparent. After he broke Ryun's record for the mile by a sophomore, the buzz began about breaking four minutes.
But Webb, a senior, says he's fueled by competitive desire, not records or accolades.
"Deep down, you do it for yourself," he says. "You can't help it - it's human nature to get out there and be a performer."
Though Webb is within striking distance of Ryun's high school record of 3:55.3, he hasn't strayed from his first goal: constant improvement. Taking his inspiration from running icons Steve Prefontaine and Sebastian Coe, Webb hopes to earn himself a spot on the 2004 Olympic team.
Bloom is encouraged by the increased support track will receive, but he realizes that the sport has limited marketing appeal. "I don't think track will be considered sexy - maybe until Alan Webb becomes an Olympic champion," he says.
So, could a white teenager from Reston, Va., eventually challenge the likes of Kenyan Noah Ngeny or Moroccan Hicham El Gerrouj, the current world record holder at 3:43.13?
Webb doesn't hesitate for a second: "Yeah, why not? I mean, we're all human, aren't we?"
But Jon Entine, in his book "Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It," suggests that "... the unassailable truth is that the genetic pool of potential champions is a lot wider and deeper in Africa than anywhere else." Even Bannister has talked about the "fact that ... black athletes in general seem to have certain natural anatomical advantages."
For Bloom, though, the Kenyan advantage is cultural and attitudinal, not genetic: "I think [the Kenyans] have devoted themselves to running and are in an environment that promotes running. There's no reason why Alan Webb or any other white American kid can't be a great distance runner."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor