Jim Ryun shatters Mile world record 50 years ago
“In New Zealand, we thought the Mile belonged to us. It was a shock when Jazy broke Peter Snell’s record, but when I heard on the radio that the American kid had run two seconds faster, I thought it must be a mistake."; No American male has held the outdoor Mile world record since.
By Roger Robinson, Runner's World
Fifty years ago, July 17, 1966, Jim Ryun of Kansas University broke the world record for one Mile. His 3:51.3 at UC Berkeley was more than two seconds faster than Michel Jazy’s 1-year-old mark of 3:53.6. Ryun was 19 years and two months, the youngest man ever to hold the record.
For 30 years America’s Milers had been in the wilderness. The last American to hold the world record was Glenn Cunningham, also of Kansas, from 1934 to 1937. Cunningham’s Olympic silver in 1936 was the last time any American had reached the 1500 meter podium.
“We were waiting for the next great American Miler. Track was a major fan sport in those days, with big crowds, and every important meet covered on TV. Americans fans love the Mile. Dandy new Milers kept appearing—[Jim] Beatty, [Dyrol] Burleson, [Jim] Grelle, [Cary] Weisiger, [Tom] O’Hara—but none quite came up to it. At the 1964 Olympics, it was Bob Schul and Billy Mills who won in the longer races, while our middle-distance runners were overshadowed by [Peter] Snell of New Zealand. Then all of a sudden, this Kansas college kid shatters the world record,” said Greg Vitiello, 81, a lifetime New York track fan and historian for the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame.
If America was triumphant, the rest of the world was almost incredulous.
“In New Zealand, we thought the Mile belonged to us. It was a shock when Jazy broke Peter Snell’s record, but when I heard on the radio that the American kid had run two seconds faster, I thought it must be a mistake. We knew Ryun was a talent, but 3:51? Three seconds faster than Snell? When it sank in, we were in awe,” said Sam McLean, 73, of Christchurch, a miler of that era, now a coach.
It was the space-rocket rapidity of Ryun’s ascent that shocked the world. He was still thought of as “the kid,” the high school phenom, galloping to sub-4 at age 17. In the 1964 Olympics, suffering from a head cold and teenage angst, he trailed a disastrous last in his semifinal.
However rapid that progression seemed, there were significant pointers. In separate races in 1965 and 1966, the maturing Ryun beat Snell and Kip Keino, got his Mile down to 3:55.8, set an American 2 Mile record of 8:25.1, and on June 10, 1966, at Terre Haute, Indiana, broke Snell’s world record for 880 yards, with 1:44.9.
The Mile record opportunity came from a mix of politics and purposefulness. Two international dual meets were scheduled in California for late July, USA against Poland and Russia, but two weeks out the Soviets canceled, as a protest against the Vietnam War.
“I get to start my vacation a week earlier,” was the race-weary Ryun’s first response, according to Cordner Nelson’s The Jim Ryun Story. But the 880 yard record in June told him he was ready for a fast Mile. The Poland meet was to be held at Berkeley, and meet director Sam Bell made the auspicious decision to assemble a replacement program, and switched the 1500 meters to a Mile.
Bell agreed to low-key the publicity to ease pressure on Ryun, and recruited improving Milers Rich Romo and Tom Van Ruden to set the early pace.
“I want to break 4 minutes just as badly as Ryun wants to break the world record,” Romo said.
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