Mile News

‘Misfit’ Miler was first to break sub-4 minute Mile on U.S. soil

May 31, 2020

Jim Bailey shocked the world by beating legend John Landy in Los Angeles in 1956

By Dan Fredericks, The Sydney Morning Herald

Australian Jim Bailey was the first runner to break the 4 minute Mile on American soil. He achieved this unexpected, historic feat on May 6, 1956, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in front of 40,000 spectators. However those present had not come to see Jim Bailey – everyone anticipated that a sub-4 minute Mile would be achieved by either Irishman Ron Delany or fellow Australian John Landy.

Bailey was part of the golden generation of Australian middle-distance runners, including Landy, Ron Clarke, Herb Elliott, Donald MacMillan and Merv Lincoln. It is a sad fact that Bailey was mourned more in the United States than in his country of birth.

James John Bailey was born July 21, 1929, in Arncliffe, Sydney. When he was 18 months old, his family moved to Parkes in central-west NSW. His father, P. J. Bailey, was health and buildings inspector with Parkes Municipal Council for 10 years. Their residence in Parkes was in Elizabeth Street.

When James was 10, the family moved to Hurstville in Sydney where Bailey joined the St George Athletics Club. At age 19, at the 1949 Australian Championships, Bailey tied for first in the 880 yards with Western Australia's David White. His mentor, Alleyn Gainsford, advised him not to compete in the required rerun, due to his youth. Bailey accepted the silver medal, with White winning by default.

While completing his engineering studies, Bailey became national champion in the 880 yards in 1951. He did this on the new cinders track at Melbourne's Olympic Park, the new surface getting its test run in preparation for the 1956 Olympic Games. Bailey was not a fan of the new surface, finding it harsh compared to grass.

He was encouraged by French Miler, Marcel Clare, to live and train in Paris where cinders tracks were the norm. Bailey did not adjust to the harsh European winter, where meets were either covered in snow or called off altogether. He returned to Australia, out of form, for the 1952 national championships. Bailey finished second to MacMillan, who earned the sole 1952 Olympic Games spot in 880 yards.

In 1953, Bailey briefly excelled at rugby league as a strong running winger. He played for the Irrigation Commission in the public service league.

Bailey was determined to represent Australia in athletics, taking a job as an engineer on the Snowy River Hydro-Electric Scheme, where the mountainous terrain would assist his training.

By 1954 Bailey was no longer in the spotlight. The athletics fraternity was focused on the impossible becoming reality – the first sub-4 minute Mile. While Bailey qualified for the Vancouver Empire Games, he broke a bone in his foot in winning his 880 yards heat. He was a spectator for both the 880 yards final and the "Miracle Mile", contested by Landy and Roger Bannister, who took silver and gold, respectively. Australian officials had hoped a fit Bailey would have been a "protector" of Landy, allowing him to claim gold from Bannister.

Immediately after the Games, Bailey accepted an invitation to study geology for two years at the University of Oregon. The move connected him to the legendary track & field coach Bill Bowerman, who helped Bailey improve his technique, running an 800 meter personal best of 1:51.0 and winning the 1955 NCAA Mile.

Bailey's form improved leading into 1956 and he was included in the blockbuster Mile race in the LA Memorial Coliseum. Australian officials were delighted that Landy was running, hoping it would be good publicity for the Melbourne Olympics a few months later. They all but ignored Bailey, dubbing him "Mr. Second" due to Landy's mastery over him. While Australian officials were fully focused on Landy, the U.S. experts had not recognized his greatness. It was only due to Bailey extolling how great Landy was – continually referring to him as "The Master" – that they slowly accepted Landy's brilliance.

Convinced by Bailey, the experts on the day focused solely on Landy and Delany, with good reason. Landy was the fastest Miler in the world and one of only five runners at the time to have bettered 4 minutes. Delany was a competitive runner, having won all nine races in 1956. Bailey was hopeful he might finish second to Landy and still qualify for the Olympics.

The race lived up to its hype. There were 40,000 in the stands, and a delayed television audience of 40 million witnessed a titanic struggle. Delany took an uncharacteristic lead early and remained in front until the second lap when Landy overtook him. At the time Bailey was in fourth. By the third lap, Bailey had moved up one position. He took off after the leaders and caught Delany on the backstretch. On the final turn, he caught up to Landy. Such was Bailey's belief in Landy that he patted his countryman on the stern and shouted, "Go!" However, Landy did not – Bailey continued his fast-finishing pace and took first in 3:58.6. Landy was two strides behind in 3:58.7.

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Tags: ron delany (10) , john landy (34) , jim bailey (2)

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