Feature07 May 2024

Why the mile? ‘It is like the marathon, a mystery in athletics’


Hicham El Guerrouj after breaking the world mile record in Rome in 1999 (© Getty Images)

The one-mile distance has captured the sporting imagination. Miracle Mile, Mile of the Century, Dream Mile, Golden Mile… this imperial distance has transcended cultures and has cast a spell of magic which only the marathon can challenge.

But why the mile, especially when it has never been an Olympic or World Championship event on the track?

On Thursday 21 November 2019, the World Athletics Heritage Mile Night was staged in Monaco. Eleven world mile record-breakers (outdoors and indoors) attended: Ron Delany, Michel Jazy, Jim Ryun, Filbert Bayi, Paola Pigni-Cacchi, John Walker, Eamonn Coghlan, Sebastian Coe, Steve Cram, Noureddine Morceli, and Hicham El Guerrouj.

These magic milers, two of whom – Jazy and Cacchi – have since sadly passed away, were joined by 1968 and 1984 Olympic 1500m champions Kipchoge Keino and Gabriella Dorio, and 1987 world 1500m champion Abdi Bile.

What makes the mile special?

Ron Delany (IRL) – 1956 Olympic 1500m champion; multiple world indoor mile records:
“The fellowship and comradeship of the mile. All of us milers over the generations have enjoyed the benefits of the mileage (fame) which we have got out of running the mile.”

Jim Ryun (USA) – 1500m and two world mile records:
“The mile has given us all the opportunity to live our dream. Never did it occur to me as a young man that my future would be running or that it would be the mile.”

Michel Jazy (FRA) – world mile record:
“All milers are part of a historic brotherhood. That’s what makes the mile so special.”

Kip Keino (KEN) – 1968 Olympic 1500m champion:
“I wanted to be a good miler. My inspiration was Roger Bannister. I started with the 800m and tried the steeplechase, 5000m and 10,000m but for me the 1500m and mile were special.”

Paolo Cacchi (ITA) – world 1500m and mile records:
“The mile is like the marathon, a mystery in athletics. It is something which takes you in your heart and when you run a mile you think you are something different. The mile is the past, the present and the future. The athletics mile is for every time.”

John Walker (NZL) – 1976 Olympic 1500m champion; world mile record:
“The mile is the biggest event in running. It is revered in New Zealand as we have had Lovelock, Snell and myself. So when I ran the world record the first below 3:50, it made huge headlines.”

Filbert Bayi (TAN) – world 1500m and mile records:
“I was a national hero when I returned home (after breaking the world mile record). There was a red carpet at the airport which is usually only reserved for the president of the country but on that day it was rolled out for me.”

Gabriella Dorio (ITA) – 1984 Olympic 1500m champion:
“The mile is the most classical race in athletics, a most loved and beautiful event and it stays in my heart.”

Steve Cram (GBR) – 1983 world 1500m champion; world 1500m and mile records:
“It is all about Roger (Bannister). Before Roger there was obviously interest. The mile is easy to understand. It is four laps and it takes four minutes, or it did until he (Roger) broke that barrier. That’s a great attention span for fans.”

“The impact of what Roger did when communications around the world were just developing had a resonance… and it was that iconic moment that has allowed the mile to live and breathe and stay relevant.”

Abdi Bile (SOM) – 1987 world 1500m champion:
“People do not understand the difference that those 100 metres makes between running the 1500m and the mile. That’s the reason why the mile lasts, why the world record remains important. It’s difficult to run.”

Eamonn Coghlan (IRL) – multiple world indoor mile records:
“Why the mile? Four minutes. 60 seconds a lap. For me it was 11 laps while I was chasing my indoor world record.”

“Roger Bannister breaking four minutes… that was something we saw at the cinema on the Pathé News. That was ingrained in your mind when you grew up as a teenager.”

Sebastian Coe (GBR) – 1980 and 1984 Olympic 1500m champion; world 1500m and three mile records:
“Everybody has hit the right point and have talked about Sir Roger. One of my mile marks was of course John (Walker) because in the year in which he went under 3:50 that became as big a target, as big an achievement.”

“For me Walker was Herculean. When I watched him win (Montreal Olympic 1500m) I thought if that was to be me in four years’ time, I had a lot of ground to make up before I would be capable of even lacing his shoes. We must not forget the contribution that John made in reinforcing the importance of the mile.”

Noureddine Morceli – 1996 Olympic and three-time world 1500m champion; world mile and two 1500m records:
“As a youngster I followed the history, Bannister, the Dream Mile, and I started to get very interested in the mile. I wanted to be part of its history, to break the world record. If you want to be one of the great runners, you must be part of this mile history. It was one the big moments for me to break the mile record.”

Hicham El Guerrouj – 2004 Olympic 1500m and four-time world 1500m champion; world 1500m and mile records:
“When I started running, it was a dream for me to become one of the greatest athletes in the world. As I learned more and more about the sport, I began to understand that it was important that I ran fast in the mile. I began watching mile races back to the 1930s. I understood it was not easy to run fast in the mile. The last 100 metres of the mile is like climbing Mount Everest.”

Chris Turner for World Athletics Heritage