By Bob Phillips
28th December 2018
Top-notchers. Hot Bunches. Big Problems. How Joe Binks, the Old Champion, Foresaw
the Sub-four-minute Mile
Joe Binks (right)
The earliest mentions in literature of the feasibility of a four-minute mile have long interested me, and if you so choose you can trace such references back even as far as the late 18th Century, when James Parrot is said to have achieved exactly that time along the streets of central London. There’s good reason to believe he actually may have done so.
Moving the clock forward some 150 years, the pre-eminent English coach of the 1920s and 1930s, F.A.M. Webster, certainly had such a performance in mind, and it may be that the first British miler to think in those terms was George Hutson, though it’s not unreasonable to suggest that he could have been over-ambitious because his fastest time was no better than 4:22.0, set in winning the 1914 AAA title. He sadly had no further chance to improve because he was killed in action in World War I little more than two months later.
It was during World War II that the first journalist to have given serious thought to the idea of a runner breaking four minutes focused repeated attention on the matter. He was Joe Binks, the veteran athletics correspondent of the London-published “News of the World”. For each Sunday’s edition he wrote a chatty column of news, in addition to reporting on the major athletics meetings, and he had some very reliable contacts, particularly in the USA, who kept him well informed on what was happening elsewhere, and what was likely to happen. As early as March 1940 Binks pronounced “Look out for that four-minute mile!”, and he was to write time and again about the achievements of the great Swedish middle-distance runners, Gunder Hägg and Arne Andersson, though his initial reaction was decidedly cautious. Soon after Hägg set the first of his records, at 1500 metres in August 1941, Binks noted in passing, “Apparently one Gunnar Hagg has beaten Lovelock’s Olympic time of 3mins 47.8secs by two-tenths. But we must await the acceptance”.
Not surprisingly, in the midst of World War II, this was the first mention of Hãgg that Binks had come across, but by then he had a mass of unrivalled reporting experience on his side. Born in 1874, he had been writing since 1903 for the Sunday newspaper which was such a sterling sponsor of British athletics, and he would continue to do so until his retirement at the age of 82 in 1956, having covered every Olympics since 1908. He had himself been AAA mile champion in 1902 in a British amateur record time of 4:16.8 and had been personal witness to the achievements of an unbroken line of Olympic champions and World record-holders over the years – Strode-Jackson, Hill, Nurmi, Beccali, Lovelock, Cunningham, Wooderson among them. So by the 1940s he knew very well what he was talking about. In an era when there were no universal ranking-lists ready to hand, British international athletes relied on Binks to keep them informed about foreign opposition.
By July 1943, when Andersson reduced the mile record to 4:02.6, Binks had dismissed all doubts from his mind about the calibre of the Swedes. Under an uncompromising headline – “THE WONDER MILE – HOW I WOULD PLAN A FOUR-MINUTE PACE” – he began his article by declaring, “It is now dawning upon the most sceptical folk that a mile in four minutes is possible, and I am being asked how such a race should be run”. It was a favourite turn-of-phrase of Binks’s to suggest that ideas for his articles had come from his readers, and the fact is that he could justify that claim. During the war years he gave some 1500 lectures to members of the armed forces, travelling the length and breadth of Great Britain, with all expenses paid by his newspaper, and so he had plenty of contact with his public.
There were certainly readers a-plenty. The “News of the World”, determinedly basing its editorial content on scandal, gossip and entertainment, was by far the largest-selling of all British daily and Sunday newspapers. Its circulation more than doubled from 3,750,000 in 1939 to 7,887,000 in 1948. Binks clearly reveled in his tireless excursions round the British Isles, even though by 1943 he was now 69 years of age. In one of his morale-boosting columns he wrote, “I have just spent an enjoyable week at our great bomber stations, and what a grand lot I met! They get ready for the big raids with so much enthusiasm that one would think they were taking part in an international sports match”.
Binks put forward the radical idea of a co-operative international effort to achieve that “wonder mile”. He advised, “It would be best to have four or five top-notchers training together before the race, and I suggest that running of laps in 60sec be practised. Each runner should help the others in pacing, and only around the last lap should the competitors go all out to gain an individual triumph”. Naturally, he proposed that Hägg and Andersson would be the major contenders but also recommended that Sydney Wooderson join them. This was all a pipe-dream, of course, with the war still raging, and Wooderson had to content himself with charity fund-raising outings against modest opposition, with a best time for the year of 4:11.5. It would not be until the return of peace in 1945 that he would get his chance against the Swedes.
Further inspired by Andersson’s 4:02.6, Binks posed the provocative rhetorical question, “Why not two more seconds when a hot bunch of milers meet?” He had a high regard for the leading milers in the USA, having seen many of them in action when he visited the country before the war and been particularly impressed by a teenager, Leslie MacMitchell, who had gone on to become the leading indoor miler in 1941 and 1942, with a best time of 4:07.4. Now Binks proposed that “if Hagg, Dodds, Dixon and Burnham clash in America I predict that a four-minute mile is possible”. Hägg was in the USA in 1943, running a series of races to raise money for the war effort, and Gil Dodds, Frank Dixon (as Binks noted, the first front-rank Afro-American miler) and Don Burnham were among his likely opponents.
As it happens, Hägg’s fastest mile on tour was 4:05.3, with Bill Hulse setting a US record of 4:06.0 behind him. Unabashed, Binks pointed out that the four-minute mile was not a novel idea so far as he was concerned. “Some athletic experts and doctors say that such a feat is impossible. I started this discussion on this big problem in 1925 when I asked Nurmi if he could do a four-minute mile. He smiled and replied ‘4:04, maybe’ “.
Binks was too polite to add in so many words that he believed that the “experts” were wrong, but from time to time he was understandably more restrained in his predictions. Again after Andersson’s 4:02.6 Binks wrote of the four-minute mile that “it may come from Sweden this year, next year or in 10 years, but it is not likely to come from Finland, Britain and America amid war”. With accurate perception he added, “After it has been achieved once, I am sure it will be followed up by athletes of several nations”.
When Andersson improved Hägg’s 1500 metres World record from 3:45.8 to 3:45.0 in Gothenburg on 17 August 1943, Binks was agog with enthusiasm; “Andersson’s time works out in cold figures to represent the mile in 4min 1sec. So it is a definite advance to that four-minute mile. What a pity Andersson did not finish out the mile at the same time. It would have been more than interesting”. Binks even predicted that four minutes would be broken within a matter of weeks, suggesting, “Gunder Hägg will probably hasten to Sweden from America to join the home team of fast milers. Look out for that four-minute mile in September!” Frustratingly for Binks and his hordes of eager readers, it would not be until the next year that the Swedes resumed their rivalry.
In the meantime Binks found happenings nearer home to cheer him – and particularly those of Wooderson, memorably described by Binks as “this sixty-six inches of athletic dynamite”. On the face of it, Wooderson’s 4thplace in 4:15.2 in a handicap mile at the Rangers’ Sports in Glasgow on 7 August was of no particular note, but Binks reported the next day, “I think it must be one of the greatest miles ever run”. In his newspaper column of a fortnight later he explained why – and in the process made reference to a restriction placed on journalists in those wartime years which athletics historians might not readily appreciate. A delay of 10 days for any mention of weather conditions was enforced by the government because this disclosure might otherwise be of value to the enemy in planning air-raids. Thus it was only after such a time lapse that Binks was able to comment, “I can assure you that the weather at the Rangers’ meeting was atrocious”.
Hägg’s defeat of Andersson in another World record 1500 metres, 3:43.0 to 3:44.0, on 7 July 1944 in Gothenburg produced a challenging headline for the readers of Binks’s follow-up comments – “Do You Now Believe in a 4-min Mile?” Binks discussed how times for 1500 metres and the mile could be compared, which was a matter that he had mulled over on several previous occasions: “I know some critics do not agree with my estimates over the extra 120 yards”, he wrote, “but my figures are backed up by the average times of 16sec taken in mile races by such world-beaters as Glenn Cunningham, Bill Bonthron, Gene Venzke and San Romani. Hägg and Andersson prove by their sensational two and three miles running that they can stay and are not likely to tire much over the final 120 yards to complete the mile. Even if Hägg tired a trifle – which I doubt – he would definitely beat 17sec for another 120 yards”.
Binks’s choice of examples of fast finishers is an odd one. Only Cunningham, of the four Americans he cited, had actually set a World record for the mile, and he wasn’t timed at 1500 metres. Hägg and Andersson themselves provided much more vital evidence because in their five record-breaking mile races since 1942 the winner (Andersson leading 3-2) had completed the distance between 1500 metres and the finish – actually 119.8 yards – in times ranging from 15.2sec to 16.4. Maybe Binks did not have that detailed information at his disposal at the time of writing. It’s hard to imagine that after bombing-raids over Germany and fighter attacks across the English Channel there were heated discussions among the surviving Allied aircrew about how fast a miler could finish his race, but Binks – despite his somewhat laboured journalistic style – was apparently an inspiring speaker, and no doubt his visits to remote air-force stations and army camps were a welcome diversion.
Andersson’s defeat of Hägg in yet another record-breaking mile race, 4:01.6 to 4:02.0, in Malmö only 11 days later (18 July) aroused Binks to further heated speculation, though he severely criticised the pair of them: “To my mind both athletes ran with bad judgment. They covered the first quarter in 58sec and the half-mile in 1min 55.9sec, which is definitely too fast. I cannot imagine any athlete surviving such a pace and showing 4min for the mile. If these athletes contented themselves with 60sec for each of the first two or three laps, and then went all out for the last, it would be odds on them beating 4min”.
By now a promising miler, Douglas Wilson was also contributing articles to the “News of the World”, having convinced the AAA authorities that he was not being paid and was therefore not infringing his amateur status. Inspired by Andersson’s 4:01.6, he wrote, under the headline “Four-minute Mile Now Within Sight” that it “will, I think, be accomplished within the next two or three years”. Wilson had run a 4:14.0 mile behind Wooderson’s 4:12.8 at the White City British Games in June of 1943 and would eventually become AAA champion and an Olympic 1500 metres representative in 1948, though never aspiring himself to sub-four-minutes.
By the time that Doug Wilson took over as Joe Binks’s full-time successor at the “News of the World” in 1956 the mile had been run in under four minutes by 11 different men – four from Great Britain, three from Australia,, two from Hungary, one each from Denmark and Ireland, but none from Sweden or the USA – and it had all taken rather longer than either Joe Binks or Doug Wilson had envisaged. Binks retired to the village of Whiteparish, in Wiltshire, which had been the county of birth of the greatest of all 19thCentury milers, Walter George. By the time of Binks’s death in 1966 the mile record stood at 3:51.3, and it was an American, Jim Ryun, who held it..