Can Webb lead American fans to circle the track once again?

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Here’s an ineteresting article I found in the Seattle Times from Blaine Newnham:

 

When Jim Ryun first broke the world record in the mile in 1966,Walter Cronkite interrupted his nightly network show to share the news.

Later that year, at age 19, Ryun was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as the magazine’s Sportsman of the Year.

When Alan Webb finally broke Steve Scott’s 25-year-old American mile record two weeks ago, the news really was no news.

It ended up on page 13 of the Sunday Sports section, and consisted of five paragraphs.

For the record, Webb, who by all rights seems to be America’s greatyoung middle-distance hope, ran 3:46.91 at Brasschatt, Belgium, beforea crowd of fewer than 1,000 spectators to beat Scott’s record, set inOslo in 1982, of 3:47.69.

The race was a setup, as Roger Bannister’s had been when he firstbroke 4 minutes in the mile. There were pacers for the first threelaps. The competition was the clock.

On a windless and warm night, against a backdrop of trees and notpeople, Webb ran laps of 56.1, 57.4, 56.8 and 56.2. The overall resultmade him the eighth-fastest miler in world history.

Two weeks before that, Webb ran the fastest 1,500 meters this year(3:30.54) while winning a big race in Paris. He will be a favorite inthe World Championships next month in Osaka, Japan.

“I’m definitely looking to kick butt in the Worlds,” Webb told The Associated Press.

But will anyone care?

After his American mile mark was finally eclipsed, Scott said, “I’mhappy that it was Alan who broke my record, and I believe at the end ofthe day, when all is said and done, people will consider him thegreatest distance runner America has ever had.”

I wanted to talk to Jim Ryun about that. And if only I could, the late Steve Prefontaine.

It was Webb who finally broke Ryun’s American high-school record, a mark of 3:55.30. One that lasted 36 years.

“He can be as good as he wants to be,” Ryun said. “It will depend upon how he handles the pressures.”

Ryun had returned my call. We’d known each other during hissix-month stint in Eugene in the early 1970s as he prepared for hisfinal Olympics.

Ryun, who turned 60 in April, was in Colorado, supervising a running camp (ryunrunning.com), and preparing his strategy to reclaim the Congressional seat he, a Kansas Republican, held for 10 years.

Perhaps Webb will be America’s greatest runner. He has range, and as he says: “I’m not done. I’m only 24.”

It’s numbing now to think Ryun was only 25 when he retired fromrunning. He had run in three Olympics by that time, set the world milerecord three times, and done everything but win Olympic gold.

At the time, none of us knew he was at the end of America’s great love for track and field.

It was a time, he said, when America should have capitalized on theinterest instead of losing the battle to the other major sports.

When I was in high school in the ’50s, track was as important asbaseball in the spring. Big relay meets drew 50,000 fans or more.

Then track stopped drawing the best athletes. Improvement in many events seemed minimal, if at all.

In 1933, Jesse Owens set a national high-school record in the longjump of 24-9 ¾. That was 75 years ago with leather shoes and cinderrunways, but the reality is very few high-school kids can jump that fartoday.

Think about how basketball has changed in 75 years.

“I was amazed my high-school record lasted 36 years,” said Ryun, whostill holds the mark for a time run in a strictly high-school meet of3:58.3.

Maybe we don’t care about distance running as much anymore becausewe don’t run the mile in high school, caught up in an awkwardtransition to metric measurement.

Maybe it is because internationally we aren’t as good as we used to be.

It was in the ’60s and the ’70s that sports officials fought the last battles to keep the sport amateur.

“I won a typewriter at a big meet — which was an acceptable award bythe AAU — and then when I got back to Kansas the NCAA made me give itback,” Ryun remembered.

“I retired from track because I had a family and needed to make aliving,” he continued. “The only way I could continue was to take moneyfrom meet promoters under the table and I wouldn’t do that.

“We were fighting battles that weren’t necessary.”

Ryun left track before his time. So did the 24-year-old Prefontaine, who was killed in an automobile accident.

In Mexico City, Ryun ran faster than he thought he could at altitudebut had to settle for a silver medal as Kenyan Kip Keino won the gold.

In Munich four years later, he was tripped in a qualifying race. The IOC failed to reinstate him.

Showing his inexperience, Webb failed to advance at the 2004Olympics in Athens after winning the Olympic Trials in Sacramento. Now,he seems poised for greatness.

“We need someone to capture America’s interest again,” Ryun said. “I hope it happens.”

Comments for Blaine Newnham: e-mail sports@seattletimes.com
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Mike Young

Mike Young

Founder of ELITETRACK at Athletic Lab
Mike has a BS in Exercise Physiology from Ohio University, an MSS in Coaching Science from Ohio University & a PhD in Biomechanics from LSU. Additionally, he has been recognized as a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) from the National Strength & Conditioning Association, a Level 3 coach by USA Track & Field, a Level 2 coach by USA Weightlifting.
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