Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Why is there no Olympic mile? Blame the French!

* Ovett, Cram and Coe . .  not a Frenchman in sight!

STUMBLING merrily across some fields next to the A120 trunk road at the weekend, a puzzling thought suddenly planted itself in my brain.

Why on earth do we have a 1500 metres event at the Olympic Games – and not a Mile race? It’s a complete anomaly, as there are races at 100, 200, 400 and 800 metres – but then the sequence goes pear-shaped. So why 1500 and not the more logical Mile (1609 metres)?  

There was no time to ponder this question at that particular moment, and no opportunity to discuss it with the Tiptree runner alongside. Our full concentration was needed on where to plant our feet during a lively off-road event around the Felsted area of mid-Essex.

A trail race is certainly not the time or place to ponder difficult questions. You have to keep a close eye on your narrative instructions, which is no easy task while simultaneously negotiating ploughed fields and dense woods full of protruding tree roots.  And, on top of all that, Sunday’s event involved finding a path through some very big brown cows, a series of tricky metal gates, and not forgetting a sudden hailstorm in the closing stages.

The huge Garmin device strapped to my left wrist kept me informed how many metres had been covered, but as the race organisers used imperial measurements, this required constant conversion. Luckily I’d consumed enough brain food beforehand to cope.

All runners will know about the constant conflict between metric and imperial distances. Our race calendars feature 10-mile races, 10-kilometre races, five milers and 5ks. I’ve heard several tales of inexperienced runners entering a ‘10’ and only finding out it was miles, not kilometres, at a very late stage in proceedings. Care is also needed when your training group gallops off for ‘an easy eight’ on a wintry Tuesday night. Eight miles feels a lot longer than eight kilometres, that’s for sure.

Getting back to my original question, why on earth is the 1500 metres race so firmly established in athletics championships like the Olympics?  All tracks these days are 400 metres, so 1500 is an awkward 3.75 laps, for goodness’ sake. A Mile of four simple laps would be so much easier for spectators and runners alike, and the Mile is an iconic ‘blue riband’ distance, dripping with history and tradition. Even the Scandinavians (with their annual Dream Mile) love and celebrate it.

I have consulted the experts over this, and there’s an interesting consensus. Apparently It’s those dastardly French who are to blame!  And it’s all because they dislike the English.   

Alex Wilson, an athletics friend of mine based in Germany, who knows everything worth knowing about the history of our sport, came up with this verdict:  “Why do we have races at 1500 metres? I say blame the French!  I believe the French began competing over 1500 in the early 1890s. This might have something to do with the fact that, being Continentals, they used metric distances, and to that end laid 500-metre tracks, such as the one at Neuilly for the 1900 Olympics. Even though the mile was the prevalent distance worldwide in the 1890s, it was the French who called the shots when they revived the Modern Olympics in 1896.”

Another expert, Keith Davis, agrees that the French are the guilty parties, but says there’s more to it than merely the convenience of the old 500 metre tracks.  Had it just been a question of the track size, surely a 500-metre single-lap race would have flourished, as might 1000 and 2000-metre races. 

No, Keith says it has more to do with anti-English feeling in France : “I would suggest that the authority of the Mile had to be challenged in order to give the metric measures their own identity or integrity. 1500 metres is close enough to the mile to be a meaningful athletic distance, but different enough to NOT be English!  And that, I suspect, was actually the key point. As much political and cultural as strictly mathematical.”

The revival of the modern Olympics by Baron de Coubertin was very much a continental (French) affair, and our feisty neighbours from over the Channel clearly found it necessary to emphasise this by overriding or ignoring the much longer history of track and field competition in the English-speaking countries. 

And thus, it seems, the Baron and his merry men decided there would be a 1500 metres race on the Olympic programme. The Mile was far too British for them. Like it or lump it. C’est la vie, rosbifs!    

It took us nearly 100 years, but we did eventually get our own back for that odd decision. In the golden era of the 1980s Great Britain reigned supreme at the 1500-metre distance, completely dominating the event via the likes of Seb Coe, Steve Ovett, Steve Cram and Peter Elliott . . . .    

(* Check out Rob Hadgraft's published books on running, at www.robhadgraft.com)

1 comment:

  1. Rob - I have referred to this blog on my own blog - Hope you don't mind - Alan