Occassional thoughts about orienteering

Sunday, January 29, 2006

4 minute mile barrier?


Over at Sandra and Marc's web page, I read a quote about the 4-minute mile. You can read What you believe you will achieve!.

I understand that the idea is to provide some motivation -- you can achieve something you didn't think possible if you believe you can achieve it. But, the quote struck me as sloppy thinking.

I wonder if it is true that 45 runners broke 4-minutes in the next 18 months? It sounds a bit far fetched, but it is possible, I suppose. I'm not sure how to check. If I assume it is true, is it suprising? How many runners would be expected to run that fast in 18 months? I don't know.

...the entire sports world believed that it was humanly impossible to run a mile in faster than four minutes.

Well, that clearly isn't true. Certainly Bannister, Landy and Santee thought it was possible. So when the author says, "the entire sports world," they probably mean something more like, "a bunch of newspaper writers, some scientists and grad students, and a bunch of regular folk."

I suspect that all those runners who've broken 4-minute miles after Bannister did it because they trained hard, had some talent, and (a lot of them) had some pacing help. Their times had less to do with a "barrier" than with the normal progression you tend to see in athletics.

I found a web page with mile records and plotted the record time for 1931 through 1966. The chart below shows it. The y-axis shows seconds away from 4 minutes (i.e. negative numbers are sub-four).

If you just drew a straight line to fit the data points, you'd expect the 4-minute mile to be broken around 1947 or 1948. Bannister didn't break the record until 1954. Could it be the mental barrier? Maybe. But, might it also be the fact that the world was recovering from World War II? I'd think the war probably had a bigger effect in delaying the record than some sort of mental barrier. It seems reasonable (maybe even obvious in retrospect) that we'd expect the four minute barrier to be delayed while the world recovered from the destruction of the war.

If you take a few years out of the graph to try to account for the way (remove, for example, 1948-1952), the world record progression looks linear. If there was some sort of barrier, you wouldn't get a linear progression.

I could go on and on, but I won't.

I really believe stuff like motivation, goals, organizational culture, leadership and so on matter. I think they matter a whole lot. I just don't think the "4-minute mile barrier" illustrates the importance of that stuff.

When I was searching for record times to make my graph, I came across an interesting collection of articles about the 4-minute mile at the Times Online.

Note: I realize I forgot to credit the authors of the text that I don't like. According to SaMa, the quote is from Chungliang Al Huang and Jerry Lynch.

posted by Michael | 5:57 PM


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