Forty Years After a Dream Mile, a Harsh Reality for Track
By TOM CONNELLY
Published: May 15, 2011
The news that the Millrose Games are leaving Madison Square Garden after 97 years to relocate uptown to the 168th Street armory reminds us of how indifferent we are to track and field. And yet, in a coincidence of timing, we remember, too, that we were not always this way. Friday’s announcement came almost exactly 40 years after an event that placed the sport, however briefly, front and center in the consciousness of the American public.
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James Drake/Sports Illustrated, via Getty Images
Jim Ryun, left, and Marty Liquori, the pre-eminent milers of their day, left the pack far behind as they ran for the finish line on May 16, 1971, at Franklin Field in Philadelphia.
On May 16, 1971, Marty Liquori and Jim Ryun went head to head at Franklin Field in Philadelphia in what was billed as the Dream Mile. Maybe it did not generate the overheated water-cooler conversation that anticipated Ali-Frazier two months earlier, but in an era of unusually outsize sports personalities, when malevolence of thought and deed were imputed on the slimmest evidence, the Dream Mile fueled a rousing simmer. Like Ali-Frazier, Liquori-Ryun lived up to its hype.
The contestants were a promoter’s dream. It was easy to pick a side. Ryun was from the Midwest heartland, quiet and self-effacing, with a devastating kick. Liquori was from the urban Northeast, cocky and brash, a front-runner who lived to push the pace. Together with Kip Keino of Kenya, who was invited but declined, they were the pre-eminent milers of their day.
They had a history, too. When Ryun, an established star, ran a world-record 3 minutes 51.1 seconds in Bakersfield, Calif., in 1967, Liquori, a high school senior, finished seventh, dipping under four minutes for the first time. Ryun won their first six meetings, Liquori the next two, including the Amateur Athletic Union championship in Miami in June 1969, when Ryun walked off the track after two laps. Ryun called it a “mental breakdown.” He did not race again for 19 months. When asked if he missed Ryun, Liquori said, “I don’t think Wilt Chamberlain misses Bill Russell very much.”
On a cool, damp Sunday in Philadelphia, four months after Ryun began his carefully calibrated return to racing, he and Liquori resumed their rivalry at the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Games. The cast included the Olympians John Carlos and Lee Evans in the sprints and Bob Seagren, the world-record holder, in the pole vault. On that day, though, everything else was undercard.
I was there with my father. I recall Ryun warming up, running full turns on the interior track: a series of languid jogs, then of gradually lengthening strides and finally of full-out sprints. It seemed as if he had run five miles to prepare for one. It was a revelation to a novice not yet 15.
Liquori emerged from the tunnel as Ryun was finishing. I believe they shook hands. Ryun, at the starting line, was introduced to resounding cheers. This being Philadelphia, Liquori, the local kid from Villanova, was booed.
In the race itself, neither runner initially played to type. Liquori allowed Joe Savage, a future relay world-record holder but then a precocious Manhattan College freshman, to set a lackluster early pace, perhaps as a gesture to Fred Dwyer, Savage’s coach and a former world-class miler who had been Liquori’s mentor at Essex Catholic in Newark. At 700 yards, an uncharacteristically impatient Ryun, who could lurk breathtakingly deep in the pack, and sometimes out of the pack, before reeling in runners like so many singlets on a clothesline, glided past Liquori and toward the front.
By the start of the third lap, the halfway point, Ryun had snatched the lead, forcing the issue with Liquori on his heels. But in short order, Liquori passed him back with a decisive move just before the backstretch, pushing the pace harder still. By the gun lap, they were alone — Liquori in full stride, Ryun right behind, his head in its characteristic wobble of relaxation, not fatigue.
The crowd rose with them as they ran, a growing, unbreaking wave accompanied by a rolling, deafening roar. In the final turn, Ryun pulled closer. Liquori sneaked an anxious peek, then another. At the top of the straightaway, Ryun, for the briefest moment, seemed to draw even, poised to strike. But his bag of kicks was empty, Liquori having scattered them step by step over a 600-yard battle of attrition. Liquori mustered a short, sharp surge and held his lead, one long stride, to the finish. Both men were timed at 3:54.6, Ryun generously so. They covered the last quarter-mile in 54.6 seconds.