Racing Past

The History of Middle and Long Distance Running

Bob Phillips Articles / Profile

Tomorrow's Paavo Nurmi. Today's Lone Leader. Yesterday's Four-minute Hopes

Tomorrow’s Paavo Nurmi. Today’s lone leader. Yesterday’s four-minute hopes


In 1940 and 1941, as war raged throughout much of Europe, track and field activity continued unabated in the USA, and for a while it seemed as if one of a talented group of Americans might be the first to threaten the four-minute-mile “barrier”, rather than any of the Swedes thriving in neutrality. The fastest outdoor mile in either of those years was run not by Hägg or Andersson but by Charles Fenske, of the USA (4:08.3), and four other Americans were better than 4:08 indoors. Only Glenn Cunningham, the former World record-holder, could really be discounted from any pursuit of that tantalising “sub-four-minute” target. He had already said that 1940 would be his last season, and his hopes of ending his career with Olympic 1500 metres gold were, of course, dashed with the cancellation of the Games that year.


Cunningham was beaten in a sensational AAU 1500 metres in June of 1940 by Walter Mehl, whose time of 3:47.9 was only one-tenth slower than Jack Lovelock’s World record, and  more than 50 years later Mehl was to reminisce that either he or one of his rivals could well have run a sub-four-minute mile. Fenske would clearly have been amongst those fellow-contenders that Mehl had in mind, and two others who certainly came into the reckoning in 1941 were Leslie MacMitchell and John Munski. MacMitchell equaled the World indoor record of 4:07.4 held by Cunningham and Fenske. Munski’s times were less obviously impressive, but there is good reason to believe that they only vaguely hinted at what he could really do. In their book, “The Milers” (published by “Track & Field News” in 1985), Cordner Nelson and Roberto Quercetani described MacMitchell’s exploits in detail and concluded that he had “remarkable talent”, but their text is very much statistics-orientated and they do not speculate on “what might have been”.


Born in Manhattan on 26 September 1920, MacMitchell was a teenage prodigy at George Washington High School who set meeting records in each of the three years that he won national inter-scholastic titles indoors: 1000 yards in 1936 at the age of 15, the mile in 1937 and the 880 yards in 1938. In the last of those years he set a national indoor mile record for high-school students at 4:21.7, which was three seconds faster than Cunningham had achieved in outdoor scholastic competition. At the annual Princeton Invitational in 1940, still aged only 19, MacMitchell was 3rd to Munski and Mehl (4:11.0, 4:11.6, 4:12.2). Then indoors in 1941 he scored his finest victory in New York on 15 February when he and Mehl both ran a World-record 4:07.4, leaving the veteran Olympic 1500 metres champion from 1932, Luigi Beccali, of Italy, a long way behind. MacMitchell continued that form outdoors, running 3:51.4 for 1500 metres to rank 6th in the World for the year behind five Swedes (Hägg and Andersson leading at a World-record 3:47.6 and 3:48.6 respectively).


During 1941 MacMitchell won both the NCAA (national collegiate) mile title and the AAU national 1500 metres to become only the fourth man ever to complete the NCAA/AAU double at those distances in the same year (Cunningham being one of the other three). For the AAU win Walter Mehl was beaten by two-tenths of a second, and MacMitchell was later to reflect fondly that “it was one of those years I almost felt I could do anything”.  In 1942 he had the three fastest indoor mile times of the season, 4:07.8 and twice at 4:08.0, and until he was beaten for the AAU title by Gil Dodds he had won 26 successive races. Outdoors he was not so successful, placing 3rd in the AAU 1500 metres to Dodds and running no faster than 4:12.2 for the mile.


One of the USA’s leading syndicated sports columnists of that era, Burton Benjamin, wrote appraisingly of MacMitchell and said that he “may realise that most cherished of all track dreams – the four-minute mile”. Benjamin presumably knew MacMitchell well because he described him as being “so self-effacing he might be called the shrinking violet of New York University”. There was a pun in that remark because NYU sports teams were known as the “Violets”. Benjamin also says of MacMitchell that he was a Scotsman, but that sort of term was prevalent in American journalism then to explain a person’s ethnic background rather than indicate a precise place of birth. So it may well be that MacMitchell’s parents, or other ancestors, came from Scotland. His name certainly suggests so.


“Time” magazine – not given to excessiveness – carried an article in 1941 in which the opinion was voiced that “if another Golden Era of sport is to follow World War II, as it did World War I, the Paavo Nurmi of tomorrow may well be Leslie MacMitchell”. The issue in which this appears was dated 1 December, and the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor six days later. The “New York Times” had pronounced unequivocally of MacMitchell that he was “the man who is going to run the mile in four minutes”, but destiny decided otherwise, of course. He graduated with a degree in physical education in June 1942 and promptly joined the US Navy, serving on combat duty as a Lieutenant in the Atlantic and Pacific, and later he recalled wryly, “Running on the steel deck of a light cruiser is not the best way to train”.  


Back in competition when peacetime returned


MacMitchell was one of those hardy souls among US athletes from the early 1940s or even the 1930s who returned to competition after the war (1948 Olympic champions Barney Ewell, Cliff Bourland, Roy Cochran, Guinn Smith and Willie Steele also among them). At Madison Square Garden on 2 March 1946 MacMitchell had the interesting experience of winning the “Zamperini Ghost Mile” – named in honour of the fine pre-war miler and teenage Olympic 5000 metres runner who might also have been a sub-four challenger, Louis Zamperini, who had been reported missing while on wartime air-force service after his aircraft had been shot down in the Pacific. To lend added poignancy to the staging of the mile race, Zamperini was on hand to prove that he was alive and well and to act as starter.


MacMitchell also won his one and only AAU title that winter. He was working in the administration department of New York University and training haphazardly at night by running round the reservoir in Central Park, avoiding the puddles along the pathway. Filmgoers who have seen “Marathon Man” will remember the sequence in which Dustin Hoffman does just that. Outdoors MacMitchell was 2nd to the visiting Lennart Strand, of Sweden, in the AAU 1500 and that was more or less the end of his competitive career. He  later became an educational consultant in California, working until the age of 81, and he died on 21 March 2005. “I think eventually I could have run four minutes”, he once said, “but we weren’t thinking about that then. We never trained as hard as we might have. We didn’t know enough to do that”. 


John Munski’s progression was a shade less spectacular than MacMitchell’s: 4:15.9 and a 4:10.1 relay stage in 1938, aged 20; 1:52.6 for 880 yards (equal 15th in the year’s World rankings) and 4:13.5 indoors in 1939. Born 31 October 1917, he was one of the 12 children of Polish immigrants who lived in Lewistown, in central Montana, where his father was a miner, and he attended the University of Missouri. There he broke four of the five Conference  records set by Glenn Cunningham, including improving the two-mile time by 14.5 seconds. While studying at Missouri and captaining the track team Munski was to be involved in a major controversy in 1939 when the University of Wisconsin was invited to take part in a match, and then a fortnight before it was due to be held the Missouri organisers informed Wisconsin that their Afro-American hurdler, Ed Smith, would not be allowed to compete because of local custom barring racial integration. The Wisconsin team withdrew, and Munski commented bravely, “I guess that they’re still fighting the Civil War here in Missouri”. 


Munski was also a very capable distance-runner and placed 3rd in the NCAA cross-country event won by Walter Mehl at East Lansing, Michigan, in November of 1939. Described as “Lonesome John” by university publicists (“he’s always so far out in front he appears friendless”, they burbled), he was the ideal build for a miler at 5ft 11in tall (1.80m), as was MacMitchell, and lived up to his name on the track because he pronounced that his racing policy was “to get out in front in the shortest possible time and stay there”. Three weeks after his 4:11.0 mile outdoors in 1940, he was involved in the record-breaking AAU 1500 won by Mehl from Cunningham and Paul Moore, and his estimated time of 3:49.5 was the fastest-ever 4th place at the distance. Munski ran the 5th best 800 metres of the year in 1941, 1:50.6, in a list headed by Italy’s Mario Lanzi and Germany’s World record-holder, Rudolf Harbig, at 1:49.0 and 1:49.2, while his best mile time was indoors at 4:09.7. But Munski has the edge over MacMitchell in mile-running folklore in the form of an intriguing tale which suggests that something much closer to four minutes was not as fanciful as the stark figures of Munski’s real-life achievements might suggest.


In 2005 a reader of the renowned US magazine, “Track & Field News”, posted a message concerning John Munski on the publication’s website, as follows: “During outdoor practice in 1941 (I believe), Dad – a mediocre half-miler at best – would pace Munski. One particular day Dad did his two laps as the rabbit. Munski ran his usual third lap, when the coach, looking at his stop-watch, told him to take one more lap. Dad and the coach watched as Munski made his way round the track one more time to complete the mile. The watch read 4:00 flat”. The author of the message, recognising that the tale was bound to be questioned, added, “The story never wavered. Dad’s been telling it to me for 40 years”. So far as is known, neither the long-time University of Missouri coach, Jack Matthews, nor Munski himself ever subsequently commented on the matter. After serving in the US Army from 1940 to 1945 and reaching the rank of Captain, Dr John Munski became a highly respected teacher of journalism and a member of the US National Council of Teachers of English. He died on 23 July 1998 at the age of 80.  


Footnote: the final major competition in the USA before the attack on Pearl Harbor was the NCAA cross-country championships at East Lansing, Michigan, nine days earlier on 28 November 1941. Only three of the 50 competitors emerged again as front-rank athletes after the war but all as Olympians – Fred Wilt, Curtis Stone and Herman Goffberg. The least known of this trio, Goffberg was a 1948 Olympic 10,000 metres non-finisher and apparently liked England so much that he moved there and made a living selling second-hand cars to US servicemen. He was married to the actress, Janine Gray, who played the role of femme fatale Angelique in “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”, also appearing in “The Saint” and “The Avengers”, and still to be seen on screen alongside Kate Winslet in 2006.  




Hounded by life, the “Ballincurry Hare”


One of the most intriguing examples of the constant conjecture made during the couple of years – from 1952 to early 1954 – that the first sub-four minute mile seemed likely to be achieved by someone, if not Bannister, came from the pen of no less an authority than Harold Abrahams, the Olympic 100 metres champion of 1924 and long-experienced journalist. He had voiced his opinion in the January 1953 issue of the authoritative UK monthly magazine, “World Sports”, that he was “not at all sure that Emil Zátopek would not have something to say about the four-minute-mile if he was minded so to do” !


Abrahams, who was also qualified in law, brought his legal training to bear in being careful to further qualify his statement by adding, “A man who can run the last 400 metres of a 5000 metres race in well inside a minute cannot be ruled out as a possibility for a four-minute mile, though he is hardly likely to attempt to prove my belief”. The extra-fast last lap to which Abrahams was referring was presumably the one that Zátopek had executed in his unavailing attempt up make up 60 yards or so on the eventual winner of the Olympic 5000 metres at Wembley in 1948, Gaston Reiff, of Belgium. Incidentally, Reiff’s name was to be often raised in the late 1940s and early 1950s as a serious “sub-four” candidate.   


Zátopek had never actually run a mile race, and he was never to do so. His best 1500 metres of 3:52.8 had been achieved six years before Abrahams wrote his article, and that sort of  time  was worth no better than 4:11 for the mile. Now, so many years later, how fascinating it is again for me to learn from an autobiography which has only recently come into my hands that another runner of that era whose best mile time was not all that much faster at 4:08.6 was to write some 35 years later, “I believe that I would have run one mile on a good day with tough competition not in four minutes but in about 3:56, and that I would have run this time by 1951, no later than three years before Bannister”.         


The author of this bold – not to say brazen – claim was John Joe Barry, and he was an Irishman. Was it a touch of the blarney ? Well, maybe so. Yet there is another Irish athlete with very sound credentials – most notably three times European indoor 800 metres champion – who went some considerable way towards backing Barry’s boast. “It is no exaggeration to say that John Joe Barry should have been the first man to run a mile in under four minutes”, wrote Noel Carroll in the introduction to Barry’s life-story. As to why Barry didn’t do that, Carroll’s explanation rings true: “He had the natural talent to achieve untold deeds on the running-track, but somehow he lacked the drive, the ambition and the dedication to see it through”. Lack of drive, of ambition, of dedication ? Three grievous flaws in any person’s make-up, it has to be said.


Barry’s book, entitled “The Ballincurry Hare”, was published by “The Irish Runner” magazine in 1986, and it is immensely entertaining, but it could have done with the helping hand of an experienced writer because it contains numerous unsubstantiated claims and rambling statements which may well have a glimmer of truth in them but which needed closer examination before being made public. Nevertheless, there are also some startling revelations of the facts of life in international athletics of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Of course, no reader need be surprised to learn that cash payments were widely made to “amateur” athletes then, but did these really amount to $500, $300 and $200 for finishing 1st, 2nd and 3rd in New York indoor mile races, or £300 for competing at the Rangers’ Sports in Glasgow ? In 21st Century terms, $500 is worth some $9,400 and £300 is worth £8,700.  


At 5ft 11in (1.80m) tall, with a quiff of fair hair above his brow and a disarming grin, Barry was a beguiling character, and it’s easy to understand how he captured the imagination of athletics promoters, pressmen and public alike in those drab postwar years. From the prosaic point of view of raw statistics he has two particularly interesting claims to eminence.


For some months early in 1950 he was the holder of national titles for four different countries simultaneously – the USA, England, Scotland and Ireland, having just won the AAU indoor mile to add to the AAA, Scottish AAA and AAU of Eire three-mile events, in all of which he had been successful the previous year. The three miles at the 1949 Scottish Championships at Hampden Park on 25 June had been described by the athletics correspondent of the “Glasgow Herald” as “one of the finest races seen in Scotland for many a day”, while the report in “The Scots Athlete” magazine by J. Emmett Farrell – himself a very capable distance-runner – enthused that the race was “a classic and will be a fragrant memory to those privileged to be present”.  Andrew Forbes, so often a beaten opponent of Barry’s, broke his Scottish native record by 13.8sec with a time of 14:18.4 but was caught by the Irishman, who “put in a tremendous finish” to win by two-tenths of a second. At the AAA championships the times were a shade faster and the margin appreciably wider as Barry beat Anthony Chivers, 14:11.0 to 14:12.6. Oddly, Barry had also run in the 880 heats at Hampden Park on the evening before his three-mile triumph and won in 1:57.6, but he does not seem to have contested the final.


Joining Gunder Hägg in the history books


Barry was also the first man since Gunder Hägg to have completed the triple feat of running under 4 minutes 10 seconds for the mile, under 9 minutes for two miles and under 14 minutes for three miles. Naturally, this was an easier target for athletes from English-speaking nations than those from continental Europe to aim at, but it was still an achievement of real merit, ahead of all the Britons (Sydney Wooderson included) and Americans who had tried. The first three from Britain to complete that treble, all of them not until four years later during 1953, were Chris Chataway (14 March), Gordon Pirie (8 August) and Freddie Green (3 October). Fred Wilt had been the first American to do so, including indoor performances, in 1950. The next two men to do so outdoors after Hägg and Barry were the Belgian, Gaston Reiff, and Willy Slijkhuis, of Holland, in 1951.


Barry’s place in athletics history is further established as the first of a long line of Irish milers who took up scholarships at Villanova University, in the USA, and the one among his successors who gained the highest prize of all – the Olympic 1500 metres title – has remained forever grateful for the lead which Barry gave. Ronnie Delany later wrote, “He was my hero. I witnessed his stirring victory over two of America’s best, Fred Wilt and Curtis Stone, at Lansdowne Road in 1949 – a race that will remain etched in my memory forever. I am indebted to John Joe as his friendship and support were also important factors in my first year in America”. Delany added as an affectionate and revealing afterthought, “His stories were embellished somewhat for that was very much the man”.


Barry set an Irish record in beating Wilt and Stone at three miles and added further national records at one mile and two miles (plus 1500 and 3000 metres en route) that summer. By the year’s end he would rank 3rd in the World at the mile and 1st at two miles and three miles. His times did not yet match those of the metric leaders – Willy Slijkhuis, 3:43.8 for 1500 metres (only eight-tenths slower than the World record); Gaston Reiff, a new World record of 7:58.7 at 3000 metres; and Emil Zátopek, 14:10.2 for 5000 metres. Yet Barry was being talked about as a future World-beater. The Irish correspondent for the influential London-based “World Sports” monthly magazine (quite possibly Billy Morton, of whom more later) said of Barry that “his name is now being linked with those of Zátopek, Reiff and Slijkhuis as the World’s best middle-distance runners”. The inference was clear: Barry was a worthy sub-four-minute candidate alongside these others, and as he began his studies at Villanova in 1950 the expectation was that he would thrive in the US inter-collegiate system. Regrettably, this did not happen, as will be explained.


John Joe Barry was actually American-born, at Joliet, Illinois, some 20 miles south of Chicago, on 5 October 1925. Both his parents were recent Irish immigrants, but his mother went back to Ireland with John Joe, aged three, and a younger brother when she inherited her father’s farm in County Tipperary. Her husband stayed on in the USA to work as a head gardener and did not rejoin the family until seven years later. John Joe’s upbringing was a tough one, labouring at dawn and dusk on a farm which had no water or electricity and walking to and from church and school. Thus it was a style of life which provided him with a natural basis of physical fitness when he decided to take up competitive running, just as it was to do for so many young Kenyans in future generations.


After discovering by chance his turn of speed he joined the local Ballincurry club at the age of 18 and promptly won a three-mile race and finished 2nd at one mile in the first local sports in which he took part. An entertaining and informative history of cross-country in County Tipperary has been written for the internet by Jimmy Fogarty and he says that Barry won his first ever cross-country race in 1945, which was a trial for the inaugural All-Ireland inter-county championships, and that he shared in team wins at junior and senior level in that latter competition. Numerous 1st places on the track in handicap half-mile and mile races soon followed, and his first national title was won at four miles in 1945, for which his time was an immensely promising 20:03.0. This had only ever been bettered by one other champion in the race since it had first been held in 1875 –  J.J. O’Connor, of Limerick; with 19:48.4 in 1933.


A successful first attempt on an Irish record


Barry’s best mile time off scratch was around 4:20, and as the Irish native record was then 4:19.0 by Jimmy Doyle, of Dublin City Harriers, who had been national champion every year from 1932 to 1936, a record attempt was logically organised in Dublin on 20 July 1946 and Barry finished in 4:16.8 (lap-times of 60, 2:07, 3:11). Bearing in mind that in this first full season of athletics after the end of World War II only 15 men in the World ran the mile in 4:16.0 or better, of which nine were from the USA and a single one from Great Britain (Doug Wilson), this performance of Barry’s was of particular note. In September he recorded 9:18.3 for two miles, beating Steve McCooke’s Irish native record of two months before, and met up with the ebullient entrepreneur, Billy Morton, who recruited him to Clonliffe Harriers and found a civil-service job for him in Dublin.


Morton had been Irish marathon champion in a record time of 2:48:27 in 1936 and had become the club’s honorary secretary and organiser of meetings which would attract numerous international athletes over the years. For example, when at last a new cinder track was laid at Santry Stadium in 1958 Morton enticed the best Australian athletes who had just competed in the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff, and Herb Elliott set his memorable World mile record of 3:54.5, followed the next evening by a two-mile World record for Albie Thomas. After Morton died in 1969 an annual mile race was held in his memory and winners in the first decade included Kip Keino, John Walker, Steve Ovett and Steve Scott. Santry Stadium has now been re-named Morton Stadium and is the National Athletics Centre.


John Joe Barry recalls in his autobiography Morton enthusing about the races that would be arranged. Morton apparently said; “I’ll put on the stage. You put on the act. I’ll give you every opportunity in the World to compete against the best”. The promise was a prophetic one. Much of Barry’s life to follow was to have an air of melodrama about it.  


His best mile time of 1947 was only marginally better than the previous year at 4:15.2 (60, 2:05, 3:09), but it was of particular significance because it was the fastest ever by an Irish-born runner – and the previous holder had been dead for 35 years by the time that Barry superceded him ! Tommy Conneff had emigrated to the USA in 1888 and set his record of 4:15 3/5 in New York seven years later. It remained the best on record by any amateur in the World until 1911. Barry was one of 12 men in the 1947 AAA Championships mile final at the White City Stadium, in London won by Sándor Garay, of Hungary, in 4:10.6 from Slijkhuis (4:12.2) and Bill Nankeville (4:18.8), but the only information that can be gathered from the disappointingly sparse coverage (even in the UK’s specialist monthly “Athletics” magazine) is that he did not place in the first three. Elsewhere, though, he had a couple of notable victories over British opposition.


At another of Billy Morton’s promotions in July, Barry beat Doug Wilson in 4:17.0 on the Lansdowne Road rugby ground and won in much slower time for Eire against the Northern Counties at Fallowfield, Manchester, in August. The latter meeting took place in characteristically awful Mancunian weather which was described by Larry Montague, of the “Manchester Guardian”, as “a cruel wind and rain”, Barry beat Alan Parker, then aged 19 and regarded as a miler of great promise, by three yards in 4:33.6. Another runner of note to be slowed by the conditions was Tom White, an Olympic 800 metres semi-finalist the next year and again in 1952 but reduced to 2:05.4 in the 880 yards !  


Moving to Scotland where “pocket-money” could be earned


Having lost his job in Dublin for apparently taking too much time off for racing, Barry was now living near Glasgow, working as a clothes salesman, and had joined a local club, St Machan’s AC. He says, “I knew I could earn enough pocket-money from under-the-table payments in Scotland”. Yet he does not seem to have competed very much at all in Scotland during the summer of 1948 as the Olympics approached. His first race of the year was in London at the White City British Games on 17 May, where he was 3rd in a 1500 metres as Frits de Ruyter, of Holland, won by 10 yards from Evert Nyberg, of Sweden, who was in turn a yard ahead of Barry. This was one of four events (the others were 100 metres, 400 metres and the high jump) which formed a mini-match between Eire, Holland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Sweden, and it must surely have been the only occasion in which an international athletics contest has ever been held in England without an English team as participants ! The leading English athletes were otherwise engaged in the inter-counties’ events at the same meeting.


Billy Morton, in attendance with the Irish athletes at the express invitation of the “News of the World” sponsors (the World’s largest-selling Sunday newspaper), maybe over-reacted in saying that Barry “proved that with a little more training and experience he should be in first-class form for the Olympic Games”. He went to the AAA Championships at the White City (2-3 July) and duly qualified again for the mile final but caused some consternation to Larry Montague, judging by his “Manchester Guardian” report. He described Barry as having “natural ability and little strategy”, noting successive erratic lap times of 62.6, 68.0 and 65.4 for the Irishman before he faded entirely out of the picture. Bill Nankeville won with a last lap of 58.2 from a future Olympic 1500 metres champion, Josy Barthel, of Luxemburg 5olympic 1500 metres champion-to-be in 1952), and the Dutchman, de Ruyter, followed by Dick Morris (who was to run in the Olympic 1500 metres heats for Great Britain) and Roger Bannister (then aged 19).  


A better performance by Barry at 1500 metres, though still in a modest time, was a win by six-to-eight yards in 3:57.8 over Doug Wilson at the triangular international match between England & Wales Scotland and Ireland in Manchester on 17 July, with Nankeville well out of the reckoning. Barry went ahead after 300 metres or so, opening up a big lead in the second and third laps, and this victory earned headline attention in the “Manchester Guardian”, with Larry Montague again commenting perceptively, “Barry is an incalculable runner. On Saturday, for once, he harnessed his natural ability and exuberance to an intelligent plan, and the result was painful for those that had beaten him before”.  His fastest mile of the year was no improvement on what he had done before – 4:16.9 from scratch in a handicap event held in conjunction with the British police championships at Hampden Park, Glasgow, on 24 July. “The Glasgow Herald” described it as a training run – presumably Barry’s own words – and gave the lap times as 61,1, 2:06.9 and 3:14.5.


The Wembley Olympics started the following week and, not to put too fine a point on it,  were a disaster for him. He failed to finish his heat of the 5000 metres on 31 July, as the Swede, Evert Nyberg, won in 14:58.2, and was 8th of 10 in his 1500 metres heat on 4 August (only the first three qualified and 6th place was timed in 3:59.8). He frankly admits in his book that lack of training was the reason. Incidentally, de Ruyter and Wilson were also eliminated in the 1500 metres heats, while Nyberg did not finish the 5000 metres final. Nankeville was the only British qualifier at 1500 metres and was a commendable 6th in the final.


Training twice a day !!! Well, maybe three times a week


While in London Barry met up with Emil Zátopek and was astonished to be told by him that he trained twice a day. A lack of such purposefulness was to prove the root problem of Barry’s future as an athlete, as illustrated by the comment that he makes in his book: “During the winter of ’48-’49 I trained harder than ever, though I could never give myself to training twice a day. But I did have a half-hearted go at it three times a week”. It’s an ambivalent remark, but it can be safely assumed that Barry meant that he trained just three days of the week. These sessions consisted of four efforts at what he called “about 8/10th speed” up a 300-yard incline, and though that does not amount to much in the way of training compared with Zátopek’s herculean tasks it may have been enough of an improvement on Barry’s previous efforts to account for his fine form in 1949. Billy Morton, well aware of Barry’s appeal to the paying public, spurred him on by the encouragement – perhaps overly simplistic – that “with the right competition you could easily put two half-miles together, each in two minutes, giving you a four-minute mile”. 


Barry began 1949 as an impressive 2nd scorer for Ireland in 14th place in the International Championships cross-country at Baldoyle Racecourse, Dublin, on 26 March, with such seasoned runners as England’s Len Eyre and Belgium’s Lucien Theys and Marcel van de Wattyne among those following him in. During the summer Barry’s profuse track activity varied between top-level international competition or organised record attempts inspired by Billy Morton and devil-may-care handicap races at local Highland Games gatherings in and around Glasgow. Those latter events invariably had Barry as the “scratch” man giving away huge starts to dozens of novices, and judging by the closeness of the results one can well imagine that, having benefited so often from Billy Morton’s stage-management in Ireland, Barry was now doing a little stage-managing of his own to provide the spectators with the maximum entertainment and to justify his “pocket money”. 


At the end of May he had a useful three-mile win by a couple of yards over one of Britain’s best distance men, Alec Olney, and then took the Irish 880 yards, one mile and three miles titles in a single afternoon on 4 June without extending himself too much. He would accumulate 11 national-championship victories during his career – three at 880 yards in 1947-48-49 (for which event his personal best time was 1:53.8), six at one mile in 1946-47-48-49-50, and one each at three miles (1949) and four miles (1945). The situation regarding Irish national titles is complicated by the fact that there had long been two rival governing bodies for athletics in Ireland – the National Athletic & Cycling Association of Ireland (NACAI) and the Amateur Athletic Union of Eire (AAUE) – and Barry won three NACAI titles and the other eight under the auspices of the AAUE. 


Record-breaking races at two miles and three miles


Following on his championships triple of 1949 he had four more races in the next nine days, culminating in a World “record”! On the Wednesday and Thursday evening of the following week he was beaten at a mile by Fred Wilt, of the visiting US Amateur Athletic Union team, and won the three miles against Wilt and Curtis Stone that had so enthused a youthful Ronnie Delany. His time of 13:56.2 was the 6th fastest ever at the distance. Then on the Saturday at Hampden Park, Glasgow, where the customary 60,000 crowd had packed the ground for the annual Police Sports, Barry lost again to Wilt at two miles, but both of them beat the Scottish all-comers’ record of 9:09 3/5 which had been set by the legendary Alfred Shrubb 45 years before to the very day – Wilt 9:05.2, Barry 9:06.6.


No doubt it was made worthwhile for Barry again in Glasgow when on the following Monday evening he lined up for a race at 1½ miles as the star event of the St Machan’s AC Sports at Helenvale Park. The leading Scottish distance-man, Andrew Forbes, who would be 2nd in the British Empire Games six miles the following February, provided the main opposition and was given 20 yards start, and he and Barry steadily worked their way past the long-handicap starters. “The Scots Athlete” magazine thoughtfully provided the lap times – 59.5, 66.5, 67.9, 68.1, 67.8, 64.0 – and Barry won in 6:33.8 to beat the previous World best credited at two-tenths slower to the pre-war World mile record-holder, Glenn Cunningham, of the USA. This was not an event which had ever received IAAF recognition for record purposes. Forbes was a frequent opponent of Barry’s in two-mile races and often preferred to ignore the 20-yard start accorded him by the handicappers and move back to join Barry in running the full distance.   


Barry’s American opponents presumably couldn’t have stayed over for the St Machan’s meeting because they, too, had a demanding schedule to keep. Wilt and Stone had both run at the Whitsun Bank Holiday meeting at the White City on Monday 6 June before moving on to Ireland and Scotland, and they would still be competing in Europe two months later, including a full-scale Scandinavia-v-USA match in Oslo at the end of July.


Barry was very much faster at two miles in Dublin on 29 June at 8:59.0, with Doug Wilson – a regular visitor to Ireland – a long way back in an estimated 9:23.0, and on this occasion the officials enterprisingly took Barry’s time at 3000 metres en route, 8:17.0. Only Reiff (his World record 7:58.7), Slijkhuis (8:13.8) and a Finn, Väinö Mäkelä (8:16.8), would be faster anywhere in the World during the year. The evening before his 8:59.0 two miles Barry had won a mile event from scratch at Helenvale Park in 4:12.2, though failing in his attempt to beat Sydney Wooderson’s Scottish all-comers’ record of 4:11.0 from the Rangers FC Sports of 1940.


Then in July and August Barry twice improved his mile record to 4:09.4 and 4:08.6 (3rd fastest in the World for the year). In the first of these races at Lansdowne Road he beat the US 1500 metres champion (and again so in 1950), John Twomey. The American visitor clearly made a lasting impression because Barry described him almost 40 years later in highly colourful terms: “He was about seven feet nothing. I wondered why he didn’t volunteer to take on our own Dave Guiney at the shot. All he would have to do would be to straighten up, hold his hand upright, fall forward, and flick his long finger at the right moment”. 


Maybe Barry was attracted by the fact that, judging by his name, Twomey had some Irish ancestry, or perhaps it was because Twomey was also from rural stock, brought up on his father’s farm in Illinois. As a miler, he is largely forgotten now, but he bridged the gap in the USA between Gil Dodds and Don Gehrmann in the 1940s and Wes Santee in the early 1950s. As a businessman Twomey was a huge success, founding a corn and soya-bean storage and brokering company which made him a multi-millionaire when he sold it 50 years later.  


After leaving another familiar British opponent, Bill Nankeville, a full dozen seconds behind in a 4:10.4 mile, Barry’s next serious outing over the distance at the end of August produced his Irish record of 4:08.6. The race had been billed as an attempt to break the four-minute barrier, presumably at Billy Morton’s behest, but a slow second lap of 65.8 ruined all chances of that. Barry otherwise had consistent laps of 60.8, 60.7 and 61.3.


Who will be the first under four minutes ?


Larry Montague had previewed the record attempt in the “Manchester Guardian” on the morning of the race in some considerable detail, and not unreasonably he concluded of Barry’s intentions that “it seems likely that both Hägg’s record and the four-minute mile will be beyond him until he has more experience against the Swedes”. Having said that, Montague added provocatively, “But sometime before the end of 1952 the four-minute mile may well be achieved by one or more of Åberg, Eriksson, Strand, Bannister, Eyre and Barry”. Olle Åberg and Henry Eriksson were fellow-Swedes of Strand’s –  Åberg had run the year’s fastest mile of 4:05.4 the previous month, while Eriksson was the Olympic 1500 metres champion and  Strand the joint World record-holder with Hägg at that distance. Len Eyre, though a seriously under-rated runner of great versatility (Empire Games three miles champion in 1950), was the most unlikely of Montague’s choices, having finished a full four seconds behind Bill Nankeville in the AAA mile. 


The “Manchester Guardian” correspondent was clearly fascinated by Barry because in the same article he penned another of his delightful assessments of the Irishman’s capabilities. “Barry is a law unto himself,” Montague wrote. “His strength is tremendous and he simply has not been tested properly this year. Last season he lost races through wild tactics, but this summer he has harnessed his remarkable physical gifts to intelligent planning. Whereas formerly he was apt to run any part of the race like a half-miler and the rest like a cross-country straggler, now he usually runs at an even pace when he wishes to return a fast time”.


As if to confirm that Barry was, indeed, a “law unto himself”, his mile at Helenvale Park had been the very antithesis of “even pace”. It had been accomplished with intermediate times of 61, 2:05 and 3:11, and it could naturally be assumed that his first lap was too fast and his third too slow. Certainly, his intermediate times in his mile races had almost invariably followed that pattern, but he doesn’t deserve to be singled out for any blame. That was the way that  



John Joe Barry’s supreme track season of 1949

NR = Irish national record.

27 races, 21 wins, only three defeats in non-handicap races, a World best, 10 Irish records !

14 May – 3 miles (1) 14:52.1, St Modan’s & Stirling Albion FC Sports.

21 May – 2 miles (1) 9:15.4, Glasgow Highland Gathering.

28 May – 3 miles (1) 14:30.2, Bellahouston Harriers’ Sports.

4 June – 880 yards (1) 2:06.4, AAU of Eire Championships.

4 June – 1 mile (1) 4:39.4, AAU of Eire Championships

4 June – 3 miles (1) 14:56.2, AAU of Eire Championships.

8 June – 1 mile (2) 4:14.4, Clonliffe Harriers’ Sports, Dublin. NR. Wilt (USA) 4:10.4 (1).

9 June – 3 miles (1) 13:56.2, Clonliffe Harriers’ Sports, Dublin. NR.

11 June – 2 miles (2) 9:06.6, Glasgow Police Sports. Wilt 9:05.2 (1). NR.

13 June – 1½ miles (1) 6:33.8, St Machan’s AC Sports, Glasgow. World best.

24 June – 880 yards (1) heat 1:57.6. Scottish Championships, Glasgow.

25 June – 3 miles (1) 14:18.2, Scottish Championships, Glasgow.

26 June – 2 miles (1), Dublin. Handicap event.

28 June – 1 mile (1) 4:12.2, Glasgow Corporation Transport Sports. NR.

29 June – 2 miles (1) 8:59.0, Inter-club, Dublin. NR. 8:17.0 at 3000 metres. NR.

13 July – 1 mile (1) 4:09.4, Inter-club, Dublin. NR.

16 July – 3 miles (1) 14:11.0, AAA Championships, London.

23 July – 1 mile (5) 4:20.6, Helensburgh Highland Games. Handicap event.

30 July – 1 mile (2) 4:20.5, Vale of Leven Sports. Handicap event.

6 August – 2 miles (1) 9:14.2, Rangers FC Sports, Glasgow.

9 August – 1½ miles (2) 6:45.0, Scottish AAA meeting, Glasgow. Handicap event.

11 August – 1 mile (1) 4:10.4, Inter-club, Dublin.

13 August – 3 miles (1) 14:41.6, England & Wales v Ireland v Scotland, Belfast.

17 August – 1 mile (1) 4:22.0, St Ignatius’s Sports, Wishaw.

20 August – 1 mile (1) 4:17.2, Bute Highland Games, Rothesay. Handicap event.

27 August – 1 mile (1) 4:08.6, Inter-club, Dublin. NR. 3:51.4 at 1500 metres. NR.

16 September – 1 mile (2) 4:16.0, Rijswijk, Holland. Slijkhuis (Holland) 4:12.4 (1).



mile races the World over were almost invariably run in that era and had been for many years previously, and there were two very good reasons for this: (i) the necessity of a quick opening lap to get clear of the opposition which might amount to 20 or more other runners, or to make immediate inroads into the advantage gained by those with handicap starts of 150 yards or even further, and (ii) a slower third lap as the leaders gathered themselves for the customary last-lap sprint. Even when World records for the mile were broken, as had happened on 13 occasions since IAAF ratification began in 1913, the pattern was the same. The slowest opening lap had been 61.4 by Jack Lovelock in 1933, and only twice had the third lap been faster than the second (Glenn Cunningham in 1934, Gunder Hägg in 1945).


Larry Montague was again in inspired literary form when he watched Barry produce one of the few memorable performances at the triangular international match in Belfast at the end of August to beat England’s Anthony Chivers at three miles. Barry had been selected, of course, for the mile but was switched to the other event on the day. Montague observed drily, “The first announcement that Barry would not run a mile was greeted with cries of distress and rage, for he is Ireland’s greatest hero in athletics these days. However, the announcement was not altogether correct. Barry ran a mile – after trotting two”. Then follows a description by Montague of the finish of the three-mile race which is a marvel of conciseness and wit: “Chivers stuck grimly to Barry as he had done in the AAA championship, and when they came to the straight he looked the fresher and stronger. But looks mean nothing in the case of Barry. He simply shook himself and ran his last 100 yards in about 12 seconds, which was great fun for everybody except Chivers”.


The intermediate times quoted by Barry in his account of his record-breaking 4:08.6 mile  make good reading but are very much at variance with the official report. Barry wrote that Doug Wilson and Bill Nankeville, AAA champion for the past two years, were over from England for the race and continues his account thus, “In the dressing-room I asked a few of the boys to take the lead and give me around 2:10 for the first 880 yards. Unless our overseas friends caught on, I knew that neither of them liked to lead. This is exactly what happened – halfway, 2:10”. Barry then says that he was “just waiting for the last 500 to go into my momentum stride – this I did and left them all for dead”. If the race really did take that form then Barry would have run the second half-mile in around 1:58!


Actually, there is understandable confusion here in Barry’s recollections of that day and the mile handicap in Dublin a fortnight earlier in which he had beaten Nankeville by a very large margin in 4:10.4. Nankeville and Wilson could not have been in attendance in Dublin on 27 August at Barry’s 4:08.6 mile because they were placed 1st and 2nd in a mile event at the White City Stadium in London that day. Even so, if the 880 intermediate time of 2:10 is right for the earlier Dublin race, Barry must have run the second half on that occasion in under two minutes! In any case, Barry finished his account on a satisfyingly fiscal note, “And I had received a £300 payoff”.


A Highland fling and another handicap mile win


The week before this race Barry had taken the brief ferry crossing to the Isle of Bute for the annual Highland Games, which attracted a thronging crowd of 7,000 – larger than the Isle’s entire population – who were treated to eight track events, the finish of a 12-mile road race, a high jump and pole vault, five throwing events (including the 16lb hammer won by the British record-holder and Empire Games champion-to-be, Duncan McDougall Clark, and the inevitable caber-tossing), “catch-as-catch-can” wrestling, children’s traditional dancing competitions and a pipe-band contest. The prizes were handed out by Lady Rhidian Crichton-Stuart, who somewhat undiplomatically said she had enjoyed the sports immensely “but, above all, the pipe bands”.


The local weekly newspaper, “The Buteman and West Coast Chronicle”, carried an unconsciously amusing report: “Barry was to have made an attempt on the World record in a special invitation one mile handicap, but a few minutes before the start of this race it was announced over the loudspeaker that, owing to the condition of the track, Barry did not think he could beat the record”. He was emphatically right – by a matter of 16 seconds !. He ran 4:17.2 to win from James Fleming, who was described as the Scottish six miles champion, but the “Buteman” was misinformed. Nevertheless, Fleming was a useful and enterprising athlete  who had been serving with the Army in the Middle East the previous year and had on one occasion ridden 400 miles in three days across the desert in a service truck to compete in the Allied Forces’ championships in Cairo, only narrowly losing the 1500 metres.


A social encounter which Barry had during the 1948 Olympics which was to influence the rest of his life was with George Guida, who was a 400 metres finalist for the USA. Guida met up with Barry and his Irish team-mates, Jimmy Reardon (who also ran the 400) and Cummin Clancy (discus), and suggested that they apply for athletic scholarships to his university, Villanova. This they did and were accepted, but ever ready to spot a commercial opportunity Billy Morton also managed to arrange for Barry to compete in six indoor meetings in the USA in the opening months of 1950 before he began his studies.


Barry ran well enough initially indoors, achieving his fastest two miles of 8:57.0 behind Fred Wilt as well as his AAU mile win ahead of a future Olympic steeplechase champion, Horace Ashenfelter, and he was to subsequently claim an outdoor time of 4:07.1 for the mile (though this may have been achieved in a relay as it does not appear in any authoritative rankings- list) and a World best of 6:31.4 for 1½ miles, but he was never to remotely approach his best form again – at least in conventional circumstances, as shall be explained. By way of explanation for this failing, there is a strong indication in the tributes paid to him by Ronnie Delany that Barry never came to terms with the disciplined demands of college competition. Maybe the sub-four-minute-mile hopes had been set too high. Maybe, too, the easy money which he had been picking up in fistfuls in races in Ireland, Scotland and now on the boards in the USA meant that running merely to pay for his keep and classes at Villanova did not have the same appeal.


He had been told by a prominent fellow competitor at the major indoor invitation meetings in New York and Boston, “You are the national champion – you can actually name your own figure now”. Barry’s coach at Villanova, James (“Jumbo”) Elliott, saw things rather differently and forcefully told Barry that his commitment would now be exclusively to the strictly amateur round of inter-college relay races. “You will be getting no cash rewards for any of your efforts”, Elliott warned. Elliott was in charge at Villanova from 1935 until his death in 1981, and for him it was largely a hobby as he was a self-made millionaire from his industrial heavy equipment business. He was renowned for asking his athletes to sacrifice their favourite individual events in order to gain valuable points through relays.


Back in Europe for the summer, but no fast times


From the outset, Barry’s recollections of competing for Villanova are intermittent and unreliable. He says, for instance, that his biggest win outdoors in 1950 was at the “American collegiate championships against a Jim Beatty, of North Carolina, seven times a sub-four-minute miler afterwards”. As Beatty was only 15 years old at the time, it is out of the question that they raced each other that year, and if they ever did so it was certainly not at the National Collegiate (NCAA) Championships, in which Barry never took part, anyway, other than once at cross-country. He did return home for the summer of 1950 to add another All-Ireland success to his collection, winning the mile easily in 4:20.1 at College Park, Dublin, but his international appearances at the White City Stadium in London were not impressive.


On 7 August he ran against Nankeville and Alan Parker once more in the England & Wales-v-Ireland-v-Scotland match but was a distant 4th at 1500 metres in 4:00.2 (Nankeville 3:53.4, Parker 3:55.2). Five days later Doug Wilson won an invitation two miles in conjunction with the GB-v-USA-v-Benelux match in 9:09.8, with Len Eyre sharing the same time, and Barry (“decidedly off colour”, according to the “Athletics Weekly” report) 4th in 9:18.0.


At the three-day Clonliffe Harriers’ meeting (14-15-16 August) Barry ran twice in mile races and was 3rd to Wilson (4:15.6) and Horace Ashenfelter and then 2nd to Willy Slijkhuis (4:16.8), with Ashenfelter 3rd. This was yet another of Billy Morton’s star-studded extravaganzas, and despite the poor weather and heavy track it must have made excellent watching. The US AAU touring team winners included Art Bragg at 100 yards, beating Britain’s No;1, McDonald Bailey, and Mal Whitfield at 440 yards, ahead of Arthur Wint. Slijkhuis went on to win the European 1500 metres title in Brussels later in the month in 3:47.2, with Nankeville 3rd in a British record 3:48.0 and Len Eyre 5th. Ireland, where athletics was still involved in internal administrative dispute, did not send a team to these Championships.


During 1951 and 1952 Barry produced no performances of real note at one mile or two miles, though claiming a ¾-mile relay stage in 2:54 and saying that “by June 1952 I was once again in tip-top shape”. He states that he was running 6 x 440 yards in 60sec in training, though elsewhere he admits that he was in constant conflict with the university coach, Elliott, and even the modest requirement placed on Barry to train three times a week was met, in his own words, with no more than “70 per cent effort and 30 per cent excuses”. Elliott may well have been content to use Barry largely for relay duty because he could call on  another fine miler, Fred Dwyer, who at the NCAA Championships was 3rd in 1952 (1500 metres) and 2nd in 1953 (one mile). Dwyer would eventually just miss out on joining the “Sub-4” miling club, with a best of 4:00.8 in 1956.   


Selection again for the Olympics, but finances are a problem


Barry and his Villanova team-mate, Jimmy Reardon, were selected by Ireland for the Helsinki Olympics, but they were told by Billy Morton that the money wasn’t available to fly them from the USA to Dublin, and so they had to forego the opportunity. Barry makes the fanciful claim that “I sincerely believe that Jimmy Reardon would have won the 880 yards and I, John Joe Barry, would have won the mile plus the steeplechase event”. Leaving aside the fact that the Olympic events are metric, neither Reardon at 800 metres nor Barry in the steeplechase had ever shown proven indication of international class. Reardon was reckoned to have run a sub-1:50 half-mile relay stage, but Barry had never even contested a steeplechase,


Barry’s audacious ambitions for an Olympic golden double – had they really existed in his mind at the time and not just in hindsight – would in any case have been well nigh impossible to fulfill. The 1500 metres heats in Helsinki were on 24 July, the semi-finals on 25 July and the final on 26 July. The steeplechase heats were on 23 July and the final on 25 July. The peerless Nurmi had achieved historic Olympic wins at 1500 and 5000 metres within an hour or so back in 1924, but it stretches credibility much too far to believe that Barry could have won the 1500 and the steeplechase – or either, for that matter. The 1952 World year lists contain 78 names at 3:53.0 or better for 1500 metres and 51 names at 4:14.0 or better for the mile. Barry is notably missing from both compilations.    


Again there were no times of any note from him in 1953. By contrast, Bannister and Landy both ran 4:02.0 for the mile that year – Bannister artificially paced, Landy leading all the way and winning by 200 yards – and Santee had done 4:02.4. There were 70 others at 4:15.0 or better, including Gaston Reiff (4:05.7), Bill Nankeville (4:07.4) and Fred Wilt (4:12.1), and Barry should have figured somewhere on that list. Not so. His most noteworthy performances for Villanova were probably during the cross-country season towards the end of the year when he was 2nd to Johnny Kelley, of Boston University, in the ICAAAA Championships, bringing together the leading universities on the eastern seaboard of the USA, and 3rd in the NCAA Championships to Santee and Kelley.


This was the era of four-minute-mile fever. In the January 1954 issue of their highly regarded UK monthly magazine, “Athletics World”, the McWhirter twins had quoted John Landy as saying, “Four minutes is a brick wall”. He had run his 4:02.0 the previous month for a new British Empire record. In January he did 4:02.4 and in February 4:02.6. Santee had also run 4:02.6 indoors but in a relay race. Meanwhile, John Joe Barry’s erstwhile rival, Horace Ashenfelter, broke Fred Wilt’s indoor two-mile record with 8:50.5, but Barry’s name was not to be found in any of the race reports from the USA, though he was to be credited with an undated non-winning two miles of 9:15.3 that winter. There was still, though, a bizarre final flourish to come.


Long before the idea of running all-star mile races on public highways had become commonplace, a mile event had been held each year along the boardwalk promenade in the casino resort of Atlantic City, New Jersey. Even amid all the hullabaloo in the aftermath of Bannister’s sub-four-minute mile on 6 May 1954, the Atlantic City race of four days earlier attracted rather more attention than usual. The principal reason from the British point of view was that the first man across the finish-line was an unheralded 22-year-old of Scottish origin, Alex Breckenridge, in 4:06.3, with Barry 4th in 4:08.6. Breckenridge was one of the most recent recruits to Villanova and was supposed to be the pacemaker for the first half-mile along the Atlantic City boards to provide the double Olympic 800 metres champion, Mal Whitfield, with the opportunity to beat four minutes – albeit in unconventional circumstances.


Breckenridge had not managed to fulfill his pace-making obligation, but Whitfield had passed  the ¾-mile mark in a promising 3:01.8, only for the young outsider to find his feet and rush past him to win by half-a-second. Fred Wilt was 3rd in 4:07.5, John Joe Barry 4th in 4:08.6 and Horace Ashenfelter 5th in 4:08.8. Barry thus exactly equaled his fastest mile of five years before. The full story of this exotic miling adventure and its bizarre aftermath is told in the article about Breckenridge which follows.


A troubled life in the USA and then retirement to Ireland


Barry had put his studies to good use and graduated from Villanova a couple of months later in 1954 with a degree in commerce and finance – not at all a bad achievement for a farm boy from County Tipperary ! Unfortunately, he subsequently led a somewhat turbulent personal and business life in the USA, as he was married three times and suffered alcohol dependency before retiring back to Ireland. He died on 9 December 1994, aged 69, and the Irish – as is their delightful custom regarding their athletes of note – did not forget him. A statue to commemorate him was put in place in Ballingarry, near to the family farm, and Ronnie Delany was there at the unveiling ceremony to pay tribute to his mentor of 40 years before.


Barry’s Irish colleagues at Villanova, Jimmy Reardon and Cummin Clancy, had graduated at the same time, and Clancy’s BSc in economics helped in setting up a successful insurance brokerage in New York. He spent the rest of his life in the USA before dying in February 2013 at the age of 90. His career best discus throw of 161ft 11in (49.35m) was set at the Penn relays of 1951, ranking 19th in the World for the year and remaining a Villanova record until 1973. Reardon never ran faster than the 47.8 for 400 metres he achieved in the 1948 Olympic semi-finals and returned to Ireland after leaving Villanova.


The most reasoned assessment of Barry’s career in retrospect is to be found in an article about Irish miling history written in 2004 by Ian O’Riordan for the Athletics Ireland website. O’Riordan, as athletics correspondent for “The Irish Times”, has this to say: “Back in the summer of 1949 John Joe Barry was single-handedly drumming up Irish interest in the four-minute mile. That August he ran 4:08.6 in front of 6,000 people at College Park, in Dublin, and according to one report was ‘grasping at the shadow of a four-minute mile’. But only those with a soft spot for the athlete fondly called the ‘Ballincurry Hare’ believe he could ever have approached that barrier”.


That’s a judgment which is difficult to refute, but what an exceptionally interesting athlete Barry surely was ! Remember that carefully chosen description of Larry Montague’s – “incalculable”, which could perhaps as easily have been “unpredictable”. Barry was probably living proof that a mile can be run in under 4min 10sec on largely natural ability, but it’s the next 10 seconds which require rather more input, let alone another 10 seconds after that ! He was the first Irish miler of World-class ability in more than half-a-century, and where he led there was a host of fellow-countrymen to follow. At Villanova alone there was Ronnie Delany (3:57.5 in 1958), Frank Murphy (3:58.1 in 1969), John Hartnett (3:54.7 in 1973), Eamonn Coghlan (3:49.78 indoors in 1983) and Marcus O’Sullivan (3:50.94 indoors in 1988).


The national collegiate (NCAA) title at 1500 metres or one mile was won by Villanova students on 13 occasions in the quarter-century from 1956 to 1981 – Delany (1956-57-58), Dave Patrick (1966 and 1968), Marty Liquori (1969-70-71), Coghlan (1975-76), Don Paige (1979) and Sydney Maree (1980-81). The all-time list for “old boys” is immensely impressive, headed by Maree (3:48.83) and including 16 other sub-four-minute milers, of which the Irishmen in addition to the five listed in the previous paragraph are Gerry O’Reilly (3:54.63), Ken Nason (3:58.09) and Sean O’Neill (3:58.42).    


Barry’s legacy in Ireland had very soon been taken to heart – even earlier than by Delany. Before the year of 1954 was out Barry was no longer the fastest “all-Irish” miler. Victor Milligan, of Northern Ireland, ran 4:05.0 for 4th place in the epic Bannister-v-Landy confrontation at the British Empire & Commonwealth Games in Vancouver. The next year Delany began his transition from half-miling to miling with a time of 4:05.8. The year after that, working towards his Olympic triumph, Delany ran 3:59.0 in California to become the first Irish sub-four-minute man. Also that year, but in obscurity, John Joe Barry had his last competitive race. He says that he won a half-mile on 4 July – American Independence Day. The date seems somehow appropriate for his swansong. 


Note: my grateful thanks to Tony O’Donoghue, television athletics commentator for RTE and an enthusiastic historian and statistician, for providing the autobiography of John Joe Barry and further detailed notes of his career. Thanks also to Arnold Black, of the Scottish Association of Track Statisticians, and to Janine McLaughlin, of Rothesay Library, for information and guidance concerning Barry’s races in Scotland.


Additional note: Larry Montague, the eloquent athletics correspondent of the “Manchester Guardian” who made such a fine judgment of the running of John Joe Barry, came from a journalistic dynasty. He succeeded his brother, Evelyn, who was also a most perceptive writer, in the position in 1947 and continued until 1959, also serving as sports editor. Evelyn Montague died in 1948 from tuberculosis contracted while he was a war correspondent.


Big-time hassle on the boardwalk promenade as Whitfield wins … and loses !


What a rare to-do there would have been if the first sub-four-minute mile had not been run in the shadow of Oxford’s dreaming spires on Thursday 6 May 1954 but four days earlier and 3,000 miles or so away in the bright and breezy casino resort of Atlantic City, New Jersey ! It seems unlikely that the competitors on the other side of the ocean would have been aware of Roger Bannister’s impending record attempt, but they would certainly have known that the leading American candidate, Wes Santee, had run 4:03.1 a fortnight before and would make another assault on the legendary “barrier” as soon as he could be briefly spared from his exacting university relay duties.


Had that Atlantic City race gone to the apparent plan, it would have become the most famous footnote in track and field history. There would have been no hope of any record being recognised, even though officialdom had never given a thought to the possibility of a wind-assisted mile ! The setting was not an orthodox 440-yard circumference track but the board-covered stretch of promenade along the Atlantic sea-front which had first been laid in 1870 with the simple expedient of ensuring that holiday-makers stamped the sand off their shoes before re-entering their hotels.


The first annual boardwalk mile had been contested in 1947, when Leslie MacMitchell had won in 4:14.8, and the record stood at 4:05.5 to Fred Wilt from 1950. The L-shaped course was said to be worth four seconds faster than a cinder circuit, and whatever rule-of-thumb was used to arrive at that conclusion it made some sense because the organisers tended to helpfully switch the direction of the race according to the prevailing wind on the day. For the 1954 edition, Wilt had been invited back, along with Horace Ashenfelter, John Joe Barry and Mal Whitfield. Ashenfelter was the Olympic steeplechase champion but had no more than a useful and now fading reputation as a miler (a best to that date of 4:12.2 outdoors, plus 4:07.5 behind Wilt at Atlantic City in 1950). Whitfield had never tried a serious mile before 1954, but as he was twice Olympic champion at 800 metres his potential at the longer distance could not be ignored. Both Ashenfelter and Whitfield had completed highly successful indoor seasons a couple of months before – Whitfield had won the AAU 1000 yards and Ashenfelter the three miles.


The coverage of the 1954 sea-front race in the local newspaper, the “Atlantic City Press”, makes it clear that someone was thinking of the possibility of sub-four minutes – though the thinking may have been distinctly wishful and inspired by publicity rather than reality. If Whitfield was of that mind, then he was being optimistic, to say the least. At the Penn Relays, in Philadelphia, eight days earlier he had been beaten almost out of sight by a highly promising 20-year-old newcomer, Murray Halberg, of New Zealand, 4:10.0 to 4:16.7. The truth was that Whitfield was in the gradually declining years of a stupendous career – which had included in addition to his Olympic triumphs the astonishing achievement of a World record for 1000 metres while on tour in Sweden followed within the hour by a US record for 440 yards.


To come to the point regarding this Atlantic City miling “gamble” (or maybe one should say “gambol”), the pace for the first half was maybe a shade too brisk if four minutes was the genuine aim – 57.3, 1:57.1. But at three-quarters of a mile it was still feasible – 3:01.8. By then, though, Whitfield had perhaps reached the limit of what he could manage on the training he had done and he ended up with a time of 4:06.8. Oh, and by the way, though he was officially given 1st place by the AAU officials he was actually only the 3rd man to cross the line ! The day’s outcome turned out to be an appetising aperitif for British athletics enthusiasts before Bannister served up the main course, even though news travelled more slowly in those far distant pre-internet days, and perhaps the “diners” were not aware that there even was an appetiser on the menu until after they had finished the feast. The seaside saunter was won by Alex Breckenridge, a recent recruit from Scotland to Villanova University.


The “Atlantic City Press” had confidently asserted beforehand that Breckenridge had been invited along only to provide the pace-making for the first half-mile, but if this was so then he was an unlikely choice for such duties. He had been awarded a scholarship to Villanova as a miler/two-miler and had no credentials of any real merit for the 880. The previous year at the age of 21 he had run a 4:11.2 mile and 9:05.6 for two miles, respectively ranking 11th and 9th in Great Britain. He had also finished 2nd in the Scottish championships three miles (as well as winning the mile) and had been the country’s junior cross-country champion. His best half-mile was a modest 1:56.6. Thus he was essentially an over-distance miler, not at all a half-miler type. He was compactly built at 5ft 9in (1.76m) tall and weighing 143lb (65kg).    


The local reporter in Atlantic City was named Ed Nichterlein – who was to become a widely respected award-winning journalist and his newspaper’s sports editor – and he wrote that Breckenridge and a student from the nearby West Chester Teachers’ College, Bob Lewis, had been “invited to run successive half-mile ‘legs’ as pace-setters for the competing quartet, and it was hoped they might spur the four-man race field to greater effort and possibly to that elusive goal of a mile in four minutes”. Breckenridge found the early pace too fast for him, and it was Ashenfelter who used his distance-running strength to lead from Wilt, Whitfield, Barry and then the young Scot in last place. At halfway Lewis began his stint and “was immediately joined by Breckenridge, who had been told he might continue running if he felt able” and now seemed to have been nicely warmed up.


Breckenridge finishes 1st, but Whitfield gets the top prize


Whitfield passed Wilt and then Ashenfelter at the three-quarter mark, but in the words of Nichterlein “all this time, of course, Breckenridge and Lewis were slightly in front of Whitfield, which set the stage for the big hassle”. Breckenridge, improving with every stride, crossed the finishing-line 1st, while Whitfield, said to be running easily, was apparently content to come in a few feet ahead of Wilt, with Ashenfelter some 16-to-18 yards back, and Barry on Ashenfelter’s heels. “Practically all of the hundreds of fans at the finish thought the lanky Scot had won”, reported Nichterlein, “but a hastily called conference of timers, judges and contestants resolved the official finish”. The AAU referee, Edgar League, ruled that as Whitfield was one of the four official entrants, and Breckenridge wasn’t, then Whitfield was the winner. Whitfield said that if he had thought that Breckenridge was a bona-fide competitor he would have tried to beat him. The times were as follows: Breckenridge 4:06.3, Whitfield 4:06.8, Wilt 4:07.5, Barry 4:08.6, Ashenfelter 4:08.8.


It’s reasonable to assume that Edgar League’s decision regarding the result would not have been lightly taken. He was a tireless organiser of some half-a-dozen running and race-walking events each year and of long-distance swimming competitions. He had played a major role in setting up the boardwalk mile as a director of Atlantic City’s Inlet Social and Athletic Club, who were the first sponsors in 1947. Ron Laird, who represented the USA as a race-walker at the Olympic Games of 1960, 1964, 1968 and 1976 and had competed in many events promoted by Ed League, was to say of him that he was “a true friend of the athletes, always looking out for their interests”.  


It all seems rather odd that with Breckenridge apparently finding his feet in the second half of the race, and a fresh Lewis entering the fray, the last quarter-mile still faded away to 65 seconds-plus. This suggests that “four minutes” was a figment of imagination and that Whitfield had neither the inclination nor the capability to aim that high. The “Atlantic City Press” headlines said it all: “Mal Whitfield Wins ‘Walk Mile in 4 minutes, 06.8 seconds. Fred Wilt is Second. Pace-Setters Cause Confusion At Finish”. Ed Nichterlein concluded, perhaps not entirely justifiably: “The long sought four-minute mile is still an attainment reserved for the future – and it was this coveted goal which brought about the involved happenings that marked the conclusion of yesterday’s event”.  Whatever those circumstances, Whitfield ran only a couple more one-mile races, and after a 4:12.6 in Texas later in May and a disastrous 4th place in 4:19.6 in California “withdrew from the lists as a would-be miler”, according to the discrete assessment of the renowned US statistics expert, Dr Don Potts.


Alex Breckenridge was, like John Joe Barry, US-born, at Buffalo, New York, on 17 April 1932, but clearly with very strong Scottish antecedents because he was christened “Alexander Dalglish Neilson”, and he was brought up in Scotland. While at Govan High School he was 4th in the Glasgow schools’ mile in 4:49.0 and his first major success was as a member of the winning Victoria Park AAC team in the 1950 Scottish youths’ cross-country championships. He apparently took inspiration for his four training sessions a week from two clubmates of international calibre, and as Andrew Forbes was rightly described as “wonderfully consistent” and Ian Binnie equally justifiably renowned as “brilliant but erratic”, Breckenridge maybe either had the best of both Worlds as regards guidance or suffered occasionally from athletic schizophrenia ! In fact, “The Scots Athlete” magazine was to describe him as “a most likeable, purposeful but modest athlete”.


Making his breakthrough on the track in 1953


In 1952 he was 3rd in the Scottish championships mile in 4:23.7. The next year came his breakthrough. After winning the Scottish junior cross-country title he was selected alongside the seniors for the International Championship and was 5th scorer for Scotland in 50th place. On the track he ran 14:42.0 for three miles in early May and at the end of the month won a handicap mile at the Glasgow Highland Gathering at Ibrox Park in 4:09.7, having been given a start of 70 yards, which was worth around 4:20 for the full distance. This was accorded headline treatment by the “Glasgow Herald” – “Scot’s Fast Mile”. A couple of days later at the Coronation Day meeting at Meadowbank, Edinburgh, he ran an impressive two miles against a fine Yugoslav runner, Andrija Otenhajmer, who had once beaten Roger Bannister at 1500 metres. Otenhajmer only got away late in the race to win, 9:11.0 to 9:15.2.  Breckenridge’s time was less than two seconds slower than the Scottish native record which had stood since 1938 to Peter Allwell, with 9:13.4 in a handicap race.


Then at the Glasgow Police Sports on 13 June Breckenridge had his finest race yet. In a star-studded mile “he went to the front at the half-mile stage, and though passed before the finishing straight he rallied strongly”, according to the “Glasgow Herald”. Sune Karlsson, of Sweden, won in a Scottish all-comers’ record of 4:09.9, beating Sydney Wooderson’s 4:11.0 of 13 years before which had evaded John Joe Barry’s efforts in 1949, with Rolf Lamers, of Germany, 2nd in 4:11.0 and Breckenridge 3rd in a Scottish record 4:11.2. The previous Scottish record had been held by Bobby Graham with 4:12.0 dating from 1935 ! Among those further back were Fred Dwyer, of the USA, and Britain’s Freddie Green, Bill Nankeville and Alan Parker – in other words a star-studded list of competitors, four of whom had taken part  in the Olympic Games the previous year.  Ten days later, back home in Sweden, Karlsson ran the year’s equal fastest 1500 metres of 3:44.2.


This Glasgow meeting was one of the best of the year in Britain with a British all-comers’ record in the shot of 57ft 10in (17.62m) by the Olympic champion, Parry O’Brien, of the USA, plus a British Empire pole-vault record of 13-8 (4.16) by Geoff Elliott, a 1:50.9 for 880 yards by Mal Whitfield, and an 80 metres hurdles win for the famed Flying Dutchwoman, Fanny Blankers-Koen.


Breckenridge won the Scottish mile title by a long way in a meeting record 4:11.9, and at the AAA Championships, 10-11 July, he impressively took his heat in 4:13.2 and audaciously led through the first two laps in the next day’s final in 59.0 and 2:01.6, but he could not maintain the effort and faded away out of the first six as Roger Bannister won in a championship record 4:05.2 from Don Seaman, 4:08.0, and Nankeville, 4:10.4. Nankeville and Seaman went away with the British team to Sweden and Germany in August, while Breckenridge finished off his season with some minor domestic races before packing his bags and departing for the USA. Towards the end of the year the Scottish selectors announced their short list for the 1954 British Empire Games in Vancouver and rather curiously omitted Breckenridge, saying of him that “his future is uncertain”, and named three other milers instead, none of whom had broken 4:16, including the AAA junior champion of 1952, John Hendry. Breckenridge had beaten them all by 80 yards and more in the Scottish championships.


Missing out on the Empire Games of 1954


The 1954 Scottish mile title was won in 4:19.5 – admittedly in the teeth of a gale-force wind – by an Edinburgh University student, Adrian Jackson, and only five Scottish athletes were chosen to go to Canada: hammer-throwers Ewan Douglas and Alex Valentine, distance-runners Ian Binnie and Joe McGhee, and woman sprinter Pat Devine. The selectors again made particular reference to Breckenridge, saying that he “may yet be included provided he regains his best form in time”, but it remained unexplained as to quite where he was supposed to demonstrate such readiness with the US season now over. A further anomaly was that an addition was made to the team, and that was Jimmy Hamilton, who had won the Scottish 880 yards in 1953 and had subsequently emigrated to Vancouver – a canny economic move by the Scots officials ! Hamilton, a bank clerk by profession, justified the selectors’ modest investment by finishing 6th in the Empire Games final in a personal-best 1:52.7. Breckenridge would have been hard pressed to match that level of effort in the mile, in which Roger Bannister and John Landy both broke four minutes and Bill Baillie, of New Zealand, was a distant 7th in 4:11.0, but it’s a pity that the transatlantic Scot wasn’t given the chance.    


Ronnie Delany’s move up from half-miling to miling in 1955 was to mean that  Breckenridge would concentrate at Villanova on the two miles, which was then the longest standard track distance in US collegiate competition. His best mile time would be 4:09.3 in 1957 and on a visit back to Scotland in 1956 he ran a two miles in 9:02.7 for 3rd place at the Rangers FC Sports. His fastest mile was in New York at the ICAAAA championships, which was the main meeting of the year for universities in the eastern states of the USA, and even then it was Delany, enjoying all the prestige of being reigning Olympic 1500 metres champion, who was collecting most of the Villanova accolades. He was the winner of that ICAAAA mile in 4:08.4 and of the 880 yards in 1:49.5, both races within 75 minutes. On the same day, on the other side of the country in Stockton, California, Don Bowden was running 3:58.7 to become the USA’s first sub-four-minute miler.


Breckenridge was 4th in the national collegiate (NCAA) two miles that year in 9:03.4, but again Delany was the one in the limelight, winning the second of his three successive mile titles. Even so, Breckenridge had the satisfaction of figuring in what remains to this day Villanova’s one and only team title success in NCAA competition since 1921. Delany was also 2nd in the 880 yards (to Don Bowden) and Villanova’s other points were scored by Don Bragg, who was 2nd in the pole vault, plus 3rd places for Ed Collymore (220 yards), Charlie Jenkins (440 yards) and Phil Reavis (high jump). Jenkins had been Olympic champion at 400 metres and 4 x 400 metres in 1956 and Bragg would be Olympic pole-vault champion in 1960. Reavis had also competed in the 1956 Olympics. Some team!


Delany gave credit to Breckenridge and another Villanova miler, Johnny Kopil, who had set a national high-school indoor mile record in 1953, for the help they give him in his pre-Olympic training. He later listed his schedule during the track season in detail, as follows: Monday – 5 miles fast cross-country; Tuesday – 10 x 440 at 60sec or faster, 440 jogs; Wednesday – 20 x 220 in 27.5, 220 jogs; Thursday – 4 miles easy; Friday – Rest; Saturday – Race; Sunday – one hour speed-play on grass. In winter his 440s were slower, in 61.5, and he ran up to 7½ miles cross-country.


A brief return to Scotland, and then a military career in the USA


After graduation from Villanova Breckenridge returned briefly to Scotland and in November of 1957 he gave another glimpse of his talent with a record-breaking stage in the Edinburgh-to-Glasgow road relay, taking his club, Victoria Park AAC, into a 400-yard lead with Ian Binnie as the next runner ensuring eventual victory. It was in the manner of a farewell gesture, though, for Breckenridge as he returned to the USA permanently, joining the US Marines and working his way through the ranks from Gunnery Sergeant to Major, serving twice in Vietnam.


This also marked a radical change in his running career because he turned very successfully to longer distances and in 1959 he won the AAU road-running titles at 15 kilometres and 30 kilometres and was 6th in the Pan-American Games track 10,000 metres. This increase in training even benefited his shorter-distance events because early in 1960 he ran his fastest ever two miles and three miles, both indoors, with a winning 8:56.8 and a 3rd place in the AAU Championships in 14:02.0 respectively.  The World indoor record for the shorter distance had been set at 8:46.0 a month earlier by Allan Lawrence, of Australia, the 1956 Olympic 10,000 metres bronze-medallist. Only three Scotsmen had ever run two miles faster than Breckenridge, indoors or out, headed by Alastair Wood at 8:46.4, and only four were faster at three miles, again led by Wood at 13:42.2, both performance achieved in 1959.


Even more remarkably, just 12 hours after running in the AAU indoor three miles Breckenridge made his debut at the marathon. This was in the Cherry Tree event run on George Washington’s birthday (21 February) over a loop course through the streets of the Bronx, in New York, which was very much an amateur affair organised by what is now the New York Road Runners Club (40 members then, 45,000 now !). In those days the roads were not closed to traffic, and the only concession by the police was not to hand out parking tickets to the competitors who left their cars at the start ! Even so, the event is regarded as a legitimate precursor to the New York Marathon, and it had begun in 1959 and is still contested. The course happened to be short the year that Breckenridge won in 2:21:39.8, but the record still stands from 1979, to Lou Calvano at 2:19:53.  


The true calibre of Breckenridge’s performance that morning was that he finished almost six minutes ahead of another marathon debutant, Gordon McKenzie, who was already a runner of real repute, having taken part in the 1956 Olympic 10,000 metres. Breckenridge was then 3rd in the AAU marathon at Yonkers and 6th at Boston to win a place in the US Olympic team together with McKenzie. Maybe over-taxed by their qualifying efforts, Breckenridge was 30th in Rome in 2:29:38, one position behind Britain’s Brian Kilby, and McKenzie 48th.


Alex Breckenridge was to prolong his involvement in the sport for very many more years. At the marathon distance he was 2nd in the AAU championship race in 1962 and 5th in 1963. He produced his best performance at Boston in the first of those years, placing 3rd in 2:27:17 to the Finns, Eino Oksanen and Paavo Pystynen, and was 7th the following year. Having helped Ronnie Delany in training towards an Olympic title, Breckenridge was then to play a significant part in another gold-medallist’s preparations. At the Camp Pendleton marine base in California he met up with Billy Mills and during 1962 and 1963 they regularly trained together, covering as much as 34 miles in a single run. Mills did not take part in his first 10,000 metres race until 1963, and after his sensationally surprising win in the next year’s Olympics he was to say, “I never did any quality distance training until I met Alex”. Breckenridge made a bid for a marathon place again at those Games, but like many others he was forced to drop out in a heatwave-affected US trial race.


He took an active interest in the annual US Marine Corps open marathon, which began in 1975, and Colonel Jim Fowler, the officer who first proposed the idea for the race, was to say, “I could not ask for a more impressive ambassador on behalf of the program we were trying to establish”. With more than 30,000 competitors, the USMC Marathon is now the 3rd largest in the USA. On the eve of the 1977 race Breckenridge told a reporter regretfully, “I’ll not run tomorrow – too old. My mind is willing, but these old muscles will cramp up after about 10 miles. I get a thrill watching the preparations and I get the urge to go, but I know better”. In 2011, approaching his 80th birthday, he was still officiating at road races.  


Note: acknowledgments to My thanks also to Leta Bowman, of the Atlantic City Visitors’ and Convention Bureau, and to Heather Halpin Perez and Beth Ryan, of the Atlantic City Free Public Library, for their great help.


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