Why do Olympic runners race in the 1,500 meters instead of the mile?

Miles to go.
Miles to go.
Image: AP/Luca Bruno
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Today (Aug. 16) in Rio, some of the world’s most talented runners will contest the 1,500 meters.

That’s too bad. They should be running the mile instead.

The 1,500 meters has been part of the Olympic program since 1896, reflecting the French origins of the modern Olympic movement and its founder, Pierre de Coubertin. It’s also the distance used at the world championships and at the NCAAs. But the mile, just 109 meters longer, is a far superior experience for athletes and spectators.

While the 1,500 meters takes three-and-three-quarter laps of a standard 400-meter track, the mile is run in just a shade more than four laps. The symmetry of the four laps makes the mile easy to follow, and is particularly useful when watching elite runners capable of challenging the four-minute mile. Cheering athletes against the clock, knowing each lap has to be run in under a minute, is one of the great spectacles in track, a sport that has far too few of them.

Thanks to Roger Bannister, who famously broke the four-minute mile in 1954, the mile has transcended sport and moved into metaphor. The four-minute mile is an almost universally recognized benchmark, even if the world record, set in 1999 by Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco, is now an impossibly fast 3:43. Meanwhile, only die-hard track fans could tell you the time of a world-class 1,500.

The mile makes more sense for the runners, too. I was a mediocre high school miler, who progressed into an (even more) mediocre collegiate 1,500-meter runner. In the mile, I always knew where I stood in relation to the rest of the race, and how far I had come and had yet to go. But the 1,500 was always disorienting. Was I gauging my laps from the start of the race? Or from the finish? When I had completed two laps, the natural halfway point, I was more than halfway done, which meant the final lap came up on me faster than I felt it should. I was already running in a state of near-panic, desperately trying to keep up with the leaders, and the weirdly abbreviated distance didn’t help.

Complicating it all is the problem of splits. In distance races, the key to the race is your pace. Go out too fast and you’ll fade in the final lap; start too slow and you’ll struggle to make back the time before the finish. In the mile, keeping track of your pace is simple—after every lap, a coach would read out quarter-mile splits. In the 1,500, depending on where the coach is standing, you may have to calculate your pace after 300 and 700 meters.

I wasn’t sure if I was the only ex-miler who felt this way about the 1,500, so I tracked down my former college teammate Pete Brady. Rather than hang up his spikes as adulthood set in, Pete never stopped running, and is nationally competitive in over-40 races. He finished fourth in a masters exhibition 1,500 held at the US Olympic trials, and the official results illustrate the peculiar nature of the 1,500, with splits at 300, 700, and 1,100 meters.

Pete, who works in finance, says that after years of racing, he still struggles with the 1,500 splits. “I’m a math guy. But when you’re running—running hard—it’s not easy.”

The mile is easy to explain to non-track people, he says. Everyone understands a fast mile.

But even word-class athletes get befuddled by the 1,500 meters. Steve Scott, now 60, held the US mile record of 3:47 for 25 years, and ran more sub-four-minute miles—136—than anyone in history. He also finished second in the 1,500 meters at the 1983 world championships.

Given a choice, Scott, who now coaches track at Cal State San Marcos, said he always chose the mile over the 1,500. But when he competed internationally, sometimes the 1,500 meters was the only choice.

“There were times when I would lose count,” he says. “You get to 400 meters to go quicker than you expect. I would get caught off guard; I’d hear the bell (for the final lap) and think, ‘Oh, crap.'”

Scott concedes that his ambivalence toward the 1,500 stemmed from his familiarity with the longer distance, and that he never committed to the 1,500 as its own race with its own demands. In theory, he says, he could have run the 1,500 at a slightly faster pace because of the slightly shorter distance. “I never really made that investment,” he says.

Europeans who grew up racing the 1,500 may feel differently; for them the mile may seem abnormally long. And for women, running the 1,500 in four minutes is still a significant barrier that separates the elite from the very good.

But while the 1,500 has the advantage of being a round number, it otherwise doesn’t make much sense. It’s an awkward fit on the track, it’s not a distance that has any history or symbolism. There’s a reason it’s called “the metric mile.”

While most Americans’ grasp of the metric system hasn’t progressed beyond 2-liter Cokes, even the US running world has gone metric. The mile, once a fixture at US track meets, has slowly been phased out in favor of the 1,500 meters as the sport and its events become more international.

A campaign called Bring Back the Mile is trying to return the race to the US. Its founder, Ryan Lamppa, says displacing the 1,500 at the Olympics is beyond the group’s ambitions.

But the Olympics include another famously non-metric race: the 26.2 mile, or 42.195 kilometer, marathon.

Contrary to popular myth, the modern marathon’s length wasn’t set by the ancient Greeks to mark the distance run by Pheidippides from the battle of Marathon to Athens (that’s about 24 miles). Rather, it’s widely believed that the official distance was set in 1908 so that Britain’s royal family could see the start from their window at Windsor Castle, 26.2 miles from the finish, in that year’s London Olympics.

The marathon, one of the marquee events of the Olympics, is still a stubborn outlier in a sports world that has otherwise gone metric. Maybe there’s still room for the mile.