Steve Smythe looks again at great milers of the past and makes perhaps a surprising choice as the world’s fastest ever finisher, often overlooked as he was at his peak well over half a century ago
There are some races you think the way the race was run on the day that no one one could have beaten the actual winner.
I would include Seb Coe’s two Olympic wins, but also from that era Steve Ovett’s 1977 World Cup and 1978 European victories and Steve Cram’s 1985 Dream Mile and 1986 European successes.
I would also include Abdi Bile’s 1987 world win and of course Hicham El Guerrouj’s 3:27.65 world title in Seville in 1999.
No one has ever run faster in a major championship than the Moroccan but winning times don’t always tell the whole story and you have to take into account the era, the track, the opposition and training as well as the tactics.
Jack Lovelock in the 1936 Olympics, Roger Bannister in the 1954 Europeans and Herb Elliott and Peter Snell in their 1960 and 1964 Olympic wins all looked at a different level to their opponents and what had gone before.
Snell in the Tokyo 1500m, with his 1:44.3 800m PB, showed speed (on cinders) that would have still challenged today’s best as he destroyed the opposition with a 25.0 200m from the 300m mark.
His successor as the world’s best though, Jim Ryun, went on to produce finishing bursts that definitely would have won him modern medals in slow run races and apart from the unhelpful surfaces, remember there were no wonder shoes back then.
For example, Ryun produced a 23.9 last 200m to win the 1966 NCAA Mile Championships and in my view his finishing speed was not only unprecedented and decades ahead of its time but was as destructive as any runner in history.
The American, born in 1947, ran a less than impressive 5:38.0 in his mile debut at the age of 15.
A year later he was setting a world age-16 best of 4:07.8 and at 17 he became the first high-schooler and youngest ever sub-four-minute miler with another age best (3:59.0) and he ran in the Olympics.
In Tokyo a bad cold meant he didn’t survive the semi-final, though even fully healthy it might have been beyond him at that stage of his development.
At the age of 18 though he improved to 3:55.3 in beating Snell and was clearly on his way to becoming the world No.1.
In 1966 and 1967 he was smashing world records and would surely have won the 1968 Olympics had it not been for the high altitude.
He was never quite as dominant in later years but was in great shape in 1972 – certainly enough to medal easily at worst – but fell in his heat.
He went professional shortly after that and later served in the United States House of Representatives from 1996 to 2007 and in 2020 he received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from Donald Trump.
Here we highlight 20 of his greatest or most significant races.
For more on Ryun and some of his other races see our Clubhouse section here.
1 Compton Invitational Mile, June 5 1964
A few weeks earlier he had run a 55.7 last lap for a world age-17 best of 4:01.7 and he took nearly three more seconds off his mark with a 56.2 last lap in a faster race against the best US senior milers headed by Dyrol Burleson (3:57.4). He was far and away the youngest ever sub-four-minute miler and first ever high-school athlete to achieve that feat.
2 AAU 1500m Final, New Brunswick, June 8 1964
He advanced further up the American pecking order when he was fourth with another world age-17 best and indeed under-20 junior record. The race was won by Tom O’Hara (3:38.1).
3 US Olympic Trials 1500m, Los Angeles, September 13 1964
Burleson (3:41.2) and O’Hara (3:41.5) sealed their Tokyo spots as expected but the shock was young Ryun running down 3:56.1 miler Jim Grelle on the line to become the youngest ever US track athlete to make the Olympic team. Sadly he caught a bad cold and failed to make the final, finishing a poor last in 3:55.0 in his semi-final.
4 AAU Mile Final, San Diego, June 27 1965
1st 3:55.3 (US record)
A few weeks earlier Olympic champion Snell (3:56.4) had beaten him at Compton as Ryun in third improved to 3:56.8 (world age-18 best) but he gained his revenge on the Kiwi in a superb race as he covered the last lap in 53.9 (the quickest ever in such a fast race). His 26.6 final 200m held off his rival (3:55.4) by a yard to break Grelle’s US record and go fourth all-time.
Foot and knee injuries prevented Ryun from building on his successes in later races in 1965.
5 Coliseum Relays 2 miles, Los Angeles, May 13 1966
1st 8:25.1 (US record)
He showed that, though still a teenager, he had now also built good endurance as he outkicked Grelle and new star Kip Keino who had run a 3:54 mile and was the 3000m and 5000m world record-holder. Ryun was only a few seconds from Michel Jazy’s world record and went third all-time with another American record.
6 Compton Mile, Los Angeles, June 4 1966
1st 3:53.7 (US record)
After reaching halfway in 1:58.5, he pushed on ahead for the first time in a big race. Grelle followed him through three-quarters in 2:58.5 but had no answer to Ryun’s unprecedented finishing speed that saw him run 26.4 for the last 220 yards and 55.2 for the last lap.
This meant he took well over a second off his American record and only missed Jazy’s world record by a tenth of a second.
7 USTAF 880 yards Championships, Terre Haute, June 10 1966
1st 1:44.9 (world record)
Ryun had never previously shown he had major ambitions at two laps and this was a shocking performance. He felt tired in a 1:51.0 heat and then just had two hours recovery. Nothing special looked on as he passed halfway in 53.3 but a 51.6 last lap fuelled by a 25.5 final 220 yards saw him break Snell’s 1:45.1 world record and win the race by three seconds.
Snell had passed 800m in a then unprecedented record 1:44.3 during his half-mile record. No time was taken for Ryun but it was probably 1:44.1 and no one would run quicker until 1973.
8 Berkeley Mile, July 17 1966
1st 3:51.3 (world record)
After a 52.6 last lap to win the AAU Championships in stifling hot conditions in 3:58.6, he knew he was in shape to attempt the world record. The early pace was probably too fast and Ryun passed 440 yards in 57.9 and halfway in 1:55.5. The pace slowed on the third lap as he had to take over the lead along the back straight but a three-quarters time of 2:55.3 got the crowd roaring.
He was unable to produce his usual kick but he powered past 1500m in an US record 3:36.1 (the second fastest in history) and completed a 56.0 final circuit to take over two seconds off the world record.
He was still a junior at 19 years and two months old. Cary Weisiger was a distant second in 3:58.0.
9 Coliseum Compton Mile, Los Angeles, June 2 1967
He showed good early season form with a 3:54.7 mile win in April and then in this race he showed he was moving in the right direction with a 55.2 last lap and produced the second fastest mile in history. After this race he won a NCAA 800m and 1500m double, winning the mile by 20 yards in 4:03.5 thanks to a space age 23.9 last 220 yards.
10 AAU Championships Mile, Bakersfield, June 23 1967
1st 3:51.1 (world record)
Wanting a fast time he chose to lead all the way and after a too fast first 220 yards in 28.4, he slowed too much to 30.6 for the second. He was still far too slow at halfway in 1:58.9 and thought the record was impossible.
On the third lap he picked the pace up and his 58.5 meant he was through the bell in 2:57.4, two seconds slower than Berkeley.
His next 220 yards occupied just 27.4 but he still had another gear to go and he ripped through the final 220 yards in a brilliant 26.3. His 53.7 last lap and 1:52.2 second half meant he had taken a further two tenths off his record. Grelle finished five seconds back (3:56.1).
The record would last eight years.
11 USA v Commonwealth 1500m, Los Angeles, July 8 1967
1st 3:33.1 (world record)
While his Bakersfield run was astonishing, this went a lot further in sheer brilliance.
Records were on no one’s mind as the field jogged the first 200m before Dave Bailey of Canada upped the pace but the first 440 yards was still a pedestrian 60.9.
Keino, who had run a 3:53.4 mile to go second all-time in 1965, knew he had to pick up the pace and he blasted the second lap in 56 seconds with Ryun still close behind.
The Kenyan kept the pressure on to the bell in 2:39.2 and passed three-quarters in 2:55.0.
Ryun drew up alongside Keino and then exploded. Despite the fast pace he ran the next 200m in 26.1. He tied up slightly in the finishing straight (13.5 for the last 100m) but he still opened up a four-second gap on Keino (3:37.2) in less than 300 metres and took over two and a half seconds off Elliott’s celebrated world record – the biggest margin of any 1500m or mile record in the whole of the IAAF era which started in 1912.
His last 400m was 53.1, 800m 1:50.5, 1000m in 2:18.6 and 1200m an astonishing 2:46.6. The record would last seven years.
12 USA v West Germany 1500m, Dusseldorf, July 8 1967
Ryun beat Keino again in the Emsley Carr Mile in a GB v USA match in front of a 35,000 White City crowd in 3:56.0 in 20mph winds and then five days later he moved on to Germany.
This time with just the four kickers in the match race there was little interest in a fast pace.
Cheered on by a big German crowd, European champion Bodo Tummler kicked hard at the bell followed by Olympic 5000m medallist Harold Norpoth, Ryun and Grelle.
With 300m to go, Ryun produced the greatest burst of speed ever seen in a mile or 1500m. He was timed at 11.6 for the next 100m and though slowing he still ran the last 200m in 24.8. His last 300m was 36.4 and he took four seconds out of renowned fast finisher Tummler (3:42.3).
13 US Olympic Trials 1500m, South Lake Tahoe, September 15 1968
After focusing more on training (and catching mononucleosis) he raced lightly in Olympic year but ran a 3:55.9 mile in August and then a 3:43.0 1500m at South Lake Tahoe (the fastest ever at that high an altitude) with a 53.5 last lap. He then moved on to the Final Trial at the same track two weeks later.
A cautious race saw three slow laps and then a 50.8 final circuit as he easily beat Marty Liquori (3:49.5).
14 Olympic 1500m Final, Mexico City, October 20 1968
High altitude favoured Keino though the Kenyan made it harder for himself by running the 10,000m, then a 5000m heat and then just missing out on 5000m gold and then running five seconds faster than he needed in the heat.
Keino’s team-mate Ben Jipcho blasted a 56 first lap and then Keino powered ahead and passed 800m in 1:55.3.
Tummler, Norpoth and Britain’s John Whetton were still within five to 10 metres but Ryun (1:58.5) was sticking with his plan that said 3:39 should win.
Everyone expected Keino to fold after his extravagant racing and pacing but instead he ran a 58.1 third lap up to 1200m and was eight metres ahead of Tummler and Norpoth with Ryun closing slightly (2:56.0).
Ryun accelerated and passed the two Germans but made no impression on Keino, who powered away impressively and his 55.9 last lap gave him a clear win in an Olympic record 3:34.9 to go second all-time to Ryun.
15 Coliseum Compton Mile, Los Angeles, June 7 1969
In his first big outdoor mile of the year, he held back through 62.3, 2:01.7 and 3:00.4 splits and then produced a 55.5 final lap to beat Sam Bair (3:56.7) and Liquori (3:57.6). In the NCAA Mile though the latter gained his revenge with a 54.4 last lap to win in 3:57.7 to Ryun’s 3:59.3 and Liquori also won the AAU race with Ryun dropping out.
16 San Diego Mile, February 19 1971
1st 3:56.4 (=world indoor record)
Ryun did nothing of note in 1970 but surprised himself here indoors. He was 50 yards down at halfway (2:01.0) but was up to fourth in 3:00 at three quarters. A strong finish saw him win in a world indoor record ahead of John Mason (3:58.0).
17 Martin Luther King Games Mile, Pennsylvania, May 16 1971
Liquori was now considered the world No.1 though Ryun ran a 3:55.8 to win in Kansas in April to prepare for this match-up between the two Americans which was hyped as the mile of the century.
The early pace was slow as they both hovered near the back in 61.4 and 2:01.3. Liquori began a long drive on the third lap and completed it in 56.7. He further picked the pace up with Ryun still right behind. On the last turn, Ryun moved beside but he was unable to get by and Liquori won by just over a yard in a PB 3:54.6 courtesy of a 1:51.3 second half and 54.6 last lap.
18 US Olympic Trials 1500m, Eugene, July 8 1972
He showed his endurance was good with a 13:38.2 5000m in May. However, he could only finish fourth in the Olympic 800m trials despite a 1:45.2 as Dave Wottle shockingly equalled the world record of 1:44.3 and Wottle, considered more of a miler, was favourite for the longer event even though Ryun had beaten him in June in a 3:57.3 mile with a 53.9 last lap.
In the trials, Ryun was only sixth at the bell and still too wide and far back at the start of the last bend. However, his sprint along the final straight was incredible as he ran the last 200m inside 25 seconds with a final 320 yards timed at 36.6 and his 51.5 closing circuit (after a slow start to the lap) left ace-kicker and future Olympic 800m champion Wottle (3:42.3) six metres behind.
19 Toronto Mile, July 29 1972
Having proved he could out-finish anyone, he was now keen to test himself in a fast race.
After a 1:57.6 halfway split, he pushed on ahead to pass three-quarter in 2:57.2, and then ran a strong 55.6 last lap and his time – the third best in history – had only been bettered by himself.
20 Olympic Games 1500m heat, Munich, September 8 1972
While running near the back of a slow heat he was tripped and fell very heavily, injuring his hip and ankle. Though he eventually got up and chased after his competitors he was some way from qualifying and an appeal was thrown out.
The heat was won by Keino (3:40.0) and Ryun was drawn in the same heat as the computer thought his submitted 3:52.8 was a slow 1500m rather than the top-ranked performance.
Judging by Ryun’s July form, only Munich winner Pekka Vasala could have seriously challenged the American in the final. Keino finished second. Ryun turned professional with the ITA circuit in 1973 but never regained his full fitness.
» AW magazine subscribers can read more on Ryun and some of his other races in our Clubhouse here