Wes Santee: US runner who came agonisingly close to breaking the four-minute-mile barrier

Michael Carlson
Wednesday 22 December 2010 01:00 GMT

If, in early 1954, you had made a book on the first runner to break the four-minute barrier, the American Wes Santee, who has died aged 78 from cancer, might have received shorter odds than either Australia's John Landy or Britain's Roger Bannister. Santee was ranked second in the world at both 800 and 1500 metres, with a fast finishing kick. Bannister, of course, got there first, running 3:59.4 on 6 May 1954, and Landy lowered the mark to 3:58 in June. But while Bannister's record attempt at Oxford was structured carefully, with "rabbits" pacemaking him through each lap, Santee was competing for Kansas University, in meets where he typically ran both 880 yards and the mile, and anchored the 4x440 relay. When told of Bannister's feat, Santee was "not exceptionally disappointed", claiming he would be satisfied to become the first American through the barrier, and that he could, anyway, beat Bannister in a race.

But though he came less than a second short three times, Santee never cracked the 4:00 barrier. In a career cut short by persistent feuding with America's Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), he never won a major international title. No American has won the Olympic metric mile since 1908, a long line of disappointment whose leading figures are Glenn Cunningham and Jim Ryun, both world-record holders who settled for Olympic silver. Like them, Santee came from Kansas.

He grew up on a ranch in Ashland, without running water or electricity. His father worked him hard, and subjected him to frequent beatings. Allowed to compete in high school only if his chores didn't suffer, he would rise before dawn, work two hours, run five miles to school and run back to finish his work. His coach excused him from after-school practices, and he earned a scholarship to Kansas. At 6ft 1in and 10 stones, he was, he said, "a skinny, strong, SOB." In 1952, the 19-year-old sophomore won a 14-mile race along a highway outside Lawrence, beating 28 of his fraternity brothers running a half-mile each. On the serious side, he won the college championship at 5000 metres, and the US outdoors at 1500 metres. But after finishing second in the 5000 at the Olympic trials, he was pulled off the track at the start of the 1500 and told by AAU officials that rules forbade anyone from qualifying in both events. There were no such rules, and Santee never got an explanation. At the Helsinki games, he failed to reach the 5000 final, while Luxembourg's Josy Barthel won the 1500 in a photo-finish with Bob McMillen, whom Santee had beaten easily in college races. Bannister finished fourth.

In 1953, Santee was collegiate champion in both cross-country and the mile, and he began to hit his peak in 1954. In June, he ran a world 1500-metre record of 3:42.8 on his way to a crushing mile win over Bartel at the Compton Invitational, but after sprinting past Bartel he slowed slightly, finishing the mile at 4:00.07. Soon afterwards, the AAU barred him from international competition for a year, claiming he had "broken training" in Europe the previous summer. That winter he broke the world indoor record for the mile twice, the second time setting the 1500 mark along the way to a 4:03.8 finish. But at the 1955 Pan American Games he finished second in a slow 1500 final. In 1956, with Melbourne's Olympics looming, Santee, now an officer in the Marine Corps, was accused by the AAU of accepting excessive "expenses" from meet promoters. The charges were leaked by a vindictive promoter whose meet he'd turned down, though payments were commonplace and the promoters were AAU officials themselves. Santee refused to testify, because, he said later, if he'd been asked about his fellow athletes, "we'd have lost half the 1956 Olympic team". He was banned for life, and never competed again. After leaving the Marines, he started an insurance business in Lawrence, Kansas, and, in 1975, when the national masters championships were in nearby Wichita, he stepped out on the track and won the 800 metres. He retired a colonel in the Marine reserves and served as a presidential physical fitness adviser. Married three times, he is survived by two sons and a daughter. When he was banned, he had run three of the five fastest miles in history, but his best time was 4:00.5, still half a second short of the four-minute barrier.

David Wesley Santee, athlete: born Ashland, Kansas 25 March 1932; married three times (two sons, one daughter); died Eureka, Kansas 14 November 2010.

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