Sunday, February 12, 2017

Book review: The Miracle Mile a real masterpiece

I am of the belief that our sporting history is badly underserved. Or perhaps I’m just a sucker for books that deal with the past.
Either way, The Miracle Mile: Stories of the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games is a wonderful addition to the genre.
Jason Beck, the curator and facility director at the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame in Vancouver, began researching this book in August 2006; it was published in 2016.
Judging by the evidence between its covers, Beck put all of that time and effort to good use.
The fact of the matter is that the subtitle defines this book moreso than does the main title. While it is
about the Miracle Mile and all that preceded and followed the race that had Roger Bannister and John Landy in its spotlight, Beck delves into so much more and he does it in a writing style that brings all that history to life.
Beck tells the story of the 1954 BECG and everything that went into Vancouver being named the host city. He writes about the battles that went into selecting the various sporting venues, including how the rowers ended up on the Vedder Canal near Chilliwack rather than on Burnaby Lake.
But it is in writing about the individual athletes — and not just Canadians — where Beck really excels.
The decision to chronicle the Games, which ran from July 31 through Aug. 7, allows Beck to provide event-by-event coverage. At the same time, it allows him to tells the stories of many of the competitors.
There is the story of Jackie MacDonald, a Canadian shot putter who was one of the first female athletes to take weight-training seriously. In search of progressive coaching, she came to train under Lloyd Percival, who history would prove was years ahead of the game. As you may have guessed, MacDonald’s move didn’t sit well with officials, despite the fact the Canadian BECG team was loaded with Percival-trained athletes. Beck details in all its craziness how she came to be removed from the Canadian team and then reinstated.
There were the Canadian men who set the rowing world on its ear. According to Dick Beddoes, then writing in the Vancouver Sun, “Two of their number had never rowed anything more seaworthy than a manure spreader.”
There was the Nigerian who won a high-jump gold medal — his country’s first international medal in any sport — while leaping with one shoe on and one shoe off.
There was Irene MacDonald, a 20-year-old who had grown up in an orphanage in Hamilton, Ont., and introduced herself to the international diving world at these Games. She later would become a familiar face/voice whenever CBC covered major diving events.
And let’s not forget Doug Hepburn, the big man from Vancouver, who was recognized as the world’s strongest man. But, as Beck learned, there was so much more to Hepburn than a bar with weights on it.
Jim Peters, a marathon from England, came oh, so close to running himself to death on the streets of Vancouver. You can only marvel as Beck describes the finish of the marathon, which occurred shortly after the Miracle Mile came to its heart-pounding conclusion.
There are so many stories about so many athletes that space doesn’t allow the listing of more than a few. Suffice to say, this book is a lucrative ore body of rich stories.
Of course, all of the stories are wrapped around the Miracle Mile.
In today’s world, ruled as it is by by live TV and instant communication, it is hard to fathom the world-wide buzz that surrounded the race. In 1954, the mile was the magical event in the world of track and field, and Bannister and Landy were its rulers, 1A and 1B.
Beck details these two men, their personalities, their training methods, what they ate in the days leading up to Aug. 7, 1954. Were you aware that disaster was narrowly averted days before the race when Landy cut the bottom of one foot when he stepped on a photographer’s discarded flash bulb?
Over time, you couldn’t be faulted for perhaps thinking that Bannister and Landy were the only two competitors in that magic race on that steaming hot day at Empire Stadium.
That wasn’t the case, of course, and Beck writes knowingly and warmly about all of the milers, including Rich Ferguson, a Canadian who finished third in the Miracle Mile. Yes, a Canadian finished third!
As Beck writes: “Perhaps this book will help shine the spotlight a little more sharply on one of the most surprising — and forgotten — Canadian athletic performances ever.”
As something of a bonus, a chapter at book’s end informs the reader of what became of some of the major competitors in their later lives.
Let me also compliment the editing that was done here; in the acknowledgements, Beck credits “editor supreme Betty Keller.” Despite the book being fairly long, the writing is tight and the copy is clean. If you are an avid reader, you know how disconcerting the opposite of that can be.
In closing, just let me say that while the Miracle Mile, the event, was a sporting work of art, The Miracle Mile, the book, is a masterpiece.


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