The death of the first man to break the 4-minute mile brought to mind how the metric system ruined high school and college track and field for thousands of fans like myself. Why is that important? No matter what the bureaucrats say, having fans at a high school or college sporting event is more important than being politically correct. It's the real reason why multi-millionaire, football, basketball and baseball players try play one more season. It has nothing to do with money - it is all about playing in front of a stadium full of screaming fans.
I ran cross country at a time when it was OK - but not cool. At Royal Oak Dondero High School the most fans we ever had were football players just finishing practice who would often "quack" in unison as we finished our practice drills running one behind each other like baby ducklings following a mother duck. But during track season we had our vengeance, The 100 yard dash and mile run actually drew fans – thanks to pro football players making the dash important every Sunday and Roger Bannister's iconic event of breaking the 4-minute mile barrier by running a 3:59 mile on March 12, 1954. Now except for parents, there doesn't seem to be the same interest in track and field at the high school level.
The closest any one came to running a sub-4 minute mile on our high school track in the 1960s was 4 minutes and 12 seconds. Yet, thanks to the legendary Roger Bannister's book "Breaking THE BARRIER, even the casual track fan knew that 4:12 was very close to world class. The fans could also use that time to relate to the quarter and half mile races. How many average fans of today know the good high school and college times for the 800 meters or the 1600 meters ? Maybe a few hard core fans. But Interesting enough, in "Metric-Europe", the mile is still one of the glamour races and is often saved for the last event. Even fans with metrics as part of their lifestyle can related to a sub-four minute mile.
St. Johns Michigan is twenty miles south of the state capitol of Lansing. In July of 1975 the following sign was installed along highway 127: 12 miles (19 km) to St. Johns. Similar mileage/kilometer signs were installed on highways throughout the state of Michigan. During that same time period most new cars featured kilometers on the speedometer dial. Today there are no highway signs in kilometers guiding travelers towards St. Johns and there are no kilometer markings on new car speedometer dials.
During this same time period, Chesterfield tried capitalized on the rage to make cigarettes longer and the perceived metric craze. The once popular brand introduced the "101" with the tagline: A Silly Millimeter Longer. The ads were so clever that the tagline is remembered even today - even as all the metric signs have been removed from the highways of Michigan. It was a quiet populist movement. The metric system never caught on in everyday Michigan life. We don't kick a football 33 meters for an extra point. We don't cheer for a 125 meter home run. It's not the the MIS 500 KM NACAR race. The Silly Millimeter never caught on with the Michigan motorists and all the speed limit signs now reflect the traditional Imperial system. The Chesterfield cigarettes? Apparently they are still popular in several European metric dominated countries.
European metric track and field events draw standing room only crowds. That Silly Millimeter is part of their culture. Meanwhile in the good old USA a touchdown is still 100 yards on the high school, college and pro football fields. Football players at all levels are judge by their 40 yard time - not some metric mark. No Silly Millimeters when billionaires control the fields-of-play. If these distances were changed to the metric system - maybe metrics would be part of our culture. But they have not been changed. As a result, the fans and the ticket prices have increased. It also should be noted that the imperial measurement sports pay for the non-revenue metric sports on most campuses.
Speaking of campuses, I ran cross country at Eastern Michigan University when feet, yards and miles ruled. Once a year myself and a few teammates would hitchhike from Ypsilanti to Ann Arbor to watch U of M vs UCLA in track and field. You had to get there early to get a seat because of the thousands of fans. We all could relate to the events and the heritage of the records that dated back to the 1800's. However with the advent of metric system - all the records from the legendary "Champions of the West" were erased. Last year I attended the Big Ten Track and Field Championships. I had no trouble getting a seat in the half empty stands. I admired the athletes' skills, but I had no idea what were good times versus great times.
Like many boys and girls who ran track in the 1960's, I could tell you verbatim the good times for each event: 10 seconds flat for the 100 yard dash, 50 seconds for 440 yard sprint, 2 minutes for the half-mile, under 5 minutes for a good high school mile, etc. The average fan could relate the times and distances to their day to day life. Meanwhile, since the metric system has dominated track and field, it has lost all its influence in every day life and all the high school and college running records that the average fan could related to have been retired.
That's What Happened...
Photos: U.S. Metric Association July 1975 and Wayne Till's RODHS collection