Recalling Hägg’s 4:01.4 world record Mile, on its 75th anniversary
Sell-out crowd of more than 14,000 witnessed Gunder the Wonder's historic Mile race on Malmö's 393m Idrottsplats track
By Mel Watman for World Athletics
It was 75 years ago today, on July 17, 1945, in the Swedish city of Malmö that the first sub-4 minute Mile was so nearly achieved. Almost nine years before that honor fell to Britain's Roger Bannister the 26 year-old Swede, Gunder Hägg, came within four strides of athletic immortality. His time was 4:01.3, rounded up to 4:01.4 for world record ratification purposes as times for the Mile officially then had to be recorded to a fifth of a second.
While most of Europe was being devastated by World War II, and little athletics action was possible, in neutral Sweden the sport was thriving and drawing big crowds, principally because of the intense rivalry between Hägg and his compatriot Arne Andersson, and the growing possibility that either might achieve eternal fame by becoming the world's first sub-4 minute Miler.
Hägg, born on the last day of 1918 and the son of a lumberjack, took up running in 1936 aged 17 and was progressing well until in 1939 he caught pneumonia, was in hospital for most of the summer and on discharge was told by his doctor to forget about his running career. Happily, he ignored that advice and in 1940 he clocked 3:51.8 for 1500 meters, only three seconds slower than the Swedish record set by Andersson (born on October 27, 1917) in 1939. Amid increasing clamor by fans and the press for the pair to lock horns, the first of numerous clashes occurred in August. Neither won the 1500m race, that distinction going to Henry Kälarne, a world record breaker at 2000m and 3000m, in a national record 3:48.7 with Hägg a very close second in 3:48.8 and Andersson third in 3:51.0.
The world record at the time was Jack Lovelock's 3:47.8 when the New Zealander so memorably won the 1936 Olympic 1500 title in Berlin, but Hägg broke that with a 3:47.6 victory over Andersson (3:48.6) in August 1941. Better was to follow in July 1942. First, Hägg broke Sydney Wooderson's 1937 Mile world record of 4:06.4 by 0.2, then Andersson himself ran 4:06.2 nine days later, and one week after that Hägg smashed the 1500m record with 3:45.8.
Hägg had the last word in the Mile too as in September he deprived Andersson of a share in the world record by clocking 4:04.6. Oh, and "Gunder the Wonder" also found time to set world records that season at 2000m, 3000m, 2 miles, 3 miles and a barrier-breaking 5000m (13:58.2). Within the space of 82 days, Hägg competed in 26 races - winning all and setting ten world records!
In 1943, while Hägg was on a barnstorming undefeated racing tour of the USA, raising funds for the U.S. Army Air Force Aid Society, Andersson came into his own on home soil, setting world records of 3:45.0 and 4:02.6, and it was he who brought the prospect of a 4 minute Mile into sharp focus by lowering the record to 4:01.6 ahead of Hägg (4:02.0) in an epic race in Malmö in July 1944. Honors were even that summer as Hägg had earlier smashed the 1500m record with 3:43.0, one second ahead of his perpetual rival.
And so to 1945 and that historic Mile race on Malmö's 393m Idrottsplats track before a sell-out crowd of more than 14,000. The pacemaker Ake Pettersson hared around the first 440 yards in 56.2 with Hägg timed at a seemingly suicidal 56.6. Inevitably the pace of the second quarter was much slower at 61.9 for a halfway time of 1:58.5, and Hägg reached three-quarters in 2:59.7. He had company, though, for at 1500m (3:45.4) he was only three meters clear of Andersson. His rival drew level, ominously as Andersson usually had a stronger kick, but Hägg did not panic, calmly accelerating away to cross the line in 4:01.4. Andersson was second in 4:02.2, while Rune Persson clocked 4:03.8 for the fastest ever third place time.
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Mile WR progression HERE.