Millrose Games Celebrates 100th Birthday as Track’s Most Prestigious Indoor Event

I guess you would have to be a runner to appreciate the Millrose Games, which celebrated its 100th running during the weekend at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

The Millrose Games is not arguably the most prestigious indoor track meet in the world, it is in fact THE most prestigious indoor invitational track and field meet in the world. As a runner in high school and college, you dream about running on the boards at the Millrose Games in Madison Square Garden the same way a football player dreams about playing in the Super Bowl.

Track and field has fallen on hard times in the United States lately and that is why the 100th running of the Millrose is so significant. Only the 2007 Millrose Games, as Dick Patrick wrote in USA Today on Thursday (2-1-07), “has survived the demise of a once vibrant indoor circuit that the USA monopolized.”

Patrick has it right.

Not only did Camelot lose its luster with the tragic loss of President John F. Kennedy, the Millrose Games has lost some of its bloom but is still able to blossom because of the famous Wanamaker Mile competition and enough world-class athletes to merit 2 hours of live coverage by ESPN2 on Friday and 1 hour by ABC Saturday.

I was glued to the TV for both showings.

Many runners who would watch the Millrose Games on the tube would not do so if it were not for sportswriters like Dick Patrick. His pre-meet coverage of the event in USA Today was interesting, informative and plentiful.

The Millrose Games were started in 1908 by John Wanamaker of the Wanamaker department store chain and first gained prominence in the 1920s. Herb Schmertz, who worked for the Wanamaker department store in New York, became the Millrose meet director in 1934 and ran the Millrose games for 40 years, until 1974, when his son Howard, a New York City lawyer, took over in 1975 and continued until 2003.

The Schmertz family ran the Millrose Games for 69 years and Howard Schmertz continued as the meet director emeritus for the 100th running of the Millrose Games. The new meet director is Mark Wetmore of Global Athletics Management.

John Wanamaker of Wanamaker department stores was a giant in American retailing. He opened Philadelphia’s first department store in 1861 and would eventually have 15 more stores in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Delaware.

Wanamaker is credited with being the father of modern advertising in America. He was the first to copyright his advertisements, the first to guarantee his goods and offer exchanges and refunds, he created the price tag as we know it today, and was the first to locate a restaurant inside his department store.

Wanamaker was far ahead of his time as the first department store with electrical illumination (1878), first store with a telephone (1879), first store to install pneumatic tubes to transport cash and documents (1880) and the first store with an elevator (1884).

It is hardly surprising that John Wanamaker would sponsor a major sports event and give birth to the Millrose Games. As major sponsorship, meets and attendance began to fade in the 1990s, Europe became a much more important indoor player; however, the Millrose Games continued thanks to the Schmertz family.

The Millrose Games has been through three Madison Square Gardens, two world wars and one Great Depression and still survived to celebrate its 100th birthday.

This year’s centennial meet saw 40-year-old Gail Devers, already the meet and American record holder in the hurdles, win the event in 7.86 seconds-the fastest time in the world this year and nearly a full second better than the listed world record for masters (40+) athletes at 8.71.

Russian pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva set a Millrose Games record while competing for the first time on U. S. soil. Isinbayeva is the 17-time world record holder; she continually breaks her own world record and tried on her last attempt at Millrose but missed.

In the famous Wanamaker Mile Saturday, four-time winner Bernard Lagat was facing off against Craig “Buster” Mottram, the 6-foot-3 Commonwealth Games champion, and Alan Webb, America’s new “home grown” miler. Lagat, a Kenyan runner, apparently has become an American citizen.

Lagat’s legacy is already assured as he is a two-time Olympic 1,500 meter medalist. Webb became the first American high schooler ever to break 4 minutes for the mile indoors (3:59.86), and at the outdoor Prefontaine Classic in Eugene (OR) would run 3:53.43 to break Jim Ryan’s 36-year-old national high school record. In 2004, Webb won the 1,500 meter Olympic Trials, and he ran an outdoor mile in 3:48.92 last year.

The Wanamaker Mile is different and difficult because Madison Square Garden has a 160-yard-banked-board track compared to normal indoor tracks of 200 meters. Because it is shorter, the turns are more difficult and it is 11 laps rather than 8 laps.

In this year’s race, Alan Webb led behind Pacemaker Moise Joseph’s 1:54.99 half mile, and then Bernard Lagat, the defending champion, took over until the Australian Buster Mottram sprinted in front with 4 laps to go.

Mottram knew that Lagat considered it vital to be leading with two laps to go to win, and so Mottram poured it on and still led into the final lap. Lagat then went into another gear and won with better finishing speed in 3:54.26. Mottram was second in an Australian record 3:54.81, and Webb was a disappointing fourth.

I really felt for Alan Webb. He was so psyched to do better against Lagat. When interviewed with Lagat before the race, the announcer reminded Webb that Lagat that gotten the better of him several times and asked how Webb would beat him this time. My heart sank.

I have run too many races and understand how the announcer might well have sealed Webb’s fate right there. I do not think Webb was prepared to answer such a question just prior to the competition, and could not adjust mentally before he competed.

Webb’s answer to the announcer was that he “needed to be tougher” when a better answer would have been “he needed to be smarter,” especially if Webb had run a more tactical race and knew his leg speed was as good as Lagat’s at the finish.

If not, there is no way he could have won without pushing harder earlier in the hope of wearing Lagat out. Lagat is a Kenyan, not a turtle. He can fly as well as run. Webb’s best indoor mile prior was a triumphant 3:55.18 a short week ago in Boston.

Remember, Lagat won in 3:54.81, only 37 one hundredths of a second faster. My guess is Webb is physically ready, but he has some work to do emotionally and mentally to beat Lagat, whose hardened, winning experience and confidence showed better.

They run the Wanamaker Mile for the same reason they play the Super Bowl. You can talk all you want about who will win or why, yet the winning team will have to prove any statements on game day.

Dick Patrick ended his pre-meet story with this outstanding sidebar:

Howard Schmertz was 7 years old when he saw his first Millrose Games in 1933, accompanying his father, meet director Herb Schmertz.

Howard Schmertz, who succeeded his father as director in 1975, since has missed only two Millrose meets when he was fighting in World War II. (Here are Howard) Schmertz’s top Millrose moments:

10) Bernard Lagat wins the 2005 Wanamaker Mile in a Madison Square Garden record 3:52.87.

9) Suleiman Nyambui wins the 1981 5,000 (meter race) after a duel with Alberto Salazar, coming off a New York Marathon win. Nyambui sets a world record 13:20.4.

8) Ireland’s Eamonn Coghlan wins a record seventh Wanamaker Mile in 1987, outdueling Marcus O’Sullivan (another great Irish runner).

7) In the 1984 long jump, second-place Carl Lewis takes over first and sets a world record of 28 feet, 10¼ inches.

6) Marine Corporal John Uelses, using a newly designed fiberglass pole, becomes the first to clear 16 feet in the pole vault.

5) In 1974 Tony Waldrop records the first sub-4-minute mile in Millrose’s history.

4) Mary Decker wins the 1,500 (meter race) by 80 yards in 1980 and sets a world record 4:00.8.

3) In 1955 Denmark’s Gunnar Nielsen reclaims his mile world record from Wes Santee in 4:03.6. Meanwhile, Fred Dwyer, forced off the track on the last lap, and Santee practically wrestle down the homestraight in Nielsen’s wake.

2) In 1942, Cornelius Warmerdam, borrowing a bamboo pole, becomes the first to clear 15 feet in the vault. He broke the Millrose mark of 14-3, held by Sueo Ohe, killed several weeks before in Japan’s invasion of the Philippines.

1) In 1959 John Thomas, 17, becomes the first to clear 7 feet indoors in the high jump, outdueling Charlie Dumas, the first to clear 7 feet outdoors.

Hats off to Dick Patrick for bringing back some great memories. And hats off to the Millrose Games, still the best indoor games in the world.

Copyright © 2007 Ed Bagley

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