Kansas track star and Hall of Famer Wes Santee dies

Monday, November 15, 2010 | 11:51 a.m. CST

LAWRENCE, Kan. — Wes Santee, a Kansas track star, Olympian and member of the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, died Sunday, Nov. 14, 2010, after a fight with cancer. He was 78.

Daughter Susie Santee said her father died at his home in Eureka.

Santee, an Ashland native, set world records in the 1,500 meters and the indoor mile. He also won NCAA championships in the mile and 5,000, and won the NCAA cross-country championship in 1953 when his KU squad won the team title.

"Wes Santee was one of KU's all-time greats, not just in track and field, but in the history of Kansas athletics," Kansas interim athletic director Sean Lester said in a release Sunday. "He loved KU and the entire Kansas family will miss him. Our hearts go out to his family."

Santee is best known for his competition with Roger Bannister of England and John Landy of Australia from 1952 to 1954 to be the first runner to break 4 minutes for the mile. Bannister eventually did it, with a time of 3:59.4 on May 6, 1954. Their competition was the subject of an ESPN documentary and movie and a book, "The Perfect Mile" by Neal Bascomb, published in 2004.

"I am not exceptionally disappointed," Santee said the day Bannister broke the barrier. "There still is the challenge to see who will be the first American to break the 4-minute mile."

But Santee never broke the 4-minute barrier. It was Don Bowden of California who became the first American to accomplish the feat, with a time of 3:58.7 in 1957, after Santee's career had ended.

As a 20-year-old college sophomore, Santee made the 1952 U.S. Olympic team in the 5,000, a distance he had run only a few times.

He was the best American at 1,500 that year, but Amateur Athletic Union officials refused to allow him to compete for the Olympic team in that event on the grounds that he had already made the team in the 5,000 — an arbitrary ruling that had no legal basis. Santee ended up competing in the 5,000 at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland, but didn't win a medal.

His feud with the AAU culminated in the organization ruling him ineligible for further amateur competition for allegedly accepting too much expense money from meet promoters. A U.S. senator intervened on Santee's behalf, but a court ruled that the AAU had the power to ban him because of its control over amateur sports.

At one point, Santee had run three of the four fastest mile times in history.

One of those came in June 1954, in a race in the Los Angeles Coliseum against Olympic champion Josef Barthel.

"Barthel passed me after the third lap right at 3:00 flat," Santee told The Associated Press in an interview in 2005, the year he was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame. Santee sprinted and passed Barthel, more intent on winning the race than on breaking 4 minutes.

"I tied up coming off the curve," he said — but he held on to win in 4:00.7.

In 1955, Santee set indoor world records in the 1,500 and the mile and improved his time in the outdoor mile.

Then, in the Olympic year of 1956, the AAU declared him ineligible and ruled that anyone who competed against him would also be ineligible for amateur competition. That ended his career — at the age of 24.

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