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Roger Bannister (Associated Press)

Head starts

Sports | World records are imagined in the mind before they are set on the track or in the pool

Issue: "The brain trust," June 30, 2012

At the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, English runner Roger Bannister finished out of the medals in fourth place in the 1500-meter race. The disappointment nearly pressed him to give up running for good. Instead, after two months of deliberation, the then 23-year-old hatched a new focus for his athletic career: He would dedicate himself to become the first man to run a mile in less than four minutes.

Less than a year later, Bannister raced to a time of 4:03.6, a new British record. More importantly, the time sparked his imagination: "This race made me realize that the four-minute mile was not out of reach." That belief proved true the following year in 1954 when Bannister thrilled 3,000 spectators with a mile run of 3:59.4. Now the whole running world could imagine shattering the four-minute barrier. Just 46 days after Bannister's historic feat, Australian John Landy covered a mile in 3:57.9. Many others soon joined the sub-four-minute fray, including even a high-school athlete within a decade.

Such power of imagination plays out across the landscape of sports. Only when athletes believe new realms of achievement possible are they able to shatter long-standing barriers. Dick Fosbury did as much with his revolutionary high jump technique at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. Swimmer Mark Spitz achieved what most considered impossible at the 1972 Games in Munich, winning seven gold medals. That feat spurred Michael Phelps to dream and to win eight gold medals four years ago in Beijing.

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This summer's Games in London could well see the shattering of a few more marks once considered impossible. Phelps is back to attempt a repeat of his Beijing bling. And on the track, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt is aiming to stun the world with new standards in the 100 and 200 meters. Trouble for Bolt is, his blistering times over the past few years have not only convinced him that a 9.5-second 100 meters and 19-second 200 meters are possible; they have convinced the men who will line up to his right and left as well. American record-holder Tyson Gay, the only man to beat Bolt in the past four years, expects to be healthy for the competition. And emerging Jamaican star Yohan Blake, Bolt's training partner, is too young to know that 22-year-olds aren't supposed to run 19.26 for 200 meters, as he did in Brussels last September.

The story in London will hinge in the athletes' minds as much as in the strength of their bodies. As good a runner as Bannister, now 83, was, he was even better at inspiration: "Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn't matter whether you're a lion or a gazelle-when the sun comes up, you'd better be running."

Johan's no-no

Johan Santana (Associated Press/Photo by Keith Srakocic)

It took 50 years and 8,020 games, but the New York Mets finally have a no-hitter. On June 1, pitcher Johan Santana no-hit the St. Louis Cardinals, ending the longest active stretch of a major league team without a no-hitter.

The Mets may be happy to have such a monkey off their back. But, in truth, the monkey was never much more than a baby chimp. No-hitters are among the rarest of baseball achievements. Since 1962, the year the Mets entered the league as an expansion team, baseball has witnessed only 131 no-hitters. -Mark Bergin

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