M is for Meter (not Mile)

For all of you who are big Hamilton fans or fancy yourself knowledgeable about U.S. history, you ought to be able to tell which of the Founding Fathers was the biggest francophile, the guy who thought France was the bee’s knees.

Joseph Dombey, French metrics expert, and Thomas Jefferson, French expert who was metri-curious. Photo at NPR.org.

You recognized old Tom Jefferson, naturally, who said:

In what country on earth would you rather live?—certainly in my own…What would be my second choice?—France.

Jefferson’s Autobiography, 1821

Where do you suppose the metric system got its start? That’s right: France. So why in the heck, given that Jefferson loved France, and France loved measuring things in hundredths, and Pierre de Coubertin was also French and gung ho on the Olympics, why in the heck do they run a “metric mile” which isn’t even a mile? It might be due to simple circular reasoning. Or pirates.

A kilogram measure which might have gone down with the ship in the 1790s. Photo from Vintage News.

Wherein France Remeasured All Its Marigolds

Since the United States was established as a British colony originally, the country has always had a potpourri system of measurements. Pounds, feet, cups–all with differing conversion rates coming from the British Imperial System, which tells you all you need to know about whether it’s logical. After the French Revolution, while the French were throwing out all their old aristocrats, they also took the opportunity to throw out their measurement system. It was the Age of Enlightenment, when things were very science-y and meanwhile a borrowed cup of French flour might differ in size between you and your neighbor, which would mess up your croissants. So a panel of French scientists in 1790 proposed a new system.

The distance unit, a meter, would be a fractional arc of the size of the Earth, measured through the Paris Meridian. Volume of water would be the size of a cubic “decimeter” of water and a gram would be the weight of that decimeter. Very logical. They even proposed dividing up the calendar and hours into deci-units, though that didn’t catch on, Dieu merci!

Jefferson, who was a very science-y guy himself, thought the metric system sounded like a good idea. He actually invited French botanist Joseph Dombey to America to help with converting his young 13 united states over to the metric system, before making the Louisiana Purchase, where there would be so much more stuff to be measured. However, Dombey was captured by British privateers, pirates of the Caribbean working for the British government, kind of like self-appointed border patrols in Arizona today. The British the pirates took his measurement devices and samples and threw him into prison in Montserrat. No metric system.

According to Time, Jefferson then abandoned the metric system (with no French scientist to persuade him) because it used a French location as its anchor. He probably would have preferred the one-millionth of the Earth to be calculated based on someplace in his Monticello backyard, next to the slave gardens. John Quincy Adams reconsidered changing measurements, but thought that the French political instability suggested that their metric system would be abandoned. Le Bummer!

By the end of the 19th century, a good portion of Europe–other than the British Commonwealth–had gone metric. But the Brits were having none of it, so the Americans didn’t either. Jimmy Carter even tried to go metric, and although American scientists, hospitals, and businesses started using metric measurements, others stubbornly refused to change, and Reagan abandoned the idea in the 1980s. Today, only the U.S., Myanmar, and Liberia still use the centuries’ old measurement systems, even though we did manage to move to the Gregorian Calendar.

Yep, right up there in advancement with Myanmar! No metric system for us! Image from Thumpertalk.com.

Wherein Charles Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin, Decides How Far Usain Bolt and the Kenyans Get to Run

Since the metre was so very French, and Pierre de Coubertin was so much behind re-establishing the modern Olympics, the 1896 Games is where metric distances and track events were married in earnest. Even though nearly 1/3 of the medal winners (and participants) were American or British–not counting the Greeks who were basically pulled off the streets to compete–and only 10% French, still, they ran in meters not yards.

Maybe the English speakers didn’t care whether they ran the 100 meter dash or 100 yard dash as long as they won; America’s Thomas Burke did. There were a few world records for the 100 m before that first Olympics, but only a few years’ prior. The fact is, that before the Olympics came along, many of the sports didn’t have internationally established competitions. Probably because they couldn’t agree on how far they ought to run.

It’s interesting, though, that the shortest race length established was the 100 meters but the longest race was the marathon. In fact, Olympics organizers specifically wanted to include that vaunted legendary event precisely because they wanted to give the new Games a link to the ancient past. The marathon was proposed by the Greeks, but de Coubertin loved it.

The race distance during that first staging was haphazardly designed, more evocative of the marathon distance than exact. The race itself was a bit crazy, with the second place finisher ending up disqualified because he had traveled partway in a carriage. The marathon distance of 26.2 miles or 42.2 kilometers was fixed some years later. While it’s thought to represent the distance of a runner after the Battle of Marathon, it was really fixed at the 1908 London Olympics based on the distance from Windsor Castle to the stadium. Since the marathon distance was neither a round fixture of miles or kilometers, it really stands by itself. The marathon is as long as the marathon is because that’s how long a marathon is. That “ouroborus” kind of logic sounds silly, but just wait a few minutes.

Wherein Roger Bannister Demonstrates that All Human Achievement Is Possible

Many runners throughout the twentieth century and earlier ran the mile. The measurement of the mile hearkens back to the British Parliament under Queen Elizabeth I. (If only QEI’s astrologer John Dee had devoted time to inventing the metric system instead of using his scientific knowledge to try and contact the angels…but that’s another story…). Running the mile soon became very popular as a distance for both horses and humans, while other humans–maybe horses, too, I don’t know–used the races for gambling.

Roger Bannister breaks the four-minute mile. Photo from Smithsonian Mag.

Records of British runners from the 1850s showed numerous races run which all clocked in between 4:12 to about 4:30. Even today, the International Amateur Athletics Federation still recognizes the mile as an official distance for a race. In IAAF records from the the 1910s, that time of 4:12 started to fall. The idea of a fixed barrier–four minutes–captured the imagination of sports enthusiasts worldwide. As runners got closer to that time, it was held up as a kind of natural barrier in sport for about fifteen years. Finally, in 1954, runner Roger Bannister made world headlines because he ran two seconds faster than Gunder Hagg had done, with the 4.01 mile in 1945. For some reason those extra two seconds were considered proof that all human achievement is possible. Whatever works. Australian John Landy did it again two months later. Leibniz doesn’t get credit for inventing calculus either.

Today, the average sports-savvy person might still know Roger Bannister’s name, whereas they don’t know who first ran a sub-ten-second 100m or a sub-two-hour marathon, both arguably also major feats of achievement against artificially-created time barriers. The mile still captures people’s imagination, more naturally than a four lap race. The Kentucky Derby, after all, is still measured in terms of miles (1.25).

Wherein the Weirdest Compromise in Running Seems Neither Metric nor Mile

So now we come to the “metric mile.” If ever there were a sporting event created by a committee, it has to be this one.

The Metric Mile has been run at the Olympics since 1896, and it’s commonly run today in college and “professional” track events. At the high school level, some run the mile and some run the metric mile.

The problem is that the metric mile is not a mile. It’s 1500 meters.

The weird distance is the 1500, which starts way up around the first curve. Photo from Runners World.

Here’s what I just can’t understand. A mile, 1760 yards, is pretty close to 1600 meters; it’s only about 9 meters longer. The 1500 is, by definition, 109 meters shorter than a mile. If you’re going to choose a distance to run that is “close” to a mile, why in the name of Dombey and de Coubertin would you run 109 meters shorter rather than only 9 meters shorter?

Most tracks today have converted to a metric distance where 400 meters is one lap. A hundred meters is the straightaway in the front; that’s easy. Runners run the 100, 200, 400, and 800, then they switch to the 1500. The 1500 distance isn’t four clean laps. Runners start partway up the track, around the first turn. They don’t pass “go” four times, but rather three; they don’t take eight turns, but rather seven. Runners even say it’s very confusing:

Was I gauging my laps from the start of the race? Or from the finish? When I had completed two laps, the natural halfway point, I was more than halfway done, which meant the final lap came up on me faster than I felt it should.

…There were times when I would lose count…You get to 400 meters to go quicker than you expect. I would get caught off guard; I’d hear the bell (for the final lap) and think, ‘Oh, crap.’

Oliver Staley, Why do Olympic runners race in the 1,500 meters instead of the mile?

The answer seems to be that the 1500 meter is run that way because it was run that way in the 1896 Olympics, when many of the race distances were established. OK. Why was it established as 1500 rather than 1600? Because in 1896, the French said so.

The only plausible argument is that it’s “easier” to think of races in round numbers, so that runners compete at the 5k or 10k, not the 9600k. That makes sense, you would have a 3k. Or then apparently 1.5k…. see? it’s not a round number, it’s a fraction. Also, if you’re going to round off, then why not make it the 1k rather than the 800m? The answer is because that’s logically two laps of the track, why run two laps and then a little more? In that case, why not just round the 3k but leave 1600 meters as it is, four laps of the track, close to a mile and one minute per lap.

The answer appears to be that the 1500 meters is established as the running event because it’s the metric mile. The metric mile is the 1500 meters because that’s how long they ran it in 1896. ‘Cause it’s metric, but it’s not a mile.

Tu ne vois pas, idiot?

We’re chasing our tail trying to figure out why they run the 1500. It’s stupid, but it’s what they do.

Today’s rant continues the series of posts on the Olympics for the April A to Z challenge:

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