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Cool Things - Olympic Track Shoe

Wes Santee's track shoe from the 1952 Helsinki OlypmicsWes Santee found sure footing in a set of red leather track shoes made in Helsinki, Finland.

"A man who sets out to become an artist at the mile is something like a man who sets out to discover the most graceful method of being hanged."-- Paul O'Neil, Sports Illustrated, 1956

For centuries, many thought running one mile in less than four minutes to be beyond human ability. In the 1950s, three runners from across the globe challenged that theory and raced to break the barrier. Among them was Wes Santee, a farm boy from Ashland, Kansas.

Santee donated this set of track spikes to the Kansas Museum of History in 1966. Manufactured by the Finnish sports equipment company Karhu, the brand was widely recognized and available around the globe. Many runners wore spikes in the 1950s because most tracks were oval dirt strips topped with cinder ash to reduce dust and provide impact absorption. Cinder became loose during summer months, and the track turned to muck in rain. To provide traction, steel spikes were added to the soles of track shoes. While running for the University of Kansas, Santee was nicknamed "The Dizzy Dean of the Cinders." (Dizzy Dean had been one of the best pitchers in baseball during the 1930s.)

The son of a farmhand, Santee was born in 1932 on a ranch outside Ashland where he spent hours plowing and breaking horses. With no electricity, no running water, and no indoor plumbing, Santee's childhood was Spartan even by 1930s standards. Running was an escape from daily toils and an abusive father. Santee competed in high school track with the aid of a local coach and against his father's objections. He won state championships and broke Glenn Cunningham's state high school record.

A Tradition of Champions

In 1949, Santee enrolled at the University of Kansas, where he found Coach Bill Easton to possess all the qualities his father lacked. Easton became a father figure to many of his athletes and Santee became part of a growing tradition of track champions from Kansas. Glenn Cunningham of Elkhart had dominated American mile racing twenty years earlier. Thane Baker, another Elkhart native, won multiple Olympic medals for sprinting. Much of the success of Kansas runners was due to Coach Easton.

Wes Santee with KU Coach Bill Easton

By the summer of 1952, Santee was one of a handful of elite runners around the world considered capable of running a four-minute-mile. The Olympic Games were held in Helsinki, Finland, that year, but Santee did not compete in the 1,500 meter race--the Olympic mile. Instead, he ran in the 5,000 meter race. Also competing at the Helsinki Olympics were Roger Bannister of England and John Landy of Australia. Along with Santee, these athletes were world-class competitors in both the mile and 1,500 meters. Surprisingly, though, none of the three medalled in Finland. Santee finished fourth in the 5,000 meter race, his only event at the games.

After their respective failings in Helsinki, these three fierce competitors went on to inspire each other through a public battle for the four-minute-mile. Santee was renowned for a confidence some claimed bordered on arrogance. Following his Olympic defeat, he burst into the office of KU's school newspaper and declared he would be the first to break the barrier. Unfortunately for him, Bannister finished a race in 3:59.5 minutes on May 6, 1954, only to be outdone 46 days later by Landy. A short time afterwards, Santee recorded a time of 4:00.5 minutes, the closest he would come to his goal.

Despite this disappointment, Santee was an amazing athlete who broke numerous world records and captured many prestigious titles. In 1956 he set a new world record for the 1,500 meters. Twice he broke the world record for the indoor mile, and once for the indoor 1,500 meters. Santee was world-ranked by Track & Field News three years running in two different events. Regrettably, his career came to an abrupt end in 1956 following a dispute with the Amateur Athletic Union. His achievements were recognized recently by USA Track & Field when it inducted him into its Hall of Fame in 2005. Santee died of cancer November 14, 2010, at his home in Eureka.

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Entry: Cool Things - Olympic Track Shoe

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: June 2007

Date Modified: July 2014

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.