Jolly Roger's great milestone

  • Other Sport
  • Sunday, 09 May 2004

On a wet, cold Thursday, May 16, 1954, Roger Bannister did the unthinkable. He ran the mile in under four minutes. Fifty years on, the feat still remains one of the most momentous in athletics. It broke a long-standing mental barrier. Although Hicham El-Guerrouj now holds the world record of 3:43.13, it is Bannister's run that remains etched in memory.

OXFORD: When Roger Bannister strained across the tape on Thursday, May 6, 1954 – head cocked back and mouth agape – he did more than break the four-minute barrier for the mile. 

He achieved a landmark that transcends sports. 

And on another Thursday 50 years later, a lanky 75-year-old grandfather with rosy cheeks and a wisp of gray-white hair, tried to downplay the anniversary of the record at a low-key meet at Oxford's Iffley Road track. 

With guards wearing bowler hats and music by Handel piped over the loudspeakers – a throwback to another era – the retired neurologist minimised his achievement: running 3 minutes 59.4 seconds when many thought it was impossible. 

Roger Bannister rings the original bell on Thursday at Oxford College during the mile race, to mark the 50th anniversary celebrations for his four-minute mile record. The 75-year-old neurologist believes his medical career was more important than his sporting achievement. -- AFPpic

“I never thought fame was particularly helpful or healthy as an experience because I knew that it was frail,'' Bannister said. “I always knew that running was a very small part of me.'' 

“None of my athletics was the greatest achievement. My medical work has been my achievement and my family with 14 grandchildren. Those are real achievements.'' 

About 1,500 fans came to glimpse Bannister, about the same turnout 50 years ago at the historic track. Slightly stooped, he smiled and waved as he awarded commemorative coins to the winners. 

Last Thursday was a breezy, sunny day. The tattered English flag fluttering atop the church across the road was the same one caught in historic photos. 

“I would have been delighted to run in weather of this kind,'' Bannister said. 

A half-century ago, the weather, in the form of gale-force winds buffeting the modest track at Iffley Road, nearly dashed Bannister's dream of running the first sub-four-minute mile. 

As the runners shuffled into position, the flag of St George on the church steeple stood at right angles to the pole. 

Bannister, a 25-year-old English medical student then, could cope with rain and a sodden cinder track. He could deal with the chill of the English spring. What he could not handle was a high wind. 

“Of the three things I didn't want to happen on the day, wind is the worst because it slows you down more than it helps you when it's behind you,” Bannister reflected in an interview last week. 

“It makes your running irregular and the whole business of running a four-minute mile was to spread the energy as evenly as possible.” 

Of all athletics barriers, the four-minute mile – four laps of 440 yards in 60 seconds each – has captured the imagination most. 

“The phrase, the four-minute mile, had a beauty in it, a symmetry,” said Bannister's friend and occasional timekeeper Norris McWhirter. “There was magic in it.” 

It was also the quintessential British event, to this day the only imperial distance still recognised for world-record purposes. 

The four-minute mile was felt to be a barrier too far until two Swedes, Gunder Haegg and Arne Anderson, took turns to slash the world record in the early 1940s, concluding with Haegg's 1945 mark of 4:01.4. 

Bannister had planned to retire from serious running well before the spring of 1954. But fourth place in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics 1,500m final, when he had started as one of the favourites, left him with a burning sense of unfinished business. 

His training schedule for Helsinki had been designed to cope with two races in three days. A late decision to add a semi-final in the intervening day effectively ended his hopes. 

Brooding on his defeat, Bannister came to a decision. 

“The disaster of Helsinki in a way forced me to say I cannot leave athletics on this note,” he said. “So I said just two more years and then I will be qualified as a doctor.” 

The 1954 Vancouver Empire Games and the Berne European championships were obvious targets. Then two men emerged to offer a more urgent challenge. 

John Landy, a likeable Australian, trained like a distance runner in sharp contrast to Bannister who fitted his training into the lunch break between lectures. 

In December 1953, Landy opened his southern hemisphere season with a 4:02 mile and by April 1954 he had recorded six times under 4:03. In California, Wes Santee was poised to launch a separate assault after his 4:02.4 the previous year.  

Landy was planning to run in Europe, Santee had the US season in front of him. 

“Throughout the winter, I had been watching the newspapers seeing whether Landy would do it first or whether Santee would do it first in America,” Bannister said. 

As the runners took their marks at Iffley Road, Bannister glanced again at the flag. The wind had dropped and it was now fluttering gently. Bannister made his decision. The record attempt was on. 

Two university friends had been designated as pacemakers. 

Chris Brasher, who was to win the 1956 Olympic 3,000m steeplechase and found the London marathon, was in charge of the first 880 yards. Chris Chataway, a future government minister who broke the world 5,000m record later that year, was to take over for the crucial third lap. 

“In the first lap, I thought Chris Brasher was going too slowly because for five days, I had rested so naturally I was very full of running,” recalled Bannister. 

“So I shouted 'faster' and he took no notice and he said later that he couldn't run any faster and he thought he was on time. 

“First lap 58 seconds, just right. Then the half mile, 1:58. Perfect.” 

Chataway brought the field through three laps in a fraction over three minutes, leaving Bannister to run the final 300 yards on his own, noisily encouraged by a crowd of 1,200. 

Bannister clocked a hand-timed 3:59.4 before collapsing in the arms of his euphoric supporters. 

Newspaper reaction was unrestrained. “There's been nothing to compare with this since the destruction of the Spanish Armada,” trumpeted one newspaper. 

Landy, the psychological barrier gone, promptly reduced the mark to 3:58.0 but was then outwitted and outsprinted by Bannister in the “Mile of the Century” in Vancouver. Bannister then won the European title and retired satisfied. 

Bannister, who went on to have a distinguished career as a neurologist, does not hesitate when asked whether running or medicine has been more important. 

“A medical career,” he said. “Once you have been through a sporting fame phase you realise then how insubstantial it is. It's very fleeting.” – Reuters 

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