Firstly let me begin by saying how delighted and honoured I feel to be chosen as the National Rust‘s athletic correspondent. I know Grania from the Thames Valley Harriers and through her met Polly, a keen amateur runner, and then Bob Tickler. At one of his parties I met some of the Rust staffers and Tom Hollingworth suggested there was an opening for me in my field.
I was going to post on the impact of the investigations by The Sunday Times into London marathons but I became more and more intrigued by athletics of a bygone era and the breaking of the four minute mile 61 years ago. More than any sport and more than the Olympic golds, athletics are defined by the records and there is one record whose breaking has stood the test of time, namely that of Roger Bannister when at Iffley Road on May 6 1954 he was the first to run the mile in under 4 minutes.
Yet the more I delved into this, the more I unearthed facts which surprised me. My initial perception was that the reaction was borne out of consternation that anyone could run the mile in under 4 minutes but in fact the record was always going to be broken by Gunder Hagg, Arne Anderson or most likely John Landy, who prior to May had recorded three times of four minutes 2 seconds. Someone in 1954 was going to do so and in fact Landy and Bannister did.
Then there was the preparation or lack of it. Roger Bannister was working in the hospital in the morning and only made the decision to challenge the record because the wind which were recorded at 25 mph and only when this dropped did he decide to “go for it”. Nowadays an athlete will be in a training camp for months. It’s difficult for me to get my head round the fact these runners were amateurs. Nowadays too there would be speculation whether the athlete was on something. For both these considerations our sport seemed much purer then.
Then there is the mile as the distance. I thought that maybe the metric equivalent was not universal but in European championships of 1954 Bannister was competing in the 1500 metres in Berne which he won.
Whilst spending some time on YouTube, I located the Miracle Mile (link below) when Bannister and Landy went mano v mano at the Empire games in Vancouver in 1954. Bannister had a devastating kick which saw off Landy.
Reading Bannister ‘s book on the 4 minute mile, which he wrote as a 25 year old and never altered, he argues that to break mid-race is to show your hand too early and comes from lack of confidence and fear that someone else will. He left his spurt to the final straits. Again I was thinking that those legendary duo battles – Bannister v Landy, Kuts v Chataway, Coe v Ovett – which do not seem to occur nearly as often these days. Two other things that astonished me were that he only held the record for 46 days, another record, as in June in Turku, Finland, Landy lowered it to 3.48 and after Berne Bannister retired to practice medicine.
I hope I’m not disrespectful to Sir Roger but he is a modest man, regarding his neurlogical work as the more important, and in his book debunked the myth of the wonder of sub 4 minute mile. It’s probably that 4 is a round number. Had it not been for a World War 2 I’m sure the old record would not have lasted 9 years. I do not live very far from Jimmy, and another Bryony, Hill. I once said to Jimmy that everyone will remember him for removing the maximum wage. He replied that soneone was always going to remove it as it was intrinsically unjustifiable and unfair and that he was prouder of devising 3 points for a win. Jimmy went on to be a well-known presenter and Head of Sport at London Weekend. In the same way, Sir Roger had a distinguished medical and academic career and therefore did not have to spend the rest of his life in a time warp of his achievement as a 25 year old in 1954, 61 years ago.