The good old News of the World would have described it as something of a scandal. Sir Emsley Carr, the newspaper's editor for more than half a century, will probably be turning in his grave. Here is James Shane, in the throes of breaking through as a big deal in British middle-distance running, winning the 1500 metres at the UK Championships in Birmingham last weekend in a faster time than Sebastian Coe or Steve Ovett ever recorded when they won their national titles at the distance. And yet the young man from Billericay, who has long been destined to follow in the footsteps of Coe, Ovett and Steve Cram, has never tackled the classic middle-distance event of the mile.
"I've just never been invited to one before," the 21-year-old said. "I've never found one at the right time." Until now, that is.
Tomorrow afternoon, on day two of the London Grand Prix Diamond League meeting at Crystal Palace, Shane makes his mile debut in the classic race named in memory of Carr, who was a strident champion and financial backer of British athletics. The Emsley Carr Mile was introduced in 1953 with the specific aim of encouraging runners to break four minutes for the four-lap distance – the milestone achievement that Roger Bannister accomplished in the annual AAA v Oxford University fixture at Iffley Road, Oxford, in 1954.
Bannister never competed in an Emsley Carr Mile but the race has been graced by a glittering array of all-time greats, whose signatures and performances are all listed within the pages of the Emsley Carr Trophy, a book bound in red Moroccan leather. The prize has been won by nine Olympic champions – Coe, Ovett, Kip Keino, Murray Halberg, John Walker, Said Aouita, William Tanui, Venuste Niyongabo and Haile Gebrselassie – and by seven men who have held the world mile record: Coe, Ovett, Walker, Filbert Bayi, Hicham El Guerrouj, Derek Ibbotson and Jim Ryun.
"Not a bad one to start off with, is it?" Shane pondered. "I know all about the history of it. I've looked it all up and talked to a few people about it. It's one of those races I'm looking forward to with no pressure on – just get in and try and mix it. Whatever happens, happens."
It was in the 1976 Emsley Carr Mile at Crystal Palace that Coe happened to break four minutes for the first time, clocking 3min 58.4sec in a race won by Dave Moorcroft. It was in the 1978 race, also at Crystal Palace, that Cram first made his mark, shattering Ryun's world age best for a 17-year-old with a time of 3:57.4 in fourth place.
Coe was the 48th Briton to break four minutes for the mile. Cram was the 56th. Shane stands to become the 175th or the 176th – depending on whether you count Sean O'Neill, who had dual nationality for Britain and Ireland when he did it in Cork in 1987.
A trialist with Charlton Athletic in his younger days, Shane has been emerging as the bright new thing of British middle-distance running for more than five years now, under the guiding hand of his long-term coach Martin Brown. As a 15-year-old, he won the 1500m title at the European Youth Olympics in Lignano, Italy, in 2005, clocking 3min 52.68sec – more than 10 seconds quicker than Coe (4:05.9), Ovett (4:10.7) and Cram (4:07.01) all were at the same age.
This summer, his first in the senior ranks, Shane has been making impressive strides. In June, he finished third in the 1500m at the European Team Championships in Stockholm. Last Sunday, he was awarded Performance of the Day at the combined UK Championships and World Championships trials in Birmingham, ahead of Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis. He clocked the fastest winning time in the men's 1500m final at the principal national championship meeting for 25 years, 3min 36.22sec.
Five and a half years after The Independent on Sunday featured him as the first potential London Olympian in its "12 for 2012" series – boldly proclaiming "at last, an heir to the golden trinity of Coe, Ovett and Cram" – Shane would appear to be on target for a home Olympic appearance.
Whether he can emulate the golden trio of British middle-distance running remains to be seen, but as he strode clear of the opposition in Birmingham last week – with his blond hair, his tall, long-legged frame and his yellow and black vest – he bore more than a passing resemblance to Cram in full flight.
"It's funny, but you're not the first person to say that," Shane said. "Just to be compared to someone like that is phenomenal. I hope I end up achieving half of what he did in his career. That would be really pleasing."