Athletics: Four-minute wonder: Norman Fox recalls the athletics memory that stands out a mile

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The Independent Online
IN THE early evening of a squally, damp day at Iffley Road athletics track, Oxford, 40 years ago next Friday, Norris McWhirter made this announcement: 'Ladies and gentlemen, here is the result of event number nine, the one mile: first, number 41, R G Bannister, Amateur Athletic Association and formerly of Exeter and Merton Colleges, Oxford, with a time which is a new meeting and track record and which, subject to ratification, will be a new English Native, British National, British Allcomers', European, British Empire, and world record. The time was three . . .' The rest was lost in the cheers of a modest crowd.

The four-minute mile has since been broken by the best part of a thousand athletes but the lasting significance of Bannister's achievement is easily tested. Track and field aficionados apart, who knows who holds the present world mile record and the time? The present holder is Noureddine Morceli who can run two consecutive miles in under eight minutes or one in 3min 44.39sec, making Bannister's 3:59.4 look like a walk in the park.

Yet 40 years on the captivating quality of Bannister's race against the clock is undiminished. Above all it was the symmetry of being the first to run four times around a track in less than four minutes. Today, anyone rich enough to buy a Concorde ticket can break the sound barrier; there are guided walks to the summit of Everest; the 100mph lap of the Isle of Man TT circuit is like falling off a bike. And even a 40-year-old has run a four-minute mile. But being first is different.

Old footage of Bannister dramatically collapsing as he crossed the line may leave some modern middle-distance runners wondering what all the fuss was about. After all, the Australian John Landy quickly erased Bannister's record and four years later it was nearer 3:50 than four minutes. But Sebastian Coe says that given today's advantages, not least a synthetic track, Bannister's time equates to about 3:52.

What happened in the pre- Bannister years rather than afterwards places his accomplishment in perspective. The first IAAF official mile record of 4:14.4 was achieved by an American, John Paul Jones, curiously at Cambridge, Massachusetts, on 31 May 1913, although the professional Walter George had run 4:12. So it took 41 years to take 14 seconds off Jones's record which seemed so long as to make the four-minute mile an impossible dream. Yet once the psychological as well as physical barrier had been scaled it took only half that time before John Walker broke 3:50.

Had it not been for war there is little doubt that the four-minute mile would have fallen sooner, to Sydney Wooderson, the unlikely little figure who ran in the all-black of Blackheath and in 1937 brought the record down to 4:06.4. He was Bannister's inspiration: his times for the 800 metres and 880 yards in 1938 were not beaten for another 20 years, and his 2:59.5 for three quarters of a mile in 1939 proved that sub-four minutes was within his grasp. He finished most of his races yards ahead of the rest. During the war years he suffered severely from rheumatism, but in 1945 he ran 4:04.2. By then, though, the mile was dominated by the Swedes Gunder Hagg and Arne Andersson.

Apart from the remarkable Wooderson and Morceli, who often only has the clock as his rival, most milers have needed the spur of competition against athletes of comparable ability (Elliott and Snell, Keino and Ryun, Bayi and Walker, Coe and Ovett). For Bannister the incentive came in dispatches from afar; news of an athlete who was running on the other side of the world and getting closer to the four-minute mile by the second.

In 1952 Landy, who had previously not run under 4:11, set 4:02.1, but every subsequent attempt to dip below four minutes was destroyed by strong winds or heat, or maybe those were just excuses, as his eccentric Australian coach, Percy Cerutty, maintained. Landy had little assistance either from pacemakers or good competition. He sometimes finished 200 yards ahead of the second man. His 4:02.6 on a wet grass track in April 1954, told Ban-

nister that there was little time left to make the breakthrough. Two months after Bannister's mile, Landy went to Finland and ran 3:57.9 which Bannister could not better in the Empire Games even though he beat Landy to prove who was the finer racer.

But a mystery remains. Throughout the early months of 1954 there were rumours that Landy had broken the four- minute barrier in training, which was not impossible bearing in mind that even at officially timed events he often ran the last lap alone, and many years later he would refer to the story with cryptic diplomacy.

But the fact was that the official watchers and watches said Bannister was the first. He was probably the last true amateur to hold the mile record. On that celebration night in Oxford he got only two hours' sleep but felt 'gloriously free of the burden of athletic ambition that I had been carrying for years'. The next morning he returned to work at St Mary's Hospital in London. All was normal there except that they had hoisted the Union Jack.

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