Athletics: Chirchir brothers add to nostalgia of Emsley milestone

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The Independent Online

Ian Stewart is more than a little sheepish about the prospect of taking a track-side bow at Crystal Palace tonight. "It's quite embarrassing really, when you think about it," he said, with typical bluffness.

As meeting director of the showpiece British event of the track and field season, the Norwich Union London Grand Prix, the Brummie ringmaster is reluctant to step into the spotlight intended for the star performers he has assembled. None of the athletes competing on the track or in the field, though, will have earned a greater right than Stewart to a moment of recognition.

Injury has deprived him of the jewel in his Palace promotion, a 5,000 metres world record attempt by Paula Radcliffe. It has also robbed him of such majestic talents as Hicham El Guerrouj and Ashia Hansen. Still, thanks to Stewart's efforts, the show goes on. El Guerrouj will not be there, to run in the 50th anniversary Emsley Carr Mile and join the meeting director in a pre-race parade of past-winners, but the Moroccan's absence will give the chance for a new middle distance star of Africa to join the élite list of victors.

At 54, Stewart looks as young and fit as he was when he won the Emsley Carr Mile at Meadowbank Stadium back in 1970 - a month before his epic Commonwealth 5,000m win ahead of Ian McCafferty, Kip Keino and Ron Clarke at the same Edinburgh track.

"I was also second to Filbert Bayi in 1975," he noted. "I actually passed Steve Ovett down the home straight - a young Steve Ovett, I have to say."

Ovett was 19 then - the same age as Cornelius Chirchir, the Kenyan who set a world junior 1500m record of 3min 30.24sec behind El Guerrouj in Monaco last summer, quicker than the senior world records Ovett recorded in Oslo and Koblenz in 1980.

Chirchir and his 24-year-old brother, William, winner of the Commonwealth 1500m silver medal in Manchester last summer, are the leading entrants for the four-lap race tonight and provide a fitting link to the historical thread of the Emsley Carr Mile.

Both are protégés of Brother Colm O'Connell, who has been nurturing Kenyan distance running talent at St Patrick's Boys' School in Iten since Peter Foster - the younger brother of Brendan Foster - educated the Irish priest in the rudiments of coaching kids while doing Voluntary Services Overseas work at "St Pat's". Brendan finished in the top three in the Emsley Carr Mile on four occasions. His highest placing was second - behind Stewart's younger brother, Peter, at Crystal Palace in 1972.

The Emsley Carr Mile was inaugurated in 1953 - in memory of Sir Emsley Carr, long-time editor of the News of the World, a major sponsor of British athletics meetings in days of yore - with the specific intention of encouraging runners to break four minutes for the mile.

Cornelius Chirchir achieved the feat at the age of 16, running 3:59.3 in 2000. Roger Bannister was 25 when he became the first to break through the milestone barrier, in the annual AAA v Oxford University fixture at Iffley Road in 1954. He never ran 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 leather-bound book, now running to a second volume.

The prize has been won by nine Olympic champions - Keino, Ovett, Murray Halberg, John Walker, Sebastian Coe, Said Aouita, William Tanui, Venuste Niyongabo and Haile Gebrselassie - and by seven men who have held the world record for the mile: Walker, Ovett, Coe, Bayi, El Guerrouj, Derek Ibbotson and Jim Ryun. Steve Cram never managed to win an Emsley Carr Mile, though he made his breakthrough in the 1978 race at Crystal Palace, shattering Ryun's world age-best for a 17-year-old with a time of 3:57.4 in fourth place.

Ryun is one of the past winners who cannot make it to the Palace tonight for a 50th anniversary track-side presentation that will echo the inaugural event, when four past greats of the mile - Paavo Nurmi, Sydney Wooderson, Gunder Hagg and Joe Binks - were paraded at the White City Stadium. Now 56, Ryun is a Republican Congressman in the United States - a member of the Armed Services Committee, no less. Keino, his old rival, who beat him to Olympic 1500m gold in Mexico City in 1968, will also be absent. He runs a children's home in Kenya. His son, Martin, however, is entered for the 5,000m.

The winner of the 1987 race at Gateshead has travelled 12,000 miles to attend the celebration and no one at Crystal Palace tonight will receive a more rapturous reception than John Walker. The 51-year-old New Zealander has suffered from Parkinson's Disease for nine years but still plays golf and tennis, runs an equestrian equipment shop and sits on Manukau City Council. "Considering what I've got and how long I've had it, I'm remarkably well," he said.

The Palace crowd will be glad to hear it. They have long adored the All Black miler. "I feel privileged to be here," Walker added. "I'm grateful to Ian Stewart for inviting me."