Athletics: 'I didn't know Roger had broken four minutes. Then I heard the Tannoy...'

The Bannister anniversary

For five yards, perhaps even 10, George Dole led what became the most celebrated foot-race of all time - event nine in the annual match between the Oxford University Athletics Club and the Amateur Athletic Association at the Iffley Road Athletic Ground on Thursday 6 May 1954: the one mile. Listed first in the programme, alongside R G Bannister of the AAA, G F Dole of "the University" was the runner standing in pole position, next to the kerb, when the gun fired and the first sub-four-minute mile got under way.

"Oxford had drawn the pole position and because I had won the Oxford-Cambridge mile it was me who took it," the Reverend George Dole reflected as he stopped for mid-morning tea in his study in the American town of Bath, on Maine's Atlantic coastline. "I think I stayed there until the first bend."

The black-and-white newsreel of the race shows that the Reverend Dole, No 13 pinned to his vest, actually led for only a stride or two before Chris Brasher got into his pacemaking stride, and that Roger Bannister also eased past him before the field reached the first turn. It was a fleeting cameo role in the forefront of the four-minute drama, or the three minutes and 59.4 seconds of it that made it such a momentous occasion.

Of the six runners who took part in the race, only three will be back at Iffley Road on Thursday to attend the 50th anniv-ersary celebration of Bannister's barrier-breaking run: a match between teams representing Oxford University and the AAA, climaxing in an "élite mile" that will feature Daniel Komen, the Kenyan who in 1997 became the first man to achieve a "double Bannister", running a two-mile race inside eight minutes.

Sir Roger himself will be in attendance, just two miles from his Oxford home. So will Chris Chataway, who paced him through the crucial third lap at Iffley Road 50 years ago, and Alan Gordon, George Dole's Oxford University team-mate. Brasher, who pushed the pace for the opening two laps, and William Hulatt, who finished third, behind Bannister and Chataway, have sadly passed away. As for the Reverend Dole, his work will keep him on home soil.

"I teach a distance-education course in biblical exegesis and I'll be reading the students' postings and drafting comments to send back to them," he explained. "Then there's the usual amount of getting ready for the coming Sunday. I give a service in the Swedenborgian Church here." Now 72, Dole is a part-time pastor at the church in Bath that follows the teachings of the 18th-century theologian Emanuel Swedenborg. He is also a director of the Swedenborg Foundation.

Back in 1954, he was a 22-year-old Yale graduate studying for a masters degree in Hebrew at Oxford. He was also a talented middle-distance runner. "I was really a half-miler," he recalled. "I hadn't done much distance training, so my thoughts going into that mile race were that I would just hang in there for as long as I could. I'd heard rumours beforehand that there might be an attempt to break the four-minute mile, and I suspected something was in the air because there wasn't much banter or camaraderie before the race. Roger and the two Chrises - Brasher and Chataway - were very, very quiet, very, very focused.

"By the end of the back straight on the first lap I think everybody was past me. After that, it felt like my role in the event was made up of about equal parts competitor and spectator. The thing that sticks in my mind was seeing Roger go past Chris Chataway on the back straight on the last lap. It was hugely impressive, because Chataway was still going strong.

"I was probably somewhere not quite halfway around the last turn when Roger crossed the line. When I got to the finish, I didn't know that he'd broken four minutes. The first I knew of it was when the result came over the Tannoy.

"There was such a hubbub I didn't even have the chance to congratulate Roger. I didn't see him again until I came across to Oxford for the 40th anniversary celebrations."

George Dole's best time for the mile was 4min 15.2sec. His time at Iffley Road on 6 May 1954 was, he reckons, "something around 4min 25sec". In the commotion that ensued when Bannister crossed the line, the times for the fourth, fifth and sixth-placed runners went unrecorded. There has also been much confusion about who finished in which position. Some retrospective reports have Brasher crossing the line a distant sixth and last, although the result in the International Association of Athletics Federations' World Records Book lists him in fourth place and Dole in sixth. "I did write home that I had finished last," the Reverend said. "I had no idea Brasher was behind me. I always had it in my own mind that I finished last that day."

Last in the first sub-four-minute-mile race does have a neat, historical cachet. Not that George Dole's place in the sporting annals has been mentioned in his homeland. "The coverage of track and field over here is very, very poor," he lamented. "I've never seen Hicham El Guerrouj run any race on television, let alone his mile record."

Still, the Reverend can't complain too much. He did have a first-hand view of the most momentous world mile record run, albeit a somewhat disappearing one.

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