Athletics: Reluctant Bannister takes a bow

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The Independent Online

Sir Roger Bannister was keen that no one should get the wrong idea about yesterday's athletics meeting at Iffley Road, exactly 50 years after he had broken the four-minute mile there.

Sir Roger Bannister was keen that no one should get the wrong idea about yesterday's athletics meeting at Iffley Road, exactly 50 years after he had broken the four-minute mile there.

"This is not about me," he said sternly to the assembled press. "This is not about the four-minute mile. This event is really a celebration of British and Commonwealth miling."

It was a good try from the man whose companion at the table, the UK Athletics president Lynn Davies, would go on to compare his achievements with climbing Everest or walking on the moon. But it wasn't good enough.

This recreation of the fixture between Oxford University Athletic Club and the Amateur Athletic Association which had produced Bannister's time of 3min 59.4sec was witnessed by considerably more than the 1,000 or so spectators who saw the epic deed done half a century ago.

But the attendance of luminaries such as Sir Christopher Chattaway, who helped pace the record bid, John Landy, the Australian whom Bannister beat at the 1954 Empire Games, and Lord Coe, who set three world mile records of his own, was patently in honour of one man.

Asked to recount his thoughts as he crossed the line on that distant May day, the 75-year-old former neurosurgeon and Master of Pembroke College, Oxford, was momentarily nonplussed. "I get asked the same question and I try to think of different answers," he replied.

But Bannister revealed yesterday how the elements twice threatened to prevent him setting history. A year earlier, he and Chattaway had run some low-key races in the country which now holds the world mile record of 3min 43.13sec through Hicham El Guerrouj - Morocco. "We wanted to go to a place where there was not a lot of opposition," Bannister added with a wry grin, before recounting how he had nearly drowned there while swimming in the sea. "I managed to get back to the shore, and so the story unfolded," he said.

The month before the record was set, he was persuaded by his other pacemaker, Chris Brasher, to go mountaineering in Glen Coe. Bannister recalled getting soaked to the skin during one ascent and seeing the lead climber unpack a dry set of clothes. "Chris said to him: 'Stop! There's somebody here who's got to do a big race in three weeks' time and I don't want him to get pneumonia.' So he made the chap give me his clothes."

Asked, inevitably, about the mile's ultimate record possibilities, Bannister responded: "I said 3 minutes 30 in 1954 so I don't feel any need to change that. The record has gone down by 13-14 seconds in 50 years. If it did the same again over the next 50 years we would be down to three and a half minutes.

"But when somebody hops on the track and runs 3-30 there will be someone else somewhere in the world who will run 3.29.8. You can't indicate an absolute. All you can indicate is the fact that it will become difficult, very, very difficult, with the body's construction as it is."

Craig Mottram won the climactic mile at yesterday's meet, for which Bannister rang the same bell that tolled back in 1954. The Australian did his duty by breaking four minutes.

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