Bannister at 80, back on the track of history

The first man to run a mile in under four minutes talks about his feat as he reaches another milestone. Ian Griggs reports

It was the record that could not be broken, smashed by the man who would not be beaten. Gazing over Oxford's Iffley Road track, Sir Roger Bannister yesterday cast his mind back 55 years to the roar of the 1,500-strong crowd who cheered him on as he did the impossible, proving that a man could run a mile in under four minutes.

Ahead of his 80th birthday, which is a week tomorrow, Sir Roger also remembered how he nearly didn't do the run at all. Conditions were bad. But he ran, spurred on by fear that his rival, John Landy, might snatch history from him.

"I knew I had to do it as soon as possible, which is why I had to do it in conditions that were far from ideal. But I decided that if I did not take the opportunity, I would not get another chance," he recalled. "The feeling when I crossed the line was one of great relief as I had not been successful on previous attempts."

Today the track, which has been named after him, has a modern synthetic surface replacing the rough cinder track. He visits rarely. "I don't have enough time. When I stand here, I do remember the crowd. Although, if everyone who's told me they were there when I did it really had been, there would have been enough to fill Wembley Stadium."

On its now fast-flowing turns, he might have flown even faster: he estimates that the old track probably added about four seconds to his final world-record-shattering time of 3:59 seconds.

That it lasted barely two months before Landy shaved two seconds off is of little consequence. "As the French say: 'Après moi, le déluge.' The important thing was to do it first."

He might have missed his place in history: he came close to retiring from running after the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, where he finished just out of the medals in the 1,500m final.

The failure prompted him to question his future in athletics and he spent a couple of months wondering whether to give up entirely. In the end, he fixed on a new goal – to be the first man to run the mile in under four minutes. In doing this, he changed the world of athletics and became a living legend.

While his own competitive running days are long over, he maintains a keen interest in the sport, and is looking ahead to the London 2012 Olympics. He regards the early 1980s as a golden age for British running, with the success of Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram. He hopes the UK can reclaim some of its former glory: "There was a step-change in the ability of those runners and they were winning Olympic medals. I don't think we have got back to that yet.

"We are currently training about 35 potential medal-winning distance runners, so there is a lot being done," he said. "Very few people realise the ferocity of competition among top-class track and field athletes. I think our chances of winning some medals are very high and I would hope that we will win around seven in the track and field events next time."

The current record for the mile stands at 3:43, set by the Moroccan runner Hicham El Guerrouj in 1999. Sir Roger believes the mile could be completed in 3:30 one day.

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