Greats of the Empire stage

From Bannister to Winstone, the purest of contests has produced many a rich spectacle.
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The Independent Online
FOR THOUSANDS of Britons, the drama of one of the finest contests the Commonwealth Games has produced was conveyed through the medium of sound.

As England's Roger Bannister, first man under four minutes for the mile, struggled to keep in touch with the Australian who had beaten his record, John Landy, those present at the 1954 Games in Vancouver - known then as the British Empire Games - witnessed a race that lived up to its billing as Mile of the Century.

Of those not present, many imagined the images to the accompaniment of these words from BBC's radio commentator, Rex Alston: "And now we have 300 yards to go. Can Bannister catch him? There's none of his famed spurt at the moment. Landy is drawing slightly away. Yes, Landy has a lead of three yards. It's 220 yards to go and I don't believe Bannister is going to be able to catch him.

"Landy is running beautifully; no, Bannister is coming up on him now; 150 yards to go and Bannister is gaining ever so slightly with each stride; 130 yards to go and Bannister is coming up on Landy's elbow. Bannister has passed Landy..."

Landy's elegant, economical style, that had enabled him to lower the world mile record to 3min 58sec six weeks before this race, had established him in a 10-metre lead over the rest of the field at the halfway stage.

But Bannister was still attached to his rival by what he later described as "some invisible cord". And as the contest revealed its heart - man against man - the Briton attempted to draw that cord tighter with each stride.

By the time both men rounded the final bend, Bannister was on Landy's shoulder and the Australian committed the error of judgement that finally decided the race: he glanced back inside to see how close Bannister was - while his rival was in the act of accelerating past him on the outside.

"Because of the curve of the track," Bannister wrote, "he could see behind him with only half a turn of the head. He knew that to challenge now I must run extra distance, and therefore he did not expect it. The moment he looked round, he was unprotected against me and so lost a valuable fraction of a second in his response to my challenge. It was my tremendous luck that these two happenings - his turning round and my final spurt - came absolutely simultaneously." Bannister finished five yards clear in 3min 58.8sec - just over half a second faster than he had run in setting his historic mark of 3.59.4 at the Iffley Road stadium three months earlier. Landy took the silver medal in 3.59.6. It was the first time two men had broken the four-minute mile in the same race.

The purity of that contest in Canada makes it one of the unquestionable highlights of an event first held in Vancouver 68 years ago. But it has plenty of competition.

Among the other track races that have established themselves in popular memory are Ian Stewart's 5,000 metres triumph in front of his home crowd in the 1970 Edinburgh Games, and Filbert Bayi's phenomenal front run to claim the 1974 Commonwealth 1500 metres title in a world record.

At 20, Stewart was already the European champion at the distance, but he faced a field that included two legendary figures in Ron Clarke, the Australian who was seeking a first major championship gold medal as he came towards the end of his record-laden career, and Kip Keino, the reigning Olympic 1500m champion and the man who, more than anyone else, established Kenya as one of the foremost running nations.

"Everyone else those days was so mesmerised by Keino they were scared to death. They just let him toy with them," Stewart recalled years later.

But this tenacious Scot, who spoke with an accent terminally modified by his upbringing in Birmingham, was not about to let anyone toy with him. "I was going to totally ignore anyone else, but hit Keino so hard with 500 to go that he just wouldn't realise what the hell was happening to him," Stewart said.

However, it was Stewart's Scottish team-mate, Ian McCafferty, who altered the course of the race when he sprinted to the front with two laps remaining, putting in a 60-second lap that put paid to Clarke and left him with only two challengers - Keino and Stewart.

At the bell, Stewart went to the front, followed by the Kenyan, gritted his teeth and responded to the storm of Scottish noise breaking around the Meadowbank stadium.

With 50 metres left, his challenger arrived at his shoulder - but it was the re-invigorated McCafferty, not Keino. And a few more agonising seconds of what he later described as being like running in army boots through mud brought Stewart to the line first.

Bayi's triumph - at the 1974 Commonwealths in Christchurch, New Zealand - was a far simpler affair. After getting boxed in while racing at the 1972 Olympics, the Tanzanian who had built up his stamina by running eight miles a day between his school and his remote native village 8,000 feet up Mount Kilimanjaro, had adopted a new race plan. Go to the front. Stay there.

This he did, against a field including the emerging talent of the New Zealander John Walker, who would subsequently become the first man to break 3min 50sec for the mile, and Kenya's Ben Jipcho, Olympic steeplechase silver medallist.

By halfway, Bayi was 25 metres clear. Although he ran the last lap a second faster, Walker, the fastest of the challengers, was still adrift with 100 metres left. And Bayi reckoned he had a bit of energy to spare if anyone had closed on him in the final stages.

Bayi's time of 3min 32.2 took almost a full second off the seven-year- old record set by Jim Ryun of the United States. Roger Bannister described it as the greatest exhibition of front- running he had ever seen.

The Commonwealth swimming pool has also witnessed outstanding rivalries - none fiercer than that between Britain's Adrian Moorhouse and the mercurial Canadian, Victor Davis.

Davis, who was killed in 1989 after being hit by a car in a Montreal street, arrived at the 1986 Games in Edinburgh as Olympic champion at 200m breaststroke. Moorhouse's best chance of gold at the Royal Commonwealth Pool appeared to be in the 100m breaststroke - but the Canadian beat him. Three days later the fortunes were reversed as Moorhouse rose to the occasion to end the Canadian's 16-race unbeaten run at the longer distance.

It was an aquatic version of Steve Ovett and Seb Coe at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, where each man won in the other's preferred event.

Four years earlier, at the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane, the Queen had witnessed Davis kick away a chair in disgust at the disqualification of a Canadian team-mate. This time, she was present to see Moorhouse express himself in a more acceptable fashion.

Moorhouse's victory was a popular one, but for emotion, there was nothing to match the occasion at Cardiff's Sophia Gardens during the 1958 Empire Games when home boxer Howard Winstone beat Australia's Ollie Taylor to win the bantamweight title.

Winstone, who went on to become world champion at featherweight, was feted by a spontaneous rendition of "Land of My Fathers" from every Welshman present.

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