Fickle Gods rarely favour the best

There was a sharp incongruity about Sir Roger Bannister's recent appearance at the Crystal Palace meeting.

Amid the tattooed, tarnished hullabaloo that is athletics today, it was as if Abraham Lincoln had dropped by. Bannister embodies the age in which he competed. In terms of public image he is at the other end of the scale from, say, the man who was surprisingly beaten over 100 metres at that same meeting, Maurice Greene.

Greene's take on his defence of the Olympic 100m title this month is that the gold medal is his rightful property and he is merely going to Athens to pick it up. Call it brashness. Call it bravado. That's Greene.

The world's first four-minute miler, meanwhile, continues to conduct himself according to an older sporting ethos. Call it courtesy. Call it humility. That's Bannister. At the end of a press conference at Iffley Road, Oxford, on the 50th anniversary of his enduring achievement there, the great man turned to the UK Athletics president Lynn Davies and pointed out that the Welshman had earned something which he never did - an Olympic gold medal.

It was a gesture of respect towards the long jump victor of the 1964 Tokyo Games. But it was interesting to note that, even as he was being honoured once again for his historic feat, Bannister - the noble runner, the eminent brain surgeon, the former Master of Pembroke College, Oxford - was aware of the gap left in his CV by the absence of that one, small, heavy object.

Bannister gave himself only one chance to win the Olympics before retiring, at the 1952 Games in Helsinki when his calculations were upset by the late addition of a qualifying round in the 1,500 metres. While the British medical student finished fourth on what was supposed to be his big day, the winner was a man whom nobody outside his native Luxembourg expected to figure in the medals, Josey Barthel.

So Barthel is an Olympic champion. And Roger Bannister isn't. Thirty-six years after that race in Helsinki, the Olympic 1,500m final went not to either of the two leading metric milers of the time, Steve Cram and Said Aouita, but to Kenya's Peter Rono. He never won another major race in the rest of his career.

Despite the quadrennial angst over chemical and financial corruption, this is one of the enduring fascinations of the Modern Olympics - on the day which, for all the recent proliferation of rival events and titles, remains the biggest in any one competitor's sporting life, whom will the Gods favour? Ron Clarke went to the 1964 Olympics as world record holder for the 10,000m. The final was won by a man who set the world asking a single question: "Who is Billy Mills?" Four years later, Clarke returned as world record holder in both the 5,000 and 10,000m. Once again, as he suffered in the high altitude, he came away with nothing.

Like Phil Mickelson, who was until recently the Best Golfer Never To Have Won A Major, Clarke is probably the prime example of the Best Athlete Never To Have Won The Olympics - although Colin Jackson runs him close.

Jackson, still the world record holder for the 110m hurdles in his retirement, was the pre-eminent performer in his event for a decade but failed to become Olympic champion.

He has been rightly praised for his excellence. But his recent scathing comments about the prospects of Britain's sprinters in Athens provoked a bitter reaction from some within the sport. And when the gloves came off, it was the fact that he had gone to four Olympics and earned only a silver medal that was employed to most hurtful effect.

That's the awful glory of the Olympics. For all its attendant doubts and scandals, it is still the event which matters most.

Sport
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
Pepper, the 3ft 11in shiny box of circuits who can tell jokes and respond to human emotions
techDavid McNeill tests the mettle of one of the new generation of androids being developed in Tokyo
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
News
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
people
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
tech
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
tech
Caption competition
Caption competition
Daily World Cup Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice