Fickle Gods rarely favour the best

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The Independent Online

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.