It has welcomed many distinguished guests, but few so highly respected. Sir Roger Bannister, the first man to ever run a four-minute mile was in the Olympic Stadium to see last night’s men’s 1,500 metres final.
And Bannister saw Taoufik Makhloufi of Algeria, who was only reinstated yesterday after being disqualified for not trying, win the one medal he never managed.
Sebastien Coe, himself a two-time Olympic 1,500 metres gold medallist, said: “Of all the people that I knew had to be in that stadium on the night of the 1,500 meters, it had to be Roger Bannister.
“It was one of my dreams come true. He is the senior partner of the milers,” he told the Associated Press.
“I feel I never really left,” said the 83-year-old Bannister, who also carried the Olympic Torch on the same Oxford track where he completed a feat many previously thought physically impossible.
Also rushing over to pay his respects as Bannister watched the race known as the “metric mile” was Hicham El Guerrouj, the former Olympic champion who still holds the world records in the 1,500 and the mile.
“He’s my hero,” the Moroccan said. “He’s our spiritual father in the 1,500 and the mile.”
Despite his great achievements, Bannister finished fourth in the 1,500 metres at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. And it was his failure where most expected success which spurred him on to get around the track four times in less than a minute.
Two years later, Bannister covered four laps on a cinder track in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds, an achievement that still stands as one of the seminal moments in track history.
Yesterday, the Oxford-educated neurologist sat in the stands for the evening session that included the women’s 100-metre hurdles final and women’s 200-metre heats. He was then invited to join Coe in the Olympic family seats for the 1,500 metre race.
Accompanied by his daughter Erin, Bannister walked with a cane and leaned on the arm of an assistant.
Greeted warmly by Coe, they sat together and chatted animatedly as the runners ran a slow pace. They rose to their feet with the rest of the crowd as Makhloufi sprinted away to win in 3 minutes, 34.08 seconds.
Bannister dissected the race liked the tactician on the track he once was himself.
“I mean it was faster than the heats and semifinals, which were very disappointingly bunched up,” he said. “It was wonderful to see the move at 300 meters from the end, boldly fighting off any possibility of a threat. It was a great race. 3:34.”
Coe added: “Everything with Roger is very analytical: ‘Why on earth has he done that?’”
The time was slow by today’s standards. Guerrouj’s world record, set in 1998, is 3:26.00. Noah Ngeny’s Olympic record is 3:32.07. Coe was quick to point out that Tuesday’s time was far off his previous Olympic record of 3:32:53, set at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
“It’s very unusual to get world records broken when there are 12 runners,” Bannister said. “The concern today is to win the race. The time is purely secondary. If the time becomes too slow, then it’s disappointing for everyone. So this was just about in between.”
Bannister shattered an ankle in a car accident in 1975 and has been unable to run since then. He had a distinguished 40-year medical career since retiring after the 1954 Empire Games and was knighted in 1975.
Last month, Bannister carried the Olympic torch on the same Oxford track where he broke four minutes. Many had considered him the favorite to light the cauldron at the opening ceremony, but that honor went to seven teenage athletes.
Yesterday’s appearance at the Olympic track won’t be his last he will be back Friday for the women’s 1,500.