Bannister in four minutes, Allais in fractions of a second

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The Independent Online
THE GREAT thing about the four-minute barrier was that it was something you could remember. Nobody ever remembers or even cares what the world record for the 400m or the high jump is because it's full of decimal points (if you're in metric) or somewhere between seven and eight feet (if you're in avoirdupois), but by God you could remember the four-minute barrier to the mile because . . . well, because it was easy to remember.

After Roger Bannister broke through, 40 years ago tomorrow, it all became very boring and unmemorable again. His record was 3 minutes 59.4 seconds, and nobody ever talked about the 3 minutes 59.4 barrier to the world mile record.

You could say that by breaking the four-minute barrier, Roger Bannister ruined a perfectly good record and would have been better advised to leave well alone. It's a bit like climbing Everest. It was a much better thing to do before it was first done. Now, people can climb backwards up Everest without the use of oxygen or pocket handkerchiefs, and it isn't even mentioned in the papers.

Curiously enough, the people who finally destroyed the lingering magic of world records for me were the judges who took away the world 100m record from Ben Johnson, on the grounds that he had been taking drugs. One moment he was the world's fastest man, the next he wasn't. Now, this was clearly a misuse of language. You can't stop being the world's fastest man. You can stop being the world's fastest man who doesn't use steroids, but there is no denying the fact that Ben Johnson did run faster than anyone else, even if he used curious methods to achieve it.

But then all athletes use loony methods to achieve their ends. All training is more or less loony. All world record attempts are more or less loony.

This had been noticed before Roger Bannister ever strolled down to the Iffley Road. It had, in fact, been noticed 100 years ago. Did you think that world records had not been thought of 100 years ago? You would be very wrong. Here you have the French humorist Alphonse Allais, writing in answer to a reader of his, way back in the 1890s:

'Dear Puzzled of Nantes, thank you for your letter. Yes, you have been correctly informed. I, Alphonse Allais, am the current holder of the one millimetre free-style cycling record. Not just for France, but for the whole of Europe and America. I am told that there is some Australian who claims to have bettered my time, but I have been advised by my manager to make no statement.

'And yes, I do hold the world millimetre cycling record for the road as well as on the track. My track record stands at 1/17,000 of a second and was accomplishad entirely without the aid of pacemakers] My road record is not quite so good, standing as it does at roughly 1/14,000 of a second. I should mention, perhaps, that this latter record was set during a violent thunderstorm, which gave me a lot of trouble with strong headwinds.'

So not only were they setting world records 100 years ago, they were also taking the mickey out of them. And out of the various training methods, come to that. Allais continues:

'During the new season I hope to improve my two world records and am already getting into shape. I put in 14 hours' hard training a day, half of it on a surface of wet sand, the other half on a luxurious bedspread splendidly embroidered with a wild tiger. My diet is simple. I restrict myself to a plain intake of sturgeon's roe from Beluga, washed down with a pure sparkling grape-derived beverage which comes, I believe, from the Champagne district.'

If only the fantasy were truth. But there is a lot of fantasy about all world records. They make us feel, falsely, that we have a share in it. Somebody broke the four- minute barrier, and we all felt good. 'Man can now run a mile in less than four minutes]' we said. But man couldn't. Only one man could, at the time. And Roger Bannister could never run a mile in less than four minutes on demand. He could only do it on a certain surface, in certain clothes, after months of training, if the weather was right, and some of his friends ran with him.

Put it another way. You may be able to say who broke the world mile record in Oxford in 1954, but who holds the current record now and what is his time?