Roger Bannister still astonished by enduring fascination in sub-four-minute mile
“If it brings other people into running, then it is all for the good, and I am still happy to do all I can to help”
Roger Bannister (centre) with pacemakers Chris Chataway (right) and Chris Brasher. Photograph: Getty Images
He says himself he is astonished by the level of inspiration it still provides, and almost 60 years after becoming the first man to run the mile in under four minutes, Roger Bannister has lost none of his charming modesty. No wonder he also remains the most iconic and likeable face of distance running.
Bannister was at the old Paddington Recreation Ground in London on Wednesday, the same track where, for the weeks and days leading up to May 6th, 1954, he perfected every last detail of his interval training. Then, convinced his moment of destiny had come, he made the hour-long train ride to the Iffley Road track, at Oxford, and the rest of that afternoon is sporting history.
“I have been astonished,” Bannister said on Wednesday, when asked about the enduring fascination with his 3:59.4. “If it brings other people into running, then it is all for the good, and I am still happy to do all I can to help.”
Indeed Bannister was in London to help promote the Westminster Mile, a series of races which next May will also mark the 60th anniversary of his great barrier-breaking run.
So, don’t say you weren’t warned about this upcoming rush of nostalgia – although in Bannister’s case it is entirely justified. He turns 85 later this month, and the very fact he is still around to talk about his lusty innocence for that old amateur era is more than enough cause for celebration.
Not that Bannister’s claim to fame ended in 1954. Later, he became equally celebrated in the medical world for his work in neurology, and later still, became the first chairman of the British Sports Council. Indeed you can read all about that in Twin Tracks, his new autobiography, which is published in April, with the promise of yet further reflection on what it took to run what no man had run before.
The great pity is that neither Chris Chataway nor Chris Brasher, his former training partners and good friends, are still around to share in the celebration. Both men were responsible for pacing Bannister that afternoon, 60 years ago, and neither of them let him down.
Brasher, as planned, led for the first two laps, and then Chataway took over, before, with around 300m to go, Bannister took off. “We had done it, the three of us,” Bannister subsequently said, many times, never forgetting it was actually a three-man effort.
Brasher, who later founded the London Marathon, died in 2003, and Chataway died just a few weeks ago, on January 19th, aged 82 – although the story of his career and what happened later is best saved for another day.
It’s not difficult to understand why Bannister is still inspiring distance runners today. His 3:59.4 was brilliantly executed, both tactically and physically, because every stride had to be perfectly judged.
These are the things all good distance runners are obsessed with, and it was refreshing to hear Mark English tell me about some of his inspirations this week, which included Seb Coe and Steve Ovett – both naturally inspired by Bannister – and also Alberto Juantorena, the big Cuban, famous for his nine-foot stride length, who won both the 400m and 800m at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.
“I’d watch a lot of those old races on YouTube,” English told me. “Like Steve Ovett, at the 1977 World Cup, in Düsseldorf. His positioning in that race was just perfect, the whole way round.” (Indeed it was, so look it up on YouTube.)
English was saying this in the knowledge that he will need to execute the perfect 800m, tactically and physically, to make any impact at the World Indoor Championships, which get underway in Sopot, Poland, next Friday.
At 20, English still has a lot to learn, but admits too that the World Championships in Moscow last summer – where a poor tactical race meant elimination in the heats – was exactly the sort of learning experience he needed.
No one is mentioning the M-word, and for good reason: English is one of just five athletes qualified for Sopot, and they’re all there for the learning experience. David McCarthy goes in the 1,500m in what will be his first major championships at senior level, and the three Irish women qualified – Ciara Everard and Roseanne Galligan in the 800m, and Claire Tarplee in the 1,500m – are actually selected off times run during last year’s indoor season. What does matter is that the learning experience is made count at the European Championships in Zurich next August, where a few people will be mentioning the M-word.
That’s not saying we shouldn’t expect the unexpected. Five Irish athletes in Sopot is one more than the four Irish athletes that qualified for the inaugural World Indoor Championships in Indianapolis in 1987. There, everyone was mentioning the M-word when it came to Eamonn Coghlan in the 1,500m, except he was tripped in his qualifying heat at 600m and fell. Coghlan actually recovered, yet still misjudged his finish, and missed out on qualifying when the big German Dieter Baumann snuck past.
Despite Coghlan’s seemingly disastrous absence, Marcus O’Sullivan went on to win the gold medal, and then, the only other two Irish athletes in Indianapolis, Frank O’Mara and Paul Donovan, won gold and silver in the 3,000m. O’Mara’s race that day was brilliantly executed, both tactically and physically, and worthy of another rush of nostalgia on another day.