Seb Coe willing to go that extra mile - for the mile
Special ‘miler’ meeting for standout names of ‘revered’ distance at hotel in Monaco
Roger Bannister becoming the first man to run the mile in under four minutes in Oxfordshire, England, on May 6th, 1954. Photograph: Bentley Archive/Popperfoto via Getty Images
The plan was to sit back for a while and let Seb Coe do all the running. There is a measured pace and execution to the mile and 1,500 metres that never changes and especially not on a dream night like this.
It was a proper stellar field and gathering too, 17 representatives in all, each waiting on their own moment in history and time. And in the end there was no more sitting back: someone once said you should never meet your heroes, but how many chances do you get to meet them all in the same room at the same time?
Coe could probably be accused of a few things since taking up the presidency of the IAAF, the governing body now known as World Athletics, but one thing he can’t be accused of here is ignoring the legacy of the sport, including that of his own. And nowhere is that more unique and celebrated than in the mile and its metric equivalent the 1,500 metres
When Coe took up that presidency four years ago from Lamine Diack (and no one wants reminding of his legacy) one of the first things he discovered in the recently flooded basement of the IAAF offices in Monaco were several discarded boxes of athletics memorabilia, including some precious medals donated to the IAAF for what was meant to be safe-keeping.
Whatever hopes Coe had for building a fresh and lasting legacy for the future of the sport – and there is still some way to go there – there was no excuse for ignoring the still lasting legacy of the past.
Which is why Coe, having appointed Chris Turner to head up a new athletics heritage group, invited all the standout names of the mile and 1,500 metres to a waterfront hotel in Monaco on Thursday, the respect and honour and still lasting legacy deeply mutual among them all.
At the front there were the family members of the late Roger Bannister and Diane Leather Charles, who in 1954 respectively became the first man to run the mile in under four minutes and the first woman to break the five-minute barrier for the distance. Both died last year.
Then there were eight of the 10 last living world mile record breakers, starting with Michel Jazy from France, who ran 3:53.3 in 1965; Jim Ryun of the US who took it to 3:51.1; Filbert Bayi of Tanzania who ran 3:51.0 in 1975; New Zealand’s John Walker who ran the first sub-3:50 with his 3:49.4; Coe himself who after three world records took it down to 3:47.33 in 1981; fellow Britain Steve Cram who ran 3:46.32 in 1985; then Noureddine Morceli from Algeria who ran 3:44.39 in 1993; and finally Hicham El Guerrouj from Morocco who ran his 3:43.13 in Rome in 1999 – that mighty impressive record that still stands.
Also there were our own Ronnie Delany, 1956 Olympic 1,500m champion, and the once “Chairman of the Boards” and former indoor mile record breaker Eamonn Coghlan, also the first man over the age of 40 to run a sub-four minute mile, along with Kenya’s 1968 Olympic 1,500m champion Kip Keino, and 1987 World Champion Abdi Bile from Somalia.
New Zealand’s Peter Snell, who twice broke the mile record in the 1960s, taking it down to 3:54.1 in 1964, shortly after defending his Olympic 1,500m title, had intended to travel from his home in Dallas, Texas, but suffered a heart scare just before his departure.
“Brothers, like you, I am a miler,” Coe started, once the stage was full. “I have been a miler all my life. But don’t worry this is not a confession at the beginning of a self-help group or preparation for an Oprah interview.
“The mile is a British measurement but it is a Roman legacy. We didn’t have miles before they arrived on Britain’s shores. One of the first world record holders for the mile was Walter George. In1886 he set the record, 4:12 and three quarters, which stood for almost 30 years. And he did so at Lille Bridge, now known as Stamford Bridge, the home of Chelsea Football Club. I was actually born five streets away.
“In the 30s the record was held by another Brit, Sydney Wooderson (4:06.4), and in 1954 of course Roger Bannister ran the first mile in under four minutes. Shortly after that Derek Ibbotson, who sadly left us a few years ago, also broke the record.
“It came back to the UK a quarter of a century – to the year – of Roger Bannister’s sub-four-minute mile. The world record came home. I brought it home. So the mile is deeply engrained not only globally but in British athletics folklore. And of course in 1985 Steve Cram broke it again at the iconic Bislett Stadium. I remember it very well because I was 30 metres behind him that night, watching him do it.”
Walker’s health has suffered in recent years, and he has spoken publicly about his battle with Parkinson’s disease, but there was no disguising the power in his words as he recalled his world-record breaking exploits. This, after all, is the man who ran 127 sub-four minute miles in all, the second most in history after the 137 achieved by Steve Scott of the US, with Ireland’s Marcus O’Sullivan third on that list with his 101.
“The mile is the biggest event,” said Walker. “And it was revered in New Zealand because we had [Jack] Lovelock, [Peter] Snell and myself. So the mile is basically what a lot of people ran. And when I broke the world record, the first sub-3:50 mile, it was huge headlines.”
Travelling the short distance from Italy were Paola Pigni Cacchi, who set 1500m and mile world records in the late 1960s and early 70s, and her compatriot Gabriella Dorio, the 1984 Olympic 1500m champion.
The mile is also the last remaining imperial distance still applicable for world record ratification purposes – and that lasting mystique of the distance (1609.344 metres, in new currency) is the key for it remaining an official record distance.
“For all the milers in this room, I hope this analogy brings back happy memories and some panicky moments,” Coe said by way of conclusion. “For all the non-milers I hope you realise that the distance that has brought us together tonight is a metaphor for life, beyond the track.”
There was some gentle irony in that Coe staged the event on the eve of the World Athletics awards for 2019, a year which may not hold so many precious memories. While time will be judge of that legacy too, at least the mile and 1,500 metres have earned and deserve this right to keep on running.