Well-known for being the first man to break the 4-minute mile, Sir Roger Bannister is a rightful legend of British athletics. Yet, few people know that his world record lasted just a month and a half, taken by the man he was destined to beat at the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games.
The Games in Vancouver, Canada saw the first meeting of the only two men (at the time) to have achieved such a fast time, a time frequently regarded by Bannister as an insignificant barrier to aim for. Australia’s John Landy had been approaching four minutes but had been pipped to it by Bannister at a meeting in Oxford. Even so, Landy took the record for himself 46 days later. Their first appearance together after the feats was dubbed the “Miracle Mile” and it was to exude drama all the way.
Witnessing the start of the 1 mile race from 59 years ago is an exercise in ancient history. Handshakes before the race began. A mix of athletes choosing either to begin in a crouched position (as if they were using starting blocks) or not. Certainly no stupid actions to a TV camera. The race began and Landy burst into the lead, a lead he wouldn’t relinquish for the majority of the mile.
Bannister wasn’t rushing this one. He looked at ease in front of the chasing pack and gradually gained ground on his Australian rival. With just a lap to go, the English athlete was right up behind Landy, tucked into the slipstream. Landy was getting anxious and frequently turned to see where his greatest challenger was. Coming up to the final straight, he looked the wrong way and Bannister took his opportunity, bursting past Landy on his blindside. Landy, having started so quickly, had no way of retaking ground lost to Bannister and was forced to make do with silver.
It was amazing how the pair had managed such a classic race. Bannister trained very little, combining his time with studying to become a neurologist. Landy had cut open his foot on a photographer’s flashbulb and was running with stitches. That the two of them had spaced themselves so far away from their competitors and still managed to run sub-4 minute miles is remarkable.
Mile races are generally a thing of the past now that metric is the new imperial. The closest we have is the 1500m race, the “metric mile”, but it’s unfortunate that we no longer have talent akin to Sir Roger Bannister. Neither Ross Murray nor Andrew Baddeley progressed past the semifinals at London 2012 and the female pairing of Lisa Dobriskey and Laura Weightman were way out of the medal places. Perhaps the 2014 Commonwealth Games will see another mesmerising performance of Bannister’s magnitude, but it’s too early to say. Roll on the World Championships!
Take yourself over to Youtube and watch the “Mile of the Century” in full: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jP_NzZP_LK0