Sixty years ago on Tuesday, Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four minute Mile in history. In the following three months, Bannister, now Sir Roger won two other internationally significant races, the Empire Games One Mile, and the European Championships 1500 metres.
Of those three events, the sub-four Mile was by far the least important.
Yet the two championship races, whose importance at that time was exceeded only by the Olympic Games, have been obscured by the insubstantial penumbra of the first sub-four, which has been remembered as one of the most talismanic performances in sporting history.
The intervening six decades have served only to inflate the significance of the first sub-four beyond reason. In a flight of folly, the influential magazine Sports Illustrated even hailed it as the greatest sporting achievement of the 20th century. Ten years ago, BBC Sports Personality of the Year voters named it the greatest achievement in British sport.
Yet the first sub-four was and remains the perfect example of the phenomenon described by the 18th century German philosopher/dramatist, Friedrich von Schiller, when he wrote, ‘Many a crown shines spotless now that yet was deeply sullied in the winning’.
Such was the manner in which the first sub-four minute Mile was achieved.
The breaching of the four-minute ‘barrier’ had been an objective of leading middle distance runners for over a decade, since the previous British world record holder, Sydney Wooderson had run 4.06.4, prior to the Second World War; and Gundar Haegg and Arne Andersson had lowered that time, in a string of races in neutral Sweden during the war, to 4.01.4, the very threshold of the sub-four. Indeed had the two Swedes not been banned for professionalism (remember that ancient bugbear?) at the end of the war, then the likelihood is that the barrier would have been breached a decade before Bannister.
One of the effects of the war, which involved many of the leading athletics nations, was to delay advances in sporting performance, and it wasn’t until nearly ten years later that four-minutes came under threat again. By 1953, Wes Santee in the USA, John Landy in Australia, and Bannister were running within two to three seconds of four minutes, and the race to breach the barrier was on. Bannister and his two world class training partners, 5000 metres man Chris Chataway, and steeplechaser Chris Brasher, conspired to set up a paced attempt at it. They enlisted the Australian international Don McMillan to pace for two and half laps, while Brasher trotted round a lap in arrears, waiting to pick up and pace Bannister over the final lap. Bannister ran 4.02, which would have been a British record, but the Amateur Athletic Association, to their credit, refused to acknowledge the time, claiming ‘manipulation’.
The British trio realised that any record attempt would have to be in a legitimate race. The following year, they chose the Oxford University AC v AAA match on May 6, 1954, at Iffley Road track, Oxford. They finessed the pacing, first Brasher then Chataway leading Bannister for close to three and a half laps of the four lap race. The rest you know. The world acclaimed the new record – 3.59.4.
But what of manipulation now? The IAAF rules at the time were very clear. Throughout the century of amateur athletics, there was a clause in the international regulations demanding ‘honest competition,’ which meant that everyone should be in the race to win. Pacemakers clearly do not fit that criterion. There was also a stipulation that, for a record to be accepted, everyone involved had to finish the race.
To make matters worse, John Landy in Australia had run 4.02 six times, by himself!
Of course, with the advent of professional athletics, the IAAF clause about honest competition has been dropped. And pacemakers are paid handsomely, and drop out, mostly before halfway, be it a Mile or a Marathon. But they are, effectively being paid to lose. How is that honest, or ethical?
Though there had been pacing in the past, I firmly believe that the manipulation of such a seminal barrier breaker as the first sub-four is responsible for the disastrous situation we have nowadays, where pacing ruins far more races than it aids.
Incidentally, my former journalist colleague, Peter Hildreth – a fine Olympic athlete himself – often mused that Brasher could not possibly have finished the race, thus potentially negating the record. Hildreth had won the race prior to the Mile. The hurdles had, unusually been run on the back straight. And Hildreth was still there, recovering, while the Mile was being run. He claims that Brasher was only just labouring past him as Bannister was finishing; and given that the crowd invaded the track shortly after Bannister and his pursuers crossed the line, then Brasher must have been prevented from finishing. But, 60 years later, this is little more than athletics ephemera.
As for that BBC Sports Personality vote, Bannister’s sub-four came in the year that the Award was inaugurated. But Bannister didn’t win it. Chataway did, mostly for his victory against the Ukrainian hard man Vladimir Kuts, in an epic 5000m race at London’s White City. Did the blatant pacing of the sub-four make the difference?
Chataway, who also ran in the race when Landy broke Bannister’s world record just 46 days later, told me a decade ago that there had been no immediate criticism of the sub-four pacing, “but a couple of months later, there started to be some questioning of the tactics”.
As for Bannister himself, who sadly revealed this week that he is suffering from Parkinson’s Disease (an affliction he encountered regularly as a famous neurologist), let me give you a couple of quotes from his excellent book, The Four Minute Mile, incidentally, one of the best written volumes in our literarily under-represented sport.
‘I sometimes think that we would be better off without stop-watches.…. The important thing would be the struggle of one man against another for supremacy’.
‘Records should be the servants not the masters of the athlete, preparing him for a forthcoming encounter with a respected opponent. They should not be an end in themselves (my italics)’.
From Bannister’s perspective, the sub-four was little more than preparation for Landy, whom he beat to the Empire (Commonwealth) title, in Vancouver; and for Gunnar Nielsen and Stanislav Jungwirth, whom he beat to the European title, in Berne.