Since my latest blog (see below) has provoked a lively, private exchange with several colleagues, I thought it was worth revisiting, on a couple of counts. Why, one asks is it so important that everyone in the race finishes, in order to validate any record. Another correspondent replies that there is no logic to it, ‘just the rules’. More generally, in my first piece, I excluded any mention of the socio-cultural significance of the first sub-four. That was for reasons of space; a blog that is more than a thousand words long is hard-going in our attention-challenged times.
That everyone should finish the race was eminently logical, according to the founding philosophy of the Amateur Athletic Association (AAA), and subsequently the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF). Amateur athletics was born out of the cesspit of pedestrianism, as it was called in the 1880s. Gambling was rife, hence races would regularly be fixed. Men and, occasionally women would compete under assumed names in different parts of the country (to disguise their excellence elsewhere – these were mostly handicap races); runners would be physically impeded by rivals; and ‘tonics’ ie drugs would be used. It didn’t all stop with amateurism, of course; Dorando collapsed at the end of the 1908 Olympic marathon in London, because on a broiling day, his gargle of strychnine and red wine finally got to him.
However, pacing was equally frowned upon, because it was seen as part of this free-for-all, hence ‘manipulation’ – which is what the AAA called the Bannister,/Chataway/Brasher record attempt the year before the first sub-four, when Brasher jogged round two laps, in order to pace Bannister over his final lap (and Brasher’s third). The AAA refused to recognise Bannister’s 4.02 as a legitimate British record. Incidentally (see previous blog and responses), I suspect that Brasher did not finish the sub-four race, but it would have been ridiculous to deny Bannister his 3.59.4. Brasher was clearly aware that he had to finish, even jogging/walking. It seems like the crowd, swamping the Iffley Rd track, would have prevented him.
On that score, my colleague, Doug Gillon, long-time correspondent for The Herald reports twice asking Brasher directly if he finished the famous race. As Doug wrote, ‘he was strangely ambiguous; (saying) “I should think we probably did”.’
As I said, that doesn’t bother me; what has always bothered me, as you will know by now, is the manner of securing the sub-four; for such a seminal event to have been so blatantly paced demeans its significance. And though I have challenged the continuing obsession with the event, it is manifest why it was so important at the time.
In the early 1950s, the British people were going through the sort of crisis that the USA is beginning to experience with the rise of China – the loss of influence. Though the Allies had won the war, years of food rationing and general privation had only been leavened by such significant events as the Festival of Britain, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and by the conquest of Everest by a British team (led by a New Zealander and a Nepalese). We were not to know at that point that the Suez farrago (look it up!) – a defining moment in Britain’s decline – was only two years away. So Bannister’s sub-four was another boon for a nation desperate for any manifestation of international significance, or in modern terms, soft power.
I just wonder why the rest of the world takes it so seriously.