May 6, 2004 at 6:56 pm #1485
OXFORD, England (AP) _ Few will recall the exact date: May 6, 1954. Even the precise time is little remembered: 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds.
They are key elements in an unforgettable part of sports history _ Roger Bannister running the first sub-four-minute mile.
Now a 75-year-old grandfather and a retired neurologist, Bannister lives just minutes from the Iffley Road track where he crossed the barrier. At the time, some thought such an attempt might kill a man.
Thursday’s 50th anniversary ceremonies at the Oxford track were scheduled to be low key, a reminder of a bygone era in athletics that Bannister still clings to.
“It still seems strange to me that the intrinsically simple and unimportant act of placing one foot in front of the other as fast as possible for 1,760 yards was heralded as such an important athletic achievement,” Bannister wrote in his book “The First Four Minutes.”
“I suppose the appeal lies in its very simplicity, four laps in four minutes _ it needs no money, no equipment and, in a world of increasingly complex technology, it stands out as a naive statement about our nature.”
Bannister was the favorite at 1,500 meters entering the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland. His goal was to win gold and retire to pursue his medical career.
Instead, he finished fourth, thrown off when Olympic officials inserted an extra round of heats, forcing him run three straight days.
The failure prompted him to shelve retirement and pursue the record, which was being chased by many, including American Wes Santee and Australian John Landy.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Bannister recalled: “I thought, `Well, I can’t leave on this sour note, feeling failure, disappointment, letting people down _ letting the country down.’
“I thought, `I can just go on somehow, combining medicine with my running until ’54, two years.”’
Bannister chose the first meet of the ’54 season _ Oxford vs. the Amateur Athletic Union _ to attempt to break the record with friends Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway as pacemakers.
The weather was typically English, rainy, cool and blustery. He nearly abandoned the attempt, but around 6 p.m. the wind subsided.
“I calculated there’s a 50-50 chance of my doing it,” Bannister said. “I said, `If there’s a 50-50 chance and I don’t take it, I may never get another chance to beat Landy to it.’ So I said, `Let’s do it.”’
Bannister’s record stood for 46 days before Landy ran 3:57.9 in Turku, Finland, on June 21.
On Aug. 9, 1954, they met at the Empire Games in Vancouver, where Bannister defeated Landy in what was called the “mile of the century.” Bannister won in 3:58.8 and Landy finished in 3:59.6.
Bannister, who walks with a limp from a 1975 car accident, still calls it his greatest run.
In his last major race, he won the 1,500 meters in 3:43.8 at the European Games in Berne, Switzerland, on Aug. 29, 1954.
“There is no question in my mind that the drama, excitement and publicity caused by this single race helped form the development of modern athletics,” IAAF president Lamine Diack said at a recent dinner in London honoring Bannister. “And by breaking a barrier that had been considered unbreakable, Roger Bannister had also transcended sport and became an eternal symbol of the limitless possibilities of the human mind and body.”
Bannister figures more than 2,000 runners have broken four minutes since he did it. American Steve Scott did it 137 times, and New Zealand’s John Walker 128.
The current record is 3:43.13 by Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj. Set in 1999, the mark has stood longer than most, partially because the distance has given way to the 1,500 meters _ known as “the metric mile.”
Bannister figures the mile mark will eventually drop to 3 1/2 minutes, but not for 50 years.
“I think the mile is not dead yet,” he said.
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