March 4, 2018

WHEN TRACK STILL MATTERED:

Sir Roger Bannister obituary: First athlete to run a mile in under four minutes and an eminent neurologist (Nick Mason and Caroline Richmond,  4 Mar 2018, The Guardian)

[N]obody came really close to the four-minute mark; indeed, no one seriously threatened the world record of 4min 1.4sec set in 1945 by the Swede Gunder Hägg. Early in 1954 Landy announced that he would spend the early part of the summer training - and racing - in Finland. Expectations of a four-minute mile were now at boiling point, and Bannister knew he had to strike fast. With two friends providing the most elite pacemaking squad that could be imagined - Chataway, who later that summer took the 5000m world record, and Chris Brasher, who won an Olympic gold medal in the steeplechase two years later - Bannister devised an even-paced three-and-a-quarter-lap schedule that would leave him to capitalise on his speed and strength in the final 350 or so yards.

On that momentous evening, with the stiff breeze moderating and the showers stopping barely an hour before the race, the plan worked. Brasher led for a metronomic two laps, Chataway for the next one, and a bit more. Bannister, always on the leader's shoulder, needed to run the final quarter-mile in 59 seconds. He collapsed at the finish, and revived to hear another friend, the statistician Norris McWhirter, announce over the public address: "a track record, English Native record, British National, British All-Comers, European, British Empire and World record; the time: three ..." (the rest drowned out by cheering) "... minutes, 59.4 seconds."

Hägg's record had stood for almost nine years. Bannister's lasted just 46 days before Landy, running from the front at a meeting in Turku, Finland, posted an astounding 3min 58sec, to set up the "Mile of the Century" at the British Empire Games (as they were still called) in Vancouver early in August. The two milers arrived in Canada to a media frenzy, and there was a real danger that the race itself would prove a dismal anticlimax. But their widely differing strategies ensured that the final, far from descending into a cat-and-mouse tactical duel, would produce one of the great confrontations in the sport's history. Landy needed to run the finish out of Bannister; Bannister needed to run even-paced laps and conserve enough energy for the sustained power of his sprint.

Landy led from the gun, increased his lead as the first two laps progressed to seven yards, 10 yards, 15 yards at one point. Then gradually, halfway through the third lap, Landy began to slow and Bannister's even stride pulled the gap tighter and tighter. By the bell he was back to Landy's shoulder, but tired. At the end of the final bend he flung himself past Landy's right shoulder just, as chance would have it, Landy glanced anxiously over his left. He was away, the Australian could not respond, and the Mile of the Century was Bannister's. Both men, applauded to the skies by the packed stadium, had run under four minutes.

Posted by at March 4, 2018 12:50 PM

  

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