Roger Bannister with John Landy - Oxford 6 May 2004 (Getty Images) © Copyright
General News Iffley Road, Oxford, UK

'Perfect time' - Oxford sub-4 celebrations

There were officials in bowler hats and suits, young men in cricket sweaters and cream blazers with a gold trim. They wore college scarves and old club ties. People crowded the fringes of the six-lane running track with its small stand close to the home straight. Dark clouds hung around threatening rain. And in the background, visible above hedges and houses beyond the final bend, was the square tower of a church where a St George's flag fluttered in the breeze.

At six o'clock, a gun fired and a group of young men set off to run a mile in less in than four minutes. One of them did it.

6th May 2004, but it was all very reminiscent of another time, same place. Which, of course, was the idea.

Fifty years ago to the day the name of Iffley Road running track, at the sports ground of Oxford University in England, was etched into the history books because of a single race and the most famous finishing time ever ­3:59.4.

Fifty years on - Replica meeting 

Yesterday, the 50th anniversary of Roger Bannister's barrier-breaking four minute mile during an Oxford University versus AAAs match was celebrated at a replica meeting on the same ground, and with a men¹s mile race held at exactly the same time that Bannister set off on his historic run.

The story of that race has been told so many times in recent weeks that virtually every sports fan in the world must know the tale ­of the meticulous training and planning of Bannister and his two collaborators, Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway; of the athletes' anxious wait for the wind to drop; of the perfect, and controversial, pace making that made the record 'on', and of Norris McWhirter's famous announcement, ending as uproar drowned his words, "Result of the one mile, three minutes...."

All that has become the stuff of sporting legend and yesterday some 2000 or so fans, officials, journalists and guests gathered at Iffley Road to celebrate an achievement that still holds such a grip on the sporting public's imagination, just as it did 50 years ago.

Landy to Coe...great milers join celebrations in Oxford

Clustered among them were some of the most famous middle distance runners from the past. There was Chataway, of course, one of the Bannister¹s training partners and pace makers; John Landy, Bannister's great Australian rival who snatched the record just 46 days later; Britain's Derek Ibbotson, who broke Landy¹s figures three years after that; and Sebastian Coe, one of the great British milers of the 1970s and '80s. Many others, some from other athletics disciplines, were there too.

Lynn Davies, the former Olympic long jump champion and current president of UK Athletics, voiced the feelings of the day when he described the first four minute mile as "an achievement that transcended sport."

"'For me it's on a par with climbing Everest for the first time, and putting the first man on the moon," he said. "In 50 years' time people will be on this site still celebrating and talking about Sir Roger¹s performance. It was a landmark of human achievement in the last century."

Like many others present, Davies recalled where he was on 6th May 1954 and the effect on him of that iconic performance. "I remember watching the race as an 11 year old in a small mining community in south Wales," he said. "And the following day I went out and wanted to run a mile against my pals. I was pretending to be Roger Bannister."

For many, the first four minute mile was that sort of event, and yesterday was that sort of day ­ one, as Bannister said, "of happy recollections."

"The event today is really a celebration of miling," said the ever-modest Sir Roger, playing down his own part. "It's not about me, and it's not about the four minute mile. Although it happens to be the anniversary, that just provides the reason for this occasion."

"This is a celebration of the tradition of miling that goes back right to the nineteenth century and the efforts of England's Walter George [world mile record holder from 1885 to 1915], and others."

In some ways, four minutes was "just a time," he said, trying to convince his audience. Yes, but in 'breaking' that time, hadn¹t Bannister signalled something about man's endless, fruitless attempts to conquer time itself? Why else do records matter?

"We have an affinity for this magic race," he said. "It's the perfect distance, four laps, and with round figures of 60 seconds for each, that makes the perfect time, four minutes."

How times have changed

At 75, despite thinning white hair, the bright eyed, fresh faced Bannister seems to be defying time himself. He is clearly still full of energy and vigour. He¹s still full of stories too. He told of how he and Chataway used to go to Morocco for winter training because they wanted to find a country "which wouldn¹t have much opposition. We thought there wouldn¹t be many milers in Morocco," he said, with a grin. How times have changed.

But then, changing times were what the day was all about. Bannister, of course, was first to acknowledge how far the sport¹s moved on over 50 years. Nearly 1000 men have run the mile in less than four minutes since Bannister became the first. The record has improved by more than 16 seconds in half a century, and Bannister at his best would have been some 117 metres behind today¹s middle distance king, Hicham El Guerrouj, when the Moroccan set the current figures at 3:43.13 in 1999.

But then, that¹s the point about barriers, he said, once they¹re broken, others can follow. Inevitably, everyone wanted to know where he thought it would all end. How fast can we go? "I said 3 minutes 30 in 1954, and I don¹t feel any need to change that now," he replied, although it might take another 50 years, he added. And where should we look for the barrier breakers of the future? "Well, the discovery of the north and east African genius for running has transformed the sport," he said. "But, in sport you never know. At that time we would never have guessed Africa would produce such runners, so there will be other surprises, I'm sure."

2004 Miles - O'Sullivan and Mottram win

There were no great surprises on the Iffley Road track this year, however, and no great barriers broken, although a clutch of British youngsters got their first taste of quality competition in front of a sizeable crowd. Others, internationals among them, recruited by the British Milers' Club to compete here, had good early season workouts. Ireland¹s former world champion Sonia O¹Sullivan, for example, won the women's mile in 4:27.79 ahead of Australia¹s Georgie Clarke, who ran 4:31.76.

And what of that all-important men's mile, the recreation of Bannister¹s historic performance? Well, this time the sun came out, the wind picked up and, though the timing was electronic not manual, there was still a pause before the result was known because the clock jammed. This time, though, the victory wasn¹t Britain¹s but Australia¹s, as Craig Mottram romped home in 3:56.64, a track record, ahead of Mohamed Farah and John Mayock.

"The aim was to have someone run under four minutes on such an historic occasion and it¹s fantastic to be the one to do it on this track," said Mottram, who claimed some measure of revenge for his country¹s defeat five decades ago. "It¹s good to see John Landy here, to run in front of him, and to provide some sort of redemption for 50 years ago."

Farah, a 21 year-old who came to Britain a decade ago as a Somalian refugee, clocked 4:00.07, failing by a whisker to become the 157th Briton since Bannister to break the magic barrier. Perhaps his time will come.

How different would things have been if Bannister had missed his perfect time by such a margin all those years ago? "Well, sport¹s all about chances,"said Sir Roger. "We knew we had a 50:50 chance and I only made it by six yards. It could easily have been six yards the other way."

By such small fractions is history made, and time broken.