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The Prince of track runners

Roger Bannister (left) meets up with Emdad Rahman.

On 6th May 1954, Roger Bannister (now Sir Roger Bannister) ran the first four minute mile. In March 2012, Emdad Rahman interviewed Sir Roger. We reprint the interview today to pay tribute to Sir Roger’s achievement, sixty years ago.

Emdad Rahman goes long distance with running icon Sir Roger Bannister, CBE.

As a youngster Sebastian Coe was always my favourite athlete and like countless youngsters I was in awe of the likes of Ed Moses, Sunderland fan Steve Cram and the great Michael Johnson.

But it was reading about the exploits of the valiant Sir Roger Bannister that proved to be the most inspiring for me. His historic breaking of the four minute mile galvanised me to take up running and complete three London marathons.

Sir Roger spoke to me about that great day: “Sport was something I enjoyed and I was a student of medicine who liked sport. I fully intended to retire after completing my medical studies.”

The distinguished Oxford neurologist was mindful of the wind dictating the tone of the race but delayed his decision: “Because of the unsure wind levels I nearly pulled out of the race twice.

“There was a St George’s flag on the church steeple and I used this to keep a check on how strong the wind levels were. Twenty minutes before the race was to start I confirmed my decision to run.”
The rest is history and the exploits of the indomitable knight will astound the masses for years.  On 6th May 1954, the spirited athlete took on the elements. Cheered on by a rousing 3,000-strong crowd at the Iffley Road track, the 25 year old medical student completed the mile run in 3:59.4.

Bannister continued: “There was support from Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway, and days earlier I had prepared by training in high winds at Paddington Green.”

Chataway took over from Brasher as the final pacemaker and with 200 yards left the plucky Bannister took centre stage, digging deep with a final burst of raw energy. It culminated with the runner breaking the record and being embraced by his friend the Rev. Nicholas Stacey.

Thereafter ensued a period of bedlam as it was confirmed that the four minute mile had been officially broken.

There is a glint in the eye of one of Britain’s greatest runners as he recollected one of his career highlights: “I was generally calm but there was adrenaline pumping throughout my system. I had not been running for almost a week and my energy levels were very high.

“Brasher led and I exhorted him to run faster. It was more like an order than a request. When Chataway took over he passed three quarters of a mile in three minutes. We had planned accordingly. This left the final lap to be run in under 60 seconds. As I overtook Chataway at the last bend I just knew I had to run the fastest I had ever done in my entire life.”

Norris McWhirter (later with the Guinness Book of Records and the BBC ‘s Record Breakers) – backed up by Harold Abrahams, the 1924 Olympic champion (Chariots of Fire) – proclaimed and confirmed the amazing feat that had just been achieved at the track on Iffley Road, Oxford.

The accomplishment lasted just six weeks as great rival John Landy beat the record by a second, clocking 3:58. The scene was now set for one of the greatest races of all time, and the final of the One Mile at the Empire Games in Vancouver became the host venue for the clash of the titans. The date was 7th August 1954 and the proceedings did not disappoint. Coming into the final straight Landy glanced over his shoulder to check the position of his fearsome foe. At that precise instant Bannister overtook him on the right and powered through to clinch the race. It was a monumental moment. Landy recalled the triumph; “When Lot’s wife looked back she was turned into a pillar of salt. When I looked back I was turned into a pillar of bronze!”

The epic race between the two biggest names in middle distance running has been commemorated by a statue in the Empire Stadium, Vancouver and is remembered as the “miracle mile.”

Hicham El Guerrouj from Morocco (3:43:13) holds today’s mile record – but it will take an awful long time to erase the adventures of Sir Roger from the memory.

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