Bannister’s run is always a red-letter day

NORMAN GILLER looks forward to May 6, not for the political race, but as an anniversary of one of the greatest moments in British sport

Right, I want your full concentration and an honest answer. What does May 6 mean to you?

If you say “General Election”, you will make me cross (there’s an attempt at a joke in there somewhere).

If you say it was the day in 1954 when Roger Bannister became the first to break the four-minute mile barrier, then you are on my wavelength and can stay to the end of this blog.

Somebody only has to say May 6 to me and I am immediately transported back to that famous day when Bannister ducked under 4 minutes (3min. 59.4sec, to be exact) at Iffley Road, Oxford.

For anybody from my Old Git generation, that was a magical moment, and for me it cemented my ambition to become a sportswriter (I also tried miling, but the five-minute barrier was more my style).

The fact that thousands of athletes have since beaten the barrier makes a nonsense of the fact that for years it had been described as the Impossible Dream. But then, a year earlier, Everest had been considered unconquerable until Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tensing Norgay reached the summit on the eve of the Queen’s Coronation. Now so many climbers tackle and tame the mighty mountain that it must be like Piccadilly Circus up there (Ed: Get to the point, Giller).

Well, this May 6 marks the 28th anniversary since Sir Roger kindly collaborated with me on my history of the mile, The Golden Milers, which went from Walter George (4:19.4 in 1882) to Sebastian Coe’s scorching 3:47.33sec in 1981.

While interviewing Sir Roger for the book, he left me dumbfounded by saying that, in retrospect, he considered his running career a waste of his precious time. “I should have given more concentration to my medical studies,” he said. “My work in the field of neurology is the only thing that has really counted with me.”

To my ears, this was like Neil Armstrong saying his one small step for mankind was a waste of energy, or Hillary dismissing his Everest climb as squandering oxygen.

As I type, I have in front of me one of my prized possessions: the original programme for the meeting between Oxford University Athletics Club and the AAA, autographed by Roger. More than half a century ago, it cost 6d, and the One Mile was Event No 9, scheduled for 6pm.

For the record, the field was: GF Dole (University), A D Gordon (Magdalen), T N Miller (University), R G Bannister (Achilles), CJ Chataway (Achilles), WT Hulatt (Alfreton) and CW Brasher (Achilles) (who, of course, went on to become the President of the SJA.

On the day, the clock on the nearby church steeple struck 6 as they waited for the blustery wind to drop. They were all set to call off the record attempt when the wind eased. As they set off, with Chris Brasher as the early hare (as pictured above), a lingering double rainbow decorated the slate-grey sky.

My book takes up the story: “The bell signaling the last lap and Bannister’s date with destiny rang as Chataway completed three-quarters of a mile in 3 min 0.4 sec. Bannister was timed at 3 min 0.5 sec. He had to run the last 440 yards in 59.4 sec to break the ‘impossible’ barrier.

“Chataway, drained chalk white by his exertions, started to falter and coming of the next bend with 230 yards to go Bannister unleashed his famous finishing kick. He moved up a gear and swept majestically past Chataway with a stunning surge of speed that made his red-headed Achilles clubmate look as if he was suddenly running backwards.

“The roar of the spectators was like a gale-force wind at Bannister’s back as they urged him on in his long, lonely drive for the tape and the permanency of the record and history books. In the last desperate 100 yards, he was fighting through a fog of fatigue, a biting cross wind and a fear that his long legs would betray him on the threshold of one of the great moments in athletics history.

“With a super human effort, he virtually leapt through the tape and into the arms of the Reverend Nicholas Stacey, an Oxford Univeristy sprinter and his close friend. He had given all he had got and was now totally exhausted, not knowing whether he had beaten 4 minutes.

“Norris McWhirter, founder of the Guinness Book of Records and the acknowledged King of the Stats, was on duty as the results announcer. He added to the agonising suspense in the small stadium with the following drawn-out race result: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, here is the result of event No 9, the one mile. First No 41, RG Bannister, of the Amateur Athletic Association and formerly of Exeter and Merton Colleges, with a time which is a new meeting and track record and which, subject to ratification will be a new English native, British national, British all-comers’, European, British Empire … and world record. The time is three …'”

This all brings me to a true story about one of the great post-war athletics writers, Jack Oaten, who was at the trackside for the historic race. A year on, I became his copyboy when I joined the London Evening News from school.

Jack was a refined man, who became a driving backroom force at BBC Television Sport in the Peter Dimmock and Sam Leitch days. My old friend Terry O’Connor took his place at the News and inherited me as his copyboy and stats man.

Only July 30, 1955, I sat alongside Oaten at the famous old White City Stadium (home of the 1908 London Olympics, now the site of the BBC HQ) as Chris Chataway took on Derek Ibbotson in the AAA three-mile championship.

It was Chataway’s last hurrah before he started a new career as ITV’s first news reader, and he raced to a world record 13min 23.2sec. I read Jack’s words over to the copytaker: “Chataway finished with an impressive spurt, peering imperiously over his shoulder at the well-beaten Ibbotson.”

We just managed to catch the final edition; perhaps Jack wished we hadn’t.

There were his words in black and white: “Chataway finished with an impressive spurt, peeing imperiously over his shoulder at the well-beaten Ibbotson.”

I hope this blog has given you a 4-minute smile. Happy days.

Read previous Norman Giller columns by clicking here.

Click here for more recent articles on journalism, sport and sports journalism

Join the SJA today – click here for details and membership application form