“It’s Roger Bannister.”
“Sir Roger?!” he said, scrambling for his camera and yelling for his family to pose with the first man to break the four-minute barrier in the mile.
Many came to see Lolo Jones and Dawn Harper in the hurdles. Others witnessed a thrilling long jump and the women’s 200 semifinals. I came to see history.
Of all the knighted British sporting legends, Bannister is still the most revered and remembered. He doesn’t come from Oxford as much he comes from another time, from grainy black-and-white footage around the old Iffley Road track, where in 1954 a gangly 25-year-old did what sportswriters of the time believed was not humanly possible.
“They all have a little story to tell me about what they remember and where they were,” Bannister said as he arrived early to watch the 1,500-meter final Tuesday night. He agreed that the 3,000 ringing the track that day, some of whom held him up as he collapsed at the finish, has somehow now grown to at least 100,000.
“In neurology, there is something known as false memory,” he said with sarcasm.
Every man in the 1,500 final had run under 3:36. When the extra 100 meters is factored in and the conversion from the metric mile to mile is made — most track aficionados say about 17 seconds — they all obliterate 4 minutes. Hicham El Guerrouj is the current men’s record holder in the mile with his time of 3:43.13 in 1999.
Imagine Henry Ford showing up at the Lamborghini manufacturing plant or Wyatt Earp strutting into a gun show in 2012, and that’s essentially Bannister at Olympic Stadium Tuesday night.
“Well, you start by subtracting about four seconds for the track,” he said of the cinder he ran on vs. today’s surface. “Then you add in about four hours a day of training. Most of them in this final are from East Africa and have been training since childhood. So I’m not surprised at all.”
Foot races had been held in England since the 17th century, but the first accurate mile time (4:28) wasn’t recorded until after 1850. Most men who lowered the standard for the first 100 years were once English schoolboys, who learned that fitness brings about character. Yet when 1930s newsreel began making stars out of men who broke track’s glamor distance, all comers began trying. When Bannister stepped onto the track, the record (4:01.4) had been held by Sweden’s Gunder Hagg for almost nine years.
From the nation that inspired “Chariots of Fire” — one of the movie’s subjects, Britain’s 1924 Paris gold medalist Harold Abrahams, was actually the timekeeper for Bannister’s race and later presented him with the stopwatch — a sense of national pride was as much at stake on May 6, 1954, as the record.