“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.
Ten years later, Jim Ryun ran to immortality in Wichita, becoming the first high school runner to break four minutes. Sebastian Coe, now president of the London Olympic committee, held the record twice in the 1980s, as he dueled countrymen Steve Ovett and Steve Cram, the last Brit to hold the mile record. El Guerrouj has now held the record for 13 years, the longest period the mark hasn’t been broken since 1911.
Bannister was never paid to run by Nike or Adidas. Before he began training seriously for the mile, he would run for an hour on his lunch break during medical school at Oxford.
His Olympic moment was supposed to happen in Helsinki two years before he broke the record, but he finished fourth in the 1,500. Had he medaled, it was said he would have retired from running. “That’s true,” Bannister said.
The stopwatch used to time his 3:59.4 that day hangs in a display case at Pembroke College at Oxford with his racing trophies. He didn’t live off memories, either, and wasn’t even knighted for his athletic accomplishments.
As the first chairman of the British Sports Council, Bannister assembled a group of chemists that developed the first test for anabolic steroids.
“I foresaw the problems in the 1970s and arranged for the group of chemists to detect the first radioimmunoassay test for anabolic steroids,” he said. “The only problem was it took a long time for the Olympic and other authorities to introduce it on a random basis. I foresaw it being necessary.”
Does he believe what he sees is real now?
“I believe it a lot more than when there were up to 30,000 East Germans competing,” he said.
Algeria’s Taoufik Makhloufi won the gold in the 1,500, turning in a time of 3:34.08. Leo Manzano of Austin had a huge kick the final 100 meters, vaulting from the middle of the pack to earn the silver medal — the first time since 1968 an American made the 1,500 podium at the Games.
It was as if Makhloufi took Bannister’s advice long ago: “The man who can drive himself further once the effort gets painful is the man who will win.”
Bannister’s daughter, Erin, was born three years after her father set the mile record. “But I grew up knowing every day what he had done for the rest of my life. He still gets asked for autographs everywhere.”
One moment in time, preserved in celluloid, made even more memorable by the announcer’s call that dragged out the suspense that day:
“Ladies and gentlemen, here is the result of event 9, the one mile: First, No. 41, R.G. Bannister, Amateur Athletic Association and formerly of Exeter and Merton Colleges, Oxford, with a time which is a new meeting and track record, and which — subject to ratification — will be a new English Native, British National, All-Comers, European, British Empire and World Record. The time was 3 . . .”
The rest of the time was never heard. The cheers were too loud for anything to be heard. Six decades later, Sir Roger Bannister still hears them.
For previous columns by Mike Wise, go to washingtonpost.com/wise.