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Exclusive Interview: Sir Roger Bannister on the Miracle Mile

SIR Roger Bannister is supremely at ease with the questions.

History was made in the mile race at the 1954 Empire Games. Picture: PA
History was made in the mile race at the 1954 Empire Games. Picture: PA

Little wonder. The man has been grilled on sporting greatness more often, surely, than any athlete on the face of the planet. Yet despite the onset of Parkinsons, he seems as enthused at 85 as he was during his annus mirabilis of 1954. The 60th anniversary of his iconic sub four-minute mile was in May. Now we contemplate a further milestone: it is 60 years today since what still ranks as the greatest showdown over the distance. To mark the anniversary, Bannister spoke exclusively to Herald Sport.

At the 1954 Empire Games in Vancouver, he lined up against John Landy, who had relieved him of the world record after just 46 days. The Australian had done so by a whacking 1.4 seconds, lowering the mark to 3min 58.00sec.

Chris Chataway, who had paced Bannister in the historic race at Oxford, had now helped Landy. "That did not affect our friendship," Bannister told me. "We were expecting it. Whatever barrier there had been was psychological rather than physical and Landy was at the top of the list. But my whole attitude changed. I had just six weeks."

With miling's Holy Grail his for eternity, was Bannister not tempted to decline that Vancouver showdown? He seems almost scandalised at the notion. "There was never any question of my not accepting that challenge. He had broken my record and there was only room for one of us at the top. The Empire Games would settle that, so I was in no doubt I had to up my training and I did so. By the time the event came due, I was fairly confident I would be able to withstand any pace he chose to make, and have enough to have a sprint at the end. He was not someone who sprinted at the end of races."

Landy's very public training sessions, reported daily in the press in a manner hard to comprehend today, surpassed anything Bannister had done. His rival had, as Bannister put it, "an insatiable appetite for interval training."

Their form was dissected in endless detail. Landy's 10 x 440 yards in 58 seconds with a two-minute recovery remains awesome today. Bannister later confessed that his best then was 10 x 440 in 60 seconds with the same recovery. In contrast, he trained on a golf course, away from prying press eyes. Some questioned whether he ever trained at all. Indeed, when some journalists spotted sprinter Pete Fryer - who was of remarkably similar stature and height - in training, Bannister was amused and delighted to read their reports of his improved sprint prowess.

Yet on that baking August afternoon in Vancouver, Bannister had seemed doomed at least 15m down before half distance with Landy inside world record pace. Bannister had gambled on his own mastery of pace judgment. Had Landy over-cooked it, in attempting to draw his finishing kick?

It was an early example of the kind of cardiovascular poker that middle-distance racing has become. By the bell the Englishman had clawed back on to Landy's shoulder, but as he acknowledges in his recent autobiography, Twin Tracks: "the whole race was being run at my absolute limit."

Bannister was, however, reaping the benefits of a ploy triggered three weeks earlier. Hoping to convince Landy to set the pace, he used the AAA Championships to show him what would happen if the Vancouver race was slow. The day after hearing he had passed his finals, Bannister sat back and won the mile in 4:07.6, but with a final lap of 53.8. This helped persuade Landy to do what he was now doing, but it was all Bannister could do to hang on.

"A race does require preparation and planning, but I'd also planned Helsinki [the 1952 Olympic final] a long way out, and that didn't work," he said.

This time, it did. Coming off the final bend into the home straight the Australian risked a fleeting glimpse over his left shoulder, checking on his rival. In that split second, on his right, Bannister struck. "When he turned his eyes to the front again, I was already about two yards ahead."

It remains a coaching-manual exemplar of what not to do. And so it proved here. Bannister had triumphed in The Miracle Mile, then the most-hyped race in history. Not quite a world record, but two men had broken four minutes for the first time: 3:58.8 to 3:59.6.

Given xenophobic US introspection, it was remarkable that the duel was the main feature in the launch edition of Sports Illustrated.

The critical moment is captured in an eight-foot bronze statue which now stands in Vancouver. "Lot's wife was turned into a pillar of salt for looking back," remarked Landy. "I'm the first person to be turned into bronze."

The pair became lifelong friends, but Bannister told me: "That was his best joke."

He was particularly impressed, however, that the Australian made nothing of having stood on a spent photographic flash bulb, cutting his foot. This only emerged many days later. "I admired him for remaining silent. It was not on the weight-bearing part of the foot, it was around the instep, but he did not want it to be made an excuse."

The media branded Landy a failure during his competitive days. "Eventually, he became governor general of Victoria. But it was very disappointing for him not to be able to win the Olympic 1500 metres in Melbourne, in his own home state, in 1956."

Just 22 days after their historic final, Bannister won the European 1500m title - a double repeated only by Steve Cram, in 1982 and in 1986. Bannister's time was a championship record and he was left to reflect that it was 1.4 seconds faster than the gold-medal performance at the 1952 Olympics.

There, he had finished fourth after an additional round, necessitating three races in three days, for which he was unprepared. He describes it as "a debacle" yet it prompted him to continue. "I could not forgive myself if I'd retired on such a negative note."

He had broken the British record, yet as he says: "It was regarded as failure by the British press and public, and in my own eyes. It was the turning point of my life, because I decided I had to go on for two more years. It gave me the opportunity of the four-minute mile and of defeating John Landy in a head-to-head race, which is what I wanted."

He had been planning thereafter to focus on his medical career. Without that Helsinki "failure" one of the greatest chapters in athletics history would not have been written.

So, it was two years later, after a 10-year running career, that he retired aged 25. Life as a national treasure was assured, yet what meant most to him was barely out of the starting bocks. An eminent career in neurology, including ground-breaking research, best defines him personally. Does it frustrate him that he is best remembered for what he did in less than four minutes than what he achieved in a lifetime of medicine?

"I accept that as inevitable," he says. "I have no qualms about saying my medical life was more important than my sporting life, though that's not the way outsiders might see it."

His glowing career included research which involved injecting himself with bacteria in an attempt to identify the cause of service deaths in hot climates. The experiments, to examine how a potentially fatal condition (hyperpyrexia) could occur, would not be tolerated today, he says. But his findings were accepted by the Army and written up in Lancet. Fatalities fell as a result.

An early fascination with the impact of heat occurred on the day of his victory over Landy. Soon after, his medical skills were called on when world record-holder Jim Peters lurched to a halt at the end of the marathon and failed to finish. "I then went to see him in hospital."

When I ask for the greatest moment of his career, he says: "There were two: passing the examination to be a physician and when I was appointed to a consultancy post in London at two top hospitals [St Mary's and the National Hospital]. That was the most important one."

Part of Bannister's charm is a kind of old-world chivalry almost absent from modern track and field. I observe that only thrice has the world 1500m record been broken in a championship: by Jack Lovelock (Berlin Olympics, 1936), Herb Elliot (Rome Olympics, 1960) and at the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, in a memorable race between Filbert Bayi and John Waker.

Such days are sadly gone. "It's a dying ideal," says Bannister. "The general rule is that you don't break middle-distance records in Olympic finals - yet David Rudisha was an exception [at 800m] in London."

In Vancouver, Bannister says he was anxious to avoid: "the possibility of a slow race which would be no satisfaction either to us or spectators."

It is hard to imagine current championship contenders giving that a thought. Such finals are mostly tactical, given what is at stake.

"Yes, but I think the race is the thing," says Bannister. "I don't think time trials are of great importance - either my time trial [the four-minute mile] or his [Landy's world record]. I had an overall view of the sport and did not want spectators to be let down and they would have been if the time had been 4.05. I would still have won, but spectators would have felt they'd missed something."

On the wall of his sitting room in Oxfordshire - his home since he retired as Master of Pembroke College in 1993 - is an Olympic torch. Despite his role as an imminent neurologist, he never severed links with sport. He was the first chair of the Sports Council, a trail-blazer for sport funding and in drug testing. He remains outspoken on drug abuse, especially the reinstatement of those who use anabolic steroids.

I cite reinstated cheats like David Millar and Carl Myerscough, both of whom competed at Glasgow 2014 (the former having won Commonwealth gold for Scotland). "It's up to individual sports to decide on whom they select," he says. "But penalties should be heavy enough to be a deterrent. Frequently they are not."

And the mile record, where might it go? "The current record is 3:43. If you allow, say, four seconds for better tracks [since the four-minute mile] it means it has gone from 3:56 to 3:43. That is not a great deal for 60 years of improvement. The rate of breaking the record has slowed up. It's now 12 years since it was broken, quite a long time. But it will be broken.

"Usually it's when there are two or three runners who are rivals and run against one another, just as the Swedes [Gunder Hagg and Arne Anderson] during the war, and Wes Santee and Landy against me. And just as when Coe, Ovett and Cram brought it down."

He remains optimistic about legacy potential: "I saw Sydney Wooderson [world mile record holder] run when I was 15 and it took 10 years before I managed to break the world record. So I think it's far too soon to be talking about legacy within two years of the Olympics in London. I am sure there will be a legacy, but it will take until the boys and girls who watched those extraordinary performances reach maturity. Glasgow will be the same."

He is disturbed, however, by the lack of competitive sport in state schools and the lack of adequate physical education provision cited recently by Sir Peter Wilshaw, the Ofsted chief inspector of education. "The fault is with education, with 93% of children going to state schools and inadequate specialist PE provision," says Bannister.

His preference for training on grass may have helped preserve his knees, I suggest. "I have had my left knee replaced," he retorts, but then confesses it was just a year ago. "I did it falling off my son's racing bicycle."

He is not quite forever young, however. The man with 14 grandchildren has a health issue which prevented him being in Glasgow. "I don't travel now. I've got Parkinsons. My walking is bad, so I tend to stay here at home. Glasgow is rather a long way away."

As a young man he travelled on the spur of the moment with pace-maker Chris Brasher, relaxing before for the four-minute mile by climbing in Glen Coe. "I only climbed in Scotland about three times, so it wasn't a one-off, but it was unusual."

He raced in Scotland only twice, losing over 800m at Murrayfield in 1950 to European champion John Parlett, and at Cowal, where he helped England to a win over Scotland and Ireland.

Today is the 60th anniversary of the Miracle Mile. Bannister plans to mark it, "with a quiet family occasion." One more toast in a career of memorable milestones.

n Twin Tracks, The Autobiography By Roger Bannister (Biteback)

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