Sir Roger Bannister and the 4 laps
In the Olympic year of 2004 there has been many memorable athletic moments. The names El Guerrouji, Bekele, Kipchoge, and Sihine continually appear and they are the pioneers of world athletics continually extending the barriers of human performance. Fifty years ago an intelligent and thoughtful young man Roger Bannister ran himself into immortality by being the first ever person to run four laps consecutively under sixty seconds, a sub four minute mile. Nowadays breaking four minutes for the mile is commonplace for the world's elite on the World and European circuit. However, for British athletes it is still regarded as a major feat and a very credible accomplishment. Even with advances in technology and sports science in Britain last year only five athletes managed to run a sub 4-minute mile. For the achievement of Roger Bannister all those years ago on a cinder track in adverse weather conditions certainly puts everything into perspective.
Over the course of the past year the Irish Milers Club has celebrated the success of two of Irelands famous sons John Treacy, Eamonn Coghlan through onstage interviews. On the last such occasion at the Citywest Hotel Sir Roger Bannister was the esteemed guest. With an audience of over 400 Sir Roger Bannister (R.B) was lively and engaging throughout with young and old culminating with time for much treasured photos and autographs.
It was fitting that the first over 40 to eclipse the sub 4-minute barrier was 'King of the Boards' himself Eamonn Coghlan was there to formally introduce R.B to the receptive audience. A few days prior to the evening R.B was the guest at the Irish Schools athletics' Championships at Santry where James Nolan fitted the bill perfectly with a sub 4-minute performance in the elite mile. The taxi driver in Dublin who collected R.B instantly knew who he was but exaggerated his athletic prowess by stating "you did the 4 miles in one minute"- welcome to the craic in Ireland!
pleasantries of the welcome address, video footage of the race Frank Greally
conducted the much-awaited interview with the man synonymous all over
the world with the sub four-minute mile.
Things progressed somewhat after that without any startling results. The spring of 1947 was R.B first chance to represent Oxford on the track. The occasion was a trial race to select the third string for the team. The venue was the inspiring White City stadium even though there was only a handful of diehard spectators present. R.B. managed to win with consummate ease in 4 min 30.8 sec and from that moment on realised that he could develop this newly found talent. An immense immersion of anything athletic followed with a clear direction to nurture and further his athletic ability. With reflection the times spent at Oxford were relaxed, enjoyable and fulfilling.
Athletes regardless of ability all share the same common preoccupation of being interested in someone elses training, their times, ideas and suggestions. The methological practices of medicine naturally had some influence on his training. Often training on grass which reduced the chances of injury and when serious was training 5 or 6 times a week. What a contrast to the twice a day rigors of today's elite performers! Even when compared with the other British athletes of the day the intensity was still deemed relatively light. As he was focusing on the 1500m R.B reasoned that long slow distance didn't have a part to play, specificity was the key. Be specific in your training, for your event. Training was handled in much the same way as his profession, with precision. Franz Stampfl of Austria who coached R.B, Chataway and Brasher was an early advocate of interval training and consequently there was a lot of pyramid and grass work. Time was limited due to his medical studies and so quality was paramount in everything that he did. Sports Science today plays an influential role with psychologists aiding performances through mind techniques. All those years ago R.B was equally adept about tuning the mind towards training and performance. He realised that internal feelings were fundamental to performance in that if you perceived that you were tired the next day following training that you had over done it but not necessarily so. The mind must be trained just like the body. R.B's acuteness towards training was never more evident in a time trial at Motspur Park 10 days before the 1954 Helsinki Olympics. With each lap faster than the previous one- 58.5, 57.5 and 56.9 the ¾ mile was completed in 2min. 52.9 sec! This was nearly four seconds faster than the unofficial world record of 2 min. 56.6 sec. set by Arne Andersson.
With training going as planned the 1954 Olympics beckoned four years after declining to compete in the 1948 Olympics after considering himself too young for such an occasion. The Olympics culminated with R.B finishing 4th behind Barthel of Luxembourg and breaking the Olympic record in the process. However things could have been a little different. Due to the number of competitors there had to be heats, semi-final and a final. With the specific training R.B had logged there was nothing in hand for another race; these circumstances would undoubtedly favour the athlete who had incorporated volume into their training. After the games there was the natural press reaction criticising his training methods and there was the natural emotion of being very angry and upset.
After a while
things settled down and the focus was next on the eclipsing of the magical
4-minute barrier. The Australian John Landy had recorded 4.02 and he generated
the drive, the 4-minute target came into view. Naturally with a two way
scenario there are two camps, the possible and the not possible. After
recording 4.02 Landy had influenced many people by saying that it was
insurmountable, it was clear that he was beginning to lose heart. Now
was the critical stage of the interview as the focus was on the day that
changed the distance forever and the life of R.B.
Regardless of the sport there has always been intense rivalries, Coe and Ovett, Hearns and Leonard, Borg and McEnroe and at the 1954 Empire Games it was only ever going to be Landy and Bannister. Landy had recently eclipsed the 4-minute barrier breaking the record in the process with 3 min. 58 sec. The week leading to the Games R.B felt a sense of destiny after the disappointment at the Olympics and he believed that all would be ok if Landy led. This confidence emanated from the fact the in the AAA shortly beforehand he finished with a 52.4 last quarter and it was believed that Landy did not have a strong finish. The plan was to let Landy have a lead and then gradually tow him in, which actually worked. With R.B catching Landy at the bell the two were twenty yards ahead of the rest of the field. The 1500m mark was passed in 1/10 sec. outside Landy's world record for that distance. As they both entered the straight through anxiety Landy quickly glanced inwards to see the position of R.B and at that precise moment the monumental move was made. A win by five yards in 3 min. 58.8 was another sub four-minute mile with the last lap being one of the most thrilling and intense moments of his life. In a field of eight runners Northern Ireland had representation in Victor Milligan finishing a distinguished 4th in 4 min. 5 sec, 0.4 behind the bronze medal.
With a lifetimes
involvement in athletics it was interesting to hear of R.B's favourite
athletes. He regarded New Zealand's Jack Lovelock and Great Britain's
Sydney Wooderson both former world record holders for the mile as being
excellent. He also regarded Herb Elliott as being a natural talent. Off
course the British 'Holy Trinity' of Coe, Ovett and Cram were mentioned
were success was propelled by their intense rivalry. R.B mentioned that
the training of Steve Ovett was not too indifferent to that of his own,
quality was the main similarity but in Ovetts case the volume was much
greater. He also admired Ovett for his elegance and strong physique. For
Sebastian Coe victorious in two consecutive Olympic Games over 1500m is
something unique and his relentless pursuit of excellence was driven by
his severe training regime. There was praise reserved too for Ronnie Delaney
who in covering the last 300m in 38.63 clenched the Olympic 1500m title
in 1956. Of the modern crop of elite milers R.B. holds El Guerrouji in
very high esteem and my goodness rightly so.
by Keith McClure
To watch a video of the full race - Click Here