Mile legend Bannister attends Olympic 1,500 final
LONDON — Roger Bannister will forever be remembered for four laps around the track.
So it was fitting that the first man to break the four-minute mile 58 years ago was front and center in the Olympic Stadium on Tuesday night to watch the men's 1,500 meters, known as the metric mile.
"I feel I never really left," the 83-year-old Bannister told The Associated Press after seeing Algeria's Taoufik Makhloufi break away down the stretch to take the Olympic gold medal, the one prize he never collected.
Sitting with him on this special night was Sebastian Coe, the former two-time Olympic champion in the 1,500 and head organizer of the London Games.
"Of all the people that I knew had to be in that stadium on the night of the 1,500 meters, it had to be Roger Bannister," Coe said. "It was one of my dreams come true. He is the senior partner of the milers."
Also rushing over to pay his respects was Hicham El Guerrouj, the former Olympic champion who still holds the world records in the 1,500 and the mile.
"He's my hero," the Moroccan said. "He's our spiritual father in the 1,500 and the mile."
There they were, three generations of middle-distance greats, all in the same room.
Bannister ran in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, finishing a disappointing fourth in the 1,500, a race many expected him to win. It was that failure that pushed him to continue running and chase the four-minute milestone, a barrier that some thought was physically impossible.
On a windy late afternoon in Oxford on May 6, 1954, Bannister covered four laps on a cinder track in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds, an achievement that still stands as one of the seminal moments in track history.
On Tuesday, the Oxford-educated neurologist sat in the stands for the evening session that included the women's 100-meter hurdles final and women's 200-meter heats. He was then invited to join Coe in the Olympic family seats for the 1,500.
Accompanied by his daughter Erin, Bannister walked with a cane and leaned on the arm of an assistant.
Greeted warmly by Coe, they sat together and chatted animatedly as the runners ran a slow pace. They rose to their feet with the rest of the crowd as Makhloufi sprinted away to win in 3 minutes, 34.08 seconds.
Bannister dissected the race liked the tactician on the track he once was himself.
"'I mean it was faster than the heats and semifinals, which were very disappointingly bunched up," he said. "It was wonderful to see the move at 300 meters from the end, boldly fighting off any possibility of a threat. It was a great race. 3:34."
Said Coe: "Everything with Roger is very analytical: 'Why on earth has he done that?'"
The time was slow by today's standards. Guerrouj's world record, set in 1998, is 3:26.00. Noah Ngeny's Olympic record is 3:32.07. Coe was quick to point out that Tuesday's time was far off his previous Olympic record of 3:32:53, set at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
"It's very unusual to get world records broken when there are 12 runners," Bannister said. "The concern today is to win the race. The time is purely secondary. If the time becomes too slow, them its disappointing for everyone. So this was just about in between."
Bannister shattered an ankle in a car accident in 1975 and has been unable to run since then. He had a distinguished 40-year medical career since retiring after the 1954 Empire Games and was knighted in 1975.
Last month, Bannister carried the Olympic torch on the same Oxford track where he broke four minutes. Many had considered him the favorite to light the cauldron at the opening ceremony, but that honor went to seven teenage athletes.
Tuesday's appearance at the Olympic track won't be his last.
Bannister will be back Friday for the women's 1,500.
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