Maybe not a world famous sports venue in the eyes of the world, but definitely legendary to me and many others.
Iffley Road Stadium is the centre of Oxford University sports with facilities for many outdoor and indoor sports, but the running track, now called Roger Bannister Track, oozes with history and personalities. On 6th May 1954 there was a track meet between Oxford University and A.A.A. the Amateur Athletic Association.
Three thousand people showed up on that historic day because there was to be an attempt on the world record for the mile, which at the time was held by John Landry of Australia, 4 min.02 sec.. 25 year old Roger Bannister, a medical student and former Oxford University student and athlete, was competing for the A.A.A. team. Despite a 25 mph cross wind it was decided to go ahead. Team mates Chris Brasher and Christopher Chataway were going to help 'pace' the attempt-and more later about these supporting acts.
Brasher took the lead for the first couple of laps of the cinder track and then Chataway. Bannister strode to the front and broke the tape and collapsed into the arms of his supporters and his Austrian trainer Franz Stampfl.
It was broadcast live on BBC Radio and I was listening at home. The commentator was none other than 'Chariots of Fire' legend Harald Abrahams, winner of the 100 metres at the 1924 Paris Olympics, and later a distinguished lawyer and broadcaster, and one of my favourites.
The track announcer was Norris McWhirter and he made the dramatic post race announcement to an anxious audience.
"Ladies and gentlemen. Here is the result of Event 9, the one mile. 1st, No 41, R.B. Bannister, Amateur Athletics Association and formerly of Exeter and Merton Colleges 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 is 3.....
The rest was unheard due to the roar. It was 3 minutes 59.4 seconds. The FIRST FOUR MINUTE MILE !
Norris and his twin brother Ross were also runners and statisticians with great memories. Chataway worked for GUINNESS and introduced the twins to his boss. The result, within a year, was THE GUINNESS BOOK OF RECORDS. It soon became the world's best selling non-fiction book. in 1975 Ross was murdered by the I.R.A. A year later I met Norris at the Olympic Games in Montreal.
Bannister went to the Empire Games later in 1954 and at the Empire Stadium in Vancouver B.C. beat John Landry who had broken his record in Turku, Finland only 46 days after the Oxford race, 3.57.9. Bannister also won the 1500 metres at the European Championships in Bern, Switzerland the same year. He then retired to concentrate on his medical studies.
A larger than life statue of Landry looking over his left shoulder, as Bannister passed him on his right on the final straight, was erected at the stadium, and more recently moved to a new stadium.
He was the first ever Sports Illustrated 'Sportsman of the Year' for 1954. He later became a distinguished doctor, neuroligist, professor and Master of Pembroke College, Oxford, and was knighted. He retired in 1993. This Tuesday at the same track he carried the Olympic torch -at age 83.
Christopher Chataway became a Member of Parliament, a cabinet minister, successful broadcaster, including presenter of 'Panorama' and businessman. He won gold in Vancouver in the 3 miles and silver in Bern in the 5,000 metres to gold medalist Vladimir Kuts of USSR. Two weeks later at a Great Britain v USSR meet at White City, London he beat Kuts and broke the World Record. He was knighted in 1998 for services to aviation after success as Chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority.
Chris Brasher won the 3,000 metres steeplechase at the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia and founded the London Marathon. He was also a distinguished journalist, and sports editor of 'The Observer'. He was also a pioneer of the sport of orienteering. In October 1967 in Mexico City, a year before the Olympic Games, I was at the World featherweight title fight in the Aztec Stadium between Howard Winstone of Wales and Vincente Saldivar,
I jogged around the outside of Estadio Olympico, on the campus of UNAM, The National University, with Brasher, after the opening of the all weather track, and at the high altitude it was quite a performance- at least for me.