Fab five: mile races
Ahead of the Bowerman Mile on Sunday, which provides one of the traditional highlights of the annual Prefontaine Classic IAAF Diamond League meeting in Eugene, we identify five unforgettable races over the classic distance.
1954 – Oxford, England
Roger Bannister’s world mile record may have only lasted a mere 46 days but his place in history is assured after becoming the first man to run a sub-four-minute mile at the Iffley Road track in Oxford.
One year after Sir Edmund Hillary became the first man to climb Mt Everest, Bannister, an Oxford medical student, scaled sport’s own version of the famous Himalayan peak by running 3:59.4.
Paced to perfection by Chris Chataway and future Olympic steeplechase champion Chris Brasher, Bannister came home with a 59-second final lap to take the world record and achieve what many had believed to be an impossible barrier.
1954 – Commonwealth Games – Vancouver, Canada
One of the most eagerly anticipated mile clashes in history pitched Roger Bannister, who earlier that year became the first man to crack the four-minute barrier, up against Australian John Landy who six-and-half weeks later surpassed the Briton’s world record time by 1.4 seconds.
In the race which became known as “The Miracle Mile”, the front-running Landy built up a near 15-metre lead only for Bannister to slowly reel in the tiring Australian.
On the final bend Landy momentarily glanced inwards over his opposite shoulder to check his position only for Bannister to sweep past him on his outside at that precise moment. The Englishman secured gold in 3:58.8 – 0.8 clear of his Australian rival – in what was the first mile race in history in which two men smashed through the four-minute barrier.
1971 – Martin Luther King Jr Freedom Games - Philadelphia
Dubbed ‘the Dream Mile’, the all-American showdown between world record-holder Jim Ryun and the brash younger upstart Marty Liquori captured the attention of the global athletics community.
In their previous showdown two years earlier, Ryun had walked off the track after two laps branding it “a mental breakdown.” The first decisive move of the race came down the back stretch on the penultimate lap when Liquori swept past Ryun into the lead. On the final bend Ryun moved on to the shoulder of the leader but in a titanic tussle to the line he could not quite forge a way past the stubborn Liquori, who held on for a narrow win. Both men were credited with 3:54.6.
1975 – International Meet - Gothenburg
It may not quite hold the same mystic as the first sub-four-minute mile but John Walker becoming the first human to run a sub-3:50 mile was, nonetheless, a supreme achievement.
In Gothenburg – despite far from perfect pace-making – the long-haired New Zealander destroyed the previous world record of long-time rival Filbert Bayi of Tanzania by 1.6 seconds. Motoring home with a 55.9 final lap, he recorded the landmark time of 3:49.4.
The following year Walker landed Olympic 1500m gold in Montreal but he later said of his world record performance: “I felt I could not have run a more perfect race.”
1999 – Golden Gala – Rome
World records are frequently solo affairs with one man running against the clock but one very special race in the Eternal City witnessed not one but two men dip under the previous world record in a unforgettable head-to-head showdown.
Set up as a world record attempt for Hicham El Guerrouj, the race had gone to plan in the sense that the Moroccan was on target at the bell only to unexpectedly still have company in the shape of wiry Kenyan Noah Ngeny.
In a dramatic finale, Ngeny moved on to El Guerrouj’s shoulder and threatened to hit the front only for the Moroccan maestro to respond over the final 30 metres and cross the line in a world record time 3:43.13 – some 0.37 clear of Ngeny.
Next week the race celebrates its 20th anniversary and the two times remain the two fastest in history for the mile distance.
Steve Landells for the IAAF