Peter FitzSimons revisits a story he wrote 20 years ago.
By Peter FitzSimons, Sydney Morning Herald
The ”Race of the Century” was 60 years ago on Thursday.
But already we’re a little ahead of ourselves. For you see, a little over three months before that, our own great distance runner of the time, John Landy, was in the Finland city of Turku for a meet when a local comes up.
”Have you heard the news?” he asks.
”No,” Landy replies. ”What news?”
”Roger Bannister has broken the four-minute mile. He’s done three minutes 59.4 seconds.”
”I was amazed, really,” the man himself told me nigh on 20 years ago when I interviewed him to do a story for this paper. ”I just couldn’t quite believe that Bannister had managed to lop as much as two seconds off the record in just the one race.”
He went on to explain how, at the time, the four-minute mile almost felt ”like a barrier, a limit, which we thought exceedingly difficult to break. If the record of four minutes one second was going to be lowered, we thought it would only go down by a 10th of a second or so at a time.”
But now Bannister had proved it was possible, the softly spoken, gentle Australian had a kind of mental brake removed, and after he finished his own mile race in Turku a few weeks later, excited Finnish officials and athletes are crowding around him, yelling, laughing, clapping him on the back. They keep saying something: ”Ricodda?” ”Ricoad?” ”Ricod?” ”Record?”
Record. RECORD! The World Record to be precise.
And the new … heavyweight champeen of the mile distance race … in a time of three minutes 57.9 seconds … John … LANDY!
Not only has Landy broken the four-minute-mile mark, he’s also broken Bannister’s mark by over a second.
The athletics world is on fire, and all the more so because the stage is now set, at nothing less than the Empire Games in Vancouver in six weeks’ time, for the ”Race of the Century” to take place.
It has everything: the two best milers in the world – an Oxford-educated Englishman and a laconic Australian – both of whom had recently lowered the world record and broken the four-minute barrier, running for their countries in a prestige event.
A fortnight before the Games began, Landy is running around the track in Vancouver when, late in the afternoon, he notices a couple of athletic-looking fellows who look rather familiar by the oval on the far side. As he finishes, they are there.
”John, how are you?” asks Chris Chataway, an English miler he knows, with proffered hand.
”May I introduce you to Roger Bannister?”
They all chat, the two record-breakers complimenting each other on their achievements.
”You see,” Landy said, ”back then there wasn’t much of this thing they call ‘gamesmanship’. You met, you raced, you got on with it.”
They get on with it!
Raaaaaaacing now in front of a roaring capacity crowd at Vancouver’s Empire Stadium on a brilliantly sunny day.
Our John takes the lead in the early stages, just as expected. Bannister is known to have a kick at the end that would kill a brown dog, so he must break him early.
”I knew,” he recalled to me, ”if he was still with me when the bell went for the final lap, with his fast finish I’d be in a bit of trouble.”
Funny he should say that.
For with that bell, Bannister is a bare three yards behind as the crowd comes to its feet as one, screaming.
With 250 yards left, just before going into the final turn, Landy can’t shake him.
Andrew Marvell might have once written To His Coy Mistress, ”But at my back I always hear, Time’s winged chariot hurrying near”, but Landy can hear Bannister.
”I was starting to lose my legs, they were just beginning to feel a bit rubbery.”
But there is no easing back now.
”Just on the opener to that last corner I could see a few of my fellow Australians, shot-putters and high-jumpers and so forth, and they were waving their fists around and yelling at me, ‘Go mate!’ ‘Go mate!’ ‘You’ve got him, you’ve got him!’ ‘You can do it, mate!’ this sort of thing, you see. It was very encouraging and I sort of felt heartened.”
And there is one other particularly encouraging thing. The shadows.
For even as Landy powers into that last turn, he monitors the position of his own shadow vis a vis that of Bannister’s, and is satisfied to see his own shadow gradually pulling ahead. You beaut, and only 200 yards to glory.
Though his legs are heavy, he is feeling wonderful and all the more so, 75 yards out, to see Bannister’s shadow is no longer there – forgetting of course that the sun is now on their chests and so no shadow can show.
He decided to have a quick look to his left.
”It was a look of hope,” he told me. ”Hope that I would see him about 15 yards behind me on the inside curve.”
But he isn’t there, he isn’t there! That can only mean …
In a wretched twist of fate, not only had Bannister been in fact just marginally behind him on the right, but he had chosen that exact moment to make his charge.
Dr Bannister would write later in his book, The First Four Minutes: ”The moment he looked around he was unprotected against me, and so lost a valuable fraction of a second in his response to my challenge. In two strides I was past him with 70 yards to go …”
And goes on to win the race.
Never mind. Both men went on to live happily ever after, Bannister being a knighted neurologist and John Landy being a businessman and then governor of Victoria. These days – now in their mid-80s – they are both still going strong. Ish.
A race from a time long gone. Sixty years ago, today.
Bravo to both.
Peter FitzSimons is exclusively managed by The Fordham Company.