Roger Bannister and Guto Nyth Brân

The distinguished historian Mary Beard celebrated the breaking of the four minute mile barrier by Roger Bannister, sixty years ago

The race took place on the 6th May 1954. Writing how times have changed, Beard gently points to the social message in the mythologised race:

For the few months before the big event he practised at weekends too with Brasher and Chataway, and took advice from Brasher’s coach – often over baked beans on toast at a Lyons Corner House. As for his equipment, just the day before the race he was found sharpening his running spikes on a grindstone in the lab.

So-called “effortless superiority” is rarely as “effortless” as it pretends to be. It wasn’t all do-it-yourself preparation on the lab grindstone. [Bannister] himself explains that he had some super-light running shoes specially made (4oz rather than 6oz per shoe – enough, he reckoned, to make all the difference between coming in under four minutes and not).

But the most disconcerting side of the Iffley Road race is its glaring display of class division. Sport is well known to reflect, or to reinforce, social, cultural and political hierarchies. The mile event was part of a bigger competition between Oxford University and the national Amateur Athletics Association. Although we only ever see photographs of Bannister, Brasher and Chataway.

Tom Hulatt, from a local athletics club in Derbyshire finished third behind Chataway. Hulatt worked in the local colliery near Tibshelf, and had a rat-catching business on the side. His training was largely running the five miles to and from work. Afterwards, the Oxford students presumably went back to their colleges, the Bannister trio went celebrating and clubbing in London, Hulatt got his programme signed by Bannister, Brasher and Chataway and took the train back to Derbyshire. I doubt that, outside his home village, Hulatt who died in 1990, will be a big part in our commemoration of the mile-record of 1954. Rightly, perhaps, the moment will belong to Bannister.

Counter claims from North Korea …

A charming piece with a gentle social message. But I await the claims from North Korea for the achievements of their great champion and leader which have not been reported in the Western media.

…and from South Wales

Mention should also be made of the folk hero Guto Nyth Brân from my own little village in South Wales, where Guto’s feats have become famous in poetry and song. Every New Year’s eve, a race is run in his honour.

Guto was a man of the people who was said could run seven miles, from his farm in the hills to Pontypridd and back, before his mother’s kettle had boiled.

Difficult to translate into modern time-keeping and tea-making technologies and race distances of course.

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