SI Vault
Gary Smith
June 27, 1994
Forty years after Roger Bannister broke four minutes, the brotherhood of mile record holders gathered to honor their grand obsession
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June 27, 1994

An Exclusive Club

Forty years after Roger Bannister broke four minutes, the brotherhood of mile record holders gathered to honor their grand obsession

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"All for charity!"

"Miters!" wailed the organizer of the affair, Tony Ward. In just over an hour, 730 people in formal attire would begin entering the Great Room at the Grosvenor House for the gala dinner, and Ward needed to brief the record holders on the evening's schedule of events. But now the autograph seeking had become a raging fever. Now all the milers had stacks of the commemorative dinner programs to exchange and sign.

Ibbotson had spent the previous evening with a straight-edge and 12 pieces of paper, etching 14 rectangles on each page, with each record holder's name and time inside a rectangle to be autographed. "One complete set for each of my children, my grandchildren, my mother-in-law, father-in-law...."

Ward threw up his arms. "My god," he said, "they're like schoolchildren!"

Coe, finally freed from his duties as a second-year member of the British Parliament, had joined the group—nobody had his signature yet! With the look in his eyes of a startled deer, he sagged into a chair as his brothers in the club fell upon him, and then he caught the infection too. Sydney Wooderson of England, the world's oldest living mile-record holder (4:06.4 in 1937), three months shy of 80, walked ever so slowly into the room, bringing the milers' ranks to 14. "I just can't believe how old I am," Wooderson said, shaking his head. "I just can't believe it." Elliott and Ryun went off to a quiet corner to discuss God.

Finally, after the clan had posed for the official photograph and laid plans for re-gathering later in the night to cross-sign personal copies of the photo as well, they plunged into the cocktail-sipping crowd. John Walker sighed. "Just watch what's going to happen," he said. "Seven hundred and thirty sons of bitches trying to get our autographs."

Yes, it was that, but mostly it was 730 people laughing, cheering, glowing. The big screen showed old footage of the milers breaking and rebreaking the record, one after the other, somehow building in the Great Room a cumulative power, a feeling that there was nothing not possible for humanity as long as it kept producing individuals like the 14 being honored. "Everywhere I looked all night," said Coe, "all I saw were people wearing broad grins. It was like a huge family coming together. It was the greatest sports gathering I have ever been to."

Everyone hushed when it was Bannister's turn to speak. "Old men, they say, forget," said Sir Roger. "It's true we forget the pain and the fatigue and lashing yourself to try harder next time and next, illness and injury, real and perhaps sometimes imagined, the castigations of the press and coaches—all these fade away, because memory is kind. We remember the good times, the sun on our backs, running through the beauty of the countryside, running thousands and thousands of miles. We remember laughter and friends. For us, no matter what life may bring, whatever subsequent shadows there may be, no one can strip us of these memories."

In chronological order of their achievements, each to a standing ovation, the record holders walked to the stage and shook the hands of those who had preceded them, who had pushed them to discover something wondrous in themselves. Fourteen men who had split off from the road, gone off on solitary missions, now part of a team.

"Total kinship," said Elliott. "That's what I felt up there."

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