SEBASTIAN COE: I'll say it—why not? We are members of one of the most exclusive clubs in the world.
Dawn. Damp. Cool. Windy. Herb Elliott was sitting on his bed, eyes shut, mind quiet, body still. He was meditating. Jim Ryun, the world-record holder from 1966 to 75, was rousing his four children. Noureddine Morceli, the current king, was dropping to his knees, facing Mecca, murmuring his prayers. Bayi, who reigned briefly in 1975, was cooing to his fourth-born, one-year-old Cuthbert. John Walker, who dethroned Bayi and ruled until 1979, was sleeping like a stone.
The bus awaited them outside the Grosvenor House Hotel. Soon it would take them to the Iffley Road track in Oxford, where 40 years ago—on a day not unlike this one—England's Roger Bannister astonished the world by running the first sub-four-minute mile. Four minutes was a barrier that had withstood decades of human yearning and anguish, a figure that seemed so perfectly round—four laps, four quarter miles, four-point-oh-oh minutes—that it seemed God himself had established it as man's limit, posted it as one quiet, subtle proof of Order against the howl of two world wars. The spectacle was seen by Americans watching their first televisions, by young lovers and ancients entering theaters around the world. At the time it seemed as improbable as...well, as 14 of the world's 16 living mile-record holders coming from Algeria, Australia, England, France, New Zealand, Sweden, Tanzania and the U.S. to celebrate it four decades later.
George Dole, a Massachusetts minister in the Swedenborgian Church who was invited to join this pilgrimage—he was one of the six runners who ran in Bannister's epic mile—climbed onto the bus before any of the record holders, full of the knowledge that perhaps no other sport had ever gathered so much of its greatness in one time and place. "Imagine," Dole said, his voice husky with reverence. "Imagine how many gallons of sweat these men represent."
Two would fail to show. Guilder Hägg, the Swede who three times set the mile record (4:06.2, 4:04.6, 4:01.4) during World War II, had not come because he was 75 years old and too wearied by life for the journey. Steve Ovett, the Brit who set mile records in 1980 and '81 and now lodges guests in a renovated mansion in Annan, Scotland, had not come either, officially because he was on holiday but mostly, several who knew him said, because he is Steve Ovett. "Pathetic," growled one of the record holders. "He cheated us all," seethed another.
Slowly the bus began to fill: Michel Jazy, the 57-year-old Frenchman who held the record from mid-1965 to mid-'66, now retired from promotional work with Perrier and Adidas but still the boulevardier in his snazzy mustard-yellow sport coat. Arne Andersson, the 76-year-old retired Swedish schoolteacher who broke the record three times during World War II, in a red, yellow and blue Reebok pullover. Bayi, the 40-year-old Tanzanian, in the blue-and-gold native robe that his wife had crafted, clutching his one-year-old. Ryun, the 47-year-old Kansan, in a preppy plaid sweater vest, his children and wife in tow. Walker, the 42-year-old New Zealander, in sneakers, jeans and a sweatshirt. Morceli, the 24-year-old Algerian, in a mod green-and-purple hooded jumpsuit. Cram, Elliott, Ibbotson, Landy, Snell.... Slowly, too slowly, they boarded, now a half hour past their scheduled departure time. "My god," remarked Elliott, "for world-record holders in the mile, they sure are bloody late."
BANNISTER: Each runner worries the others. The anxiety of being pressed and jostled increases; soon it will become too much for someone, and he will make an effort to break away from the field. It is this controlled tension about to break down that gives miling its great excitement. It seems to present a perfect test of judgment, speed and stamina.
LANDY: Almost every part of the mile is tactically important—you can never let down, never stop thinking, and you can be beaten at almost any point. I suppose you could say it is like life.
COE: Blink and you miss a sprint. The 10,000 meters is lap after lap of waiting. Theatrically, the mile is just the right length—beginning, middle, end, a story unfolding.
WALKER: The 800-meter record, the records in the 1,000. the 1,500, the 5,000, the relays—no one remembers them. The mile, they remember. Only the mile.