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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"I don't know," said Morceli, all smiles and shrugs. "I have no plans."

"Will you be involved in some kind of coaching?"

"Probably, yes," said Morceli, grateful for the help. "Some kind of coaching."

In the press box above the Iffley Road track, someone asked Cram—the 32-year-old who lowered the record to 3:46.32 in 1985 and recently launched his comeback from a chronic calf injury—what he and the other record holders shared. Cram thought before he spoke, for this forum was no place for pikers. At the previous day's press conference, playing toss-and-catch with the question of how much faster a human being might run a mile, the neurologist Bannister discussed the "genetic variants" that athletes from China and India would bring to the chase, the physiologist Snell discoursed on the body's "ability to transfer oxygen across lung membrane," the Puma Australia managing director Elliott noted that the "interface between the mind and the spirit and the body" was a facet of human potential so little tapped that astonishing improvements might yet be made, and the International Herald Tribune writer Ian Thomsen concluded that there was more intelligence in that one group than in all of the football locker rooms in America.

"Lineage," Cram finally said. "The men here today are part of a unique lineage." A lineage cleaner, perhaps, than any other devised by mankind, neater certainly than that of kings, who were continually muddying things by fathering imbeciles or bedding with the barren, or that of heavyweights, who in the twilights of their careers were prone to pass their crowns to bums. There were no split decisions to be argued or myopic judging to be rued. Switzerland's finest watches kept score, and no man could claim the throne until he had surpassed the performance of his predecessor on his predecessor's best day.

Next stop for the pilgrims was Vincents Club, the fabled enclave where Oxford athletes have drunk and debated for more than a hundred years, where former Australian prime minister Robert Hawke set the world record for downing a yard of ale, in 16 seconds, where Sir Roger himself was president during his college days and where some of the nicks in the photograph-covered walls are attributed to the celebration of his record mile. Bannister, his eloquence ever ready to combust, delivered a speech. A room jammed with old and new Oxford sportsmen toasted him with champagne and applause, and the Tanzanian army captain, Bayi, juggling his one-year-old and his glass, watched with wonder and a little sadness. "Other countries honor their history so much more than mine does," he said. "In Tanzania I am no one. Maybe one day people will understand. That will be maybe when I die."

In a private dining room awaiting the milers at the nearby Randolph Hotel, the commemorative menus lying upon the tables caught John Walker's eye. Plucking one, the New Zealand rancher began moving quietly from table to table, asking each of the record holders to grace the menu with his signature. Even with his three-inch pinch of midsection, Walker still radiated the air of a rugby player over a pint of black and tan. Of all the milers he still seemed the readiest to go out on the sidewalk and outrun anyone who dared to try him. If Walker was saying, "Sorry, Roger, but can I bother you for an autograph? ... Sorry, Herb, but...," then who, in this most exclusive of clubs, could feign to be above it?

And so the free-for-all began in earnest, the greats bustling from table to table to collect each other's scribble before the potatoes and vegetables were ladled, Sir Roger begging to bother Morceli, Morceli begging to bother Elliott, and on and on and on.

"John," said Bayi, blinking at Walker, "we've never done this before."

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime event, Filbert," said John.

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