The art of running the mile consists, in essence, of reaching the threshold of unconsciousness at the instant of breasting the tape. It is not an easy process, even in a set-piece race against time, for the body rebels against such agonizing usage and must be disciplined by the spirit and the mind. It is infinitely more difficult in the amphitheater of competition, for then the runner must remain alert and cunning despite the fogs of fatigue and pain; his instinctive calculation of pace must encompass maneuvers for position, and he must harbor strength to answer the moves of other men before expending his last reserves in the war of the homestretch.
Few events in sport offer so ultimate a test of human courage and human will and human ability to dare and endure for the simple sake of struggle—classically run, it is a heart-stirring, throat-tightening spectacle. But the world of track has never seen anything quite to equal the Mile of the Century, which England's Dr. Roger Gilbert Bannister—the tall, pale-skinned explorer of human exhaustion who first crashed the four-minute barrier—won here on Aug. 7 from Australia's world-record holder, John Michael Landy. The world will probably not see the like again for a long, long time.
The duel of history's first four-minute milers, high point of the quadrennial British Empire & Commonwealth Games, was the most widely heralded and universally contemplated match footrace of all time. Thirty-two thousand people jostled and screamed while it was run in Vancouver's new Empire Stadium; millions followed it avidly by television. It was also the most ferociously contested of all mile events. Despite the necessity of jockeying on the early turns and of moving up in a field of six other good men, Bannister ran a blazing 3:58.8 and Landy 3:59.6. Thus for the first time two men broke four minutes in the same race. (Though far back in the ruck, four other runners finished under 4:08—Canada's Rich Ferguson in 4:04.6, Northern Ireland's Victor Milligan in 4:05 and both New Zealand's Murray Halberg and England's Ian Boyd in 4:07.2.)
Landy's world record of 3:58, set seven weeks ago in the cool Nordic twilight at Turku, Finland, still stood when the tape was broken in Vancouver. But runners are truly tested only in races with their peers. When the four-minute mile was taken out of the laboratory and tried on the battlefield, Landy was beaten, man to man, and Roger Bannister reigned once again as the giant of modern track.
Seldom has one event so completely overshadowed such a big and colorful sports carnival as this year's Empire Games. The Empire's miniature Olympics, for which Vancouver built its $2 million stadium, a bicycle velodrome and a magnificent swimming pool, would have been notable if only for the rugged, seagirt, mountain-hung beauty amidst which they were held. They were further enlivened by the sight of Vancouver's kilted, scarlet-coated Sea-fourth Highland Regiment on parade, by the presence of Britain's Field Marshal Earl Alexander of Tunis and—more exciting yet—of Queen Elizabeth's tall, handsome husband, Philip, the duke of Edinburgh.
During seven days of competition 20 of 27 games records were cracked in track and field events alone, and England, by virtue of her peerless distance runners, walked off with the lion's share of glory and served notice on the world of tremendous new strength. Canadians and U.S. tourists alike were startled at the Elizabethan rudeness with which the Englishmen (Oxonians almost to a man, and thus held to be effete) ran their opposition into the ground in races demanding stamina and bottom. They placed one-two-three in the six-mile (won by Peter Driver); one-two-three in the three-mile (won by amiable, beer-quaffing Chris Chataway, who paced Bannister in the Oxford mile); and one-two-three in the half-mile (won by Derek James Neville Johnson).
There were also alarums and sensations. Australia's bicycle team protested English tactics, was rebuffed, withdrew from competition in a scandalous huff, cooled off and duly reentered the lists. Vancouver's world champion weightlifter, Doug Hepburn—who stands 5'8", weighs 299 pounds, measures 22 inches around the biceps and wears the look of a Terrible Turk—lifted an aggregate of 1,040 pounds with contemptuous ease while his fellow citizens watched with unsurpassed pride and glee.
Canada's big, beautiful, blonde woman shot-putter, the Toronto schoolteacher Jackie MacDonald, was barred from competition in mid-meet for publicly endorsing Orange Crush. And the big closing-day crowd in the stadium was treated to one of the most gruesome scenes in sports history after England's marathon champion, Jim Peters, entered the track a mile ahead of his field but almost completely unconscious from strain and weariness. Peters fell as he came in sight of the crowd, rose drunkenly, staggered a few steps and fell again, until he was lifted to a stretcher and thus disqualified just 220 yards short of victory.
But for all this, nothing in the games remotely approached the tension and drama inherent in the mile. The race developed, in fact, amid an atmosphere much more reminiscent of a heavyweight championship fight than a contest of amateurs on the track. This was not unjustified; it was obvious from the beginning that Bannister and Landy would be engaged in a sort of gladiatorial combat, a duel of endurance in which no two other men who ever lived could have engaged.
At first glance they seemed like an odd pair of gladiators. Like most distance men, both look frail and thin in street clothes. Landy has a mop of dark, curly hair, the startled brown eyes of a deer, a soft voice with little trace of the Australian snarl, and a curious habit of bending forward and clasping his hands before his chest when making a conversational point. As a student at Australia's Geelong Grammar School ("A Church of England school," says his father with satisfaction, "where the prefects whack the boys, y'know"), John developed a passion for the collection of butterflies and moths and an ambition to become an entomologist, which his father cured by sending him to Melbourne University to study agricultural science.