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Teddy Hall Relays

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Andy Baddeley
Baddeley - milers continue to be inspired by Bannister's achievement

 

23 March 2009

Article by Ed Warner 

Twenty-five years ago as an aspiring student journalist I penned a feature for Cherwell, Oxford’s university newspaper, to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Roger Bannister’s four minute mile at the city’s Iffley Road track. The cutting is still in a bundle somewhere in my attic. 

Last week I was delighted to be invited to lead a toast to Sir Roger ahead of his 80th birthday at the traditional tea following the annual Teddy Hall Relays. It was a great privilege, not least because his feat resonates as loudly today as it did for me on that earlier anniversary a quarter of a century ago.

Very few sporting achievements have such enduring appeal, capable of igniting interest even in those – like me – who weren’t even born when they were inked into the record books. The iconic status of Sir Roger’s run has been subject to much examination over the years. The symmetry of four laps in four minutes captured imaginations at the time; the details of the assault on the ‘barrier’ constituted the seeds of sporting folklore.

One of the joys of athletics is, in its innate simplicity, that anyone can imagine what it would be like to emulate the feats of the greatest athletes. Each leg of the Teddy Hall Relays starts and ends on the Iffley Road track. Each runner, if they chose, could conceive of what it would take to circle that track four times in as many minutes – still out of reach for the vast majority today.

There are not many athletics barriers that remain to be broken. Records will always be there to be extended, but it is hard to conceive of many markers that have the potential to engage the public in quite the same way as the four minute mile did.

In time, however, it is possible that the world’s athletes might approach a couple of apparent barriers that, if broken, would have the potential to reset physiologists’ understanding of human capability. I have in mind a two hour marathon for men and a ten second 100 meters for women.

Both are still a long way off. However, the marathon record continues to edge downwards – now below 2:04 – and the progression by male sprinters in recent years holds out hope that at some point women might begin to challenge the times of the 1980s (truly a different era in all sorts of ways).

The drugs scandals of the modern age have tainted so many achievements in athletics, so that it is important to remember our sport’s potential to fire imaginations through honest, extraordinary attainment. It is the Roger Bannisters, not those who take short cuts to ‘success’, who will live longest in the collective memory.