Competition is the key in sports

Peter Radford, Olympic medallist and former chairman of the British Athletics Federation, wrote that before Roger Bannister, men like James Parrott, and later Powell and Weller also conceivably ran the mile in under four minutes but they are not celebrated because they did it for money.

On May 6, 1954 at the Iffley Road track at Oxford, Roger Bannister became the first man in history to run the sub-four minute mile when he clocked 3 minutes 59.4 seconds.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

Mathematicians cannot tell us what the largest prime number is, only what the largest known is — the difference is important. But in sport, we don’t shrink from calling someone the fastest man or highest jumper. This is a matter we cannot possibly be certain of.

A moment’s thought should tell us that there may be men who run the 100 metres in under Usain Bolt’s 9.58, but not in competition, and perhaps in regions not easily accessed.

Claims about so-and-so being the first man to break a barrier have always caused some scepticism simply because the parameters are seldom laid out. In the case of Roger Bannister, for example, officially the first man to break the four-minute barrier in the mile, what we are really saying is that he is “possibly the first amateur to run the mile in under four minutes before cameramen and with the aid of pacesetters”.

This is no disrespect to Dr. Bannister, but we wouldn’t know if someone in another part of the world ran an unrecorded race that met the above conditions.

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It is entirely possible that the first man to run the mile in under four minutes was a Briton named James Parrott in the 18th century, some 180 years before Bannister ran it on Oxford’s Iffley Road in May 1954. “The technology existed to measure Parrott’s distance and time to the necessary accuracy,” wrote Peter Radford, Olympic medallist and former chairman of the British Athletics Federation.

Writing in The Guardian he said that men like Parrott, and later Powell and Weller also conceivably ran the distance in under four minutes but they are not celebrated because they did it for money.

The Australian John Landy, the second man to run the mile in under four minutes, said in an interview later that he would have done it himself, without the aid of pacesetters since he never saw it as a team business. Bannister and Landy ran some memorable races, in particular the one at the Commonwealth Games (then known as the Empire Games) in Vancouver, where Landy, who was leading turned to check for Bannister over his left shoulder and found the Briton overtaking him from his right. Both finished in under four minutes.

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In his book The First Four Minutes, Bannister paid his rival a handsome tribute. “He is the sort of runner I could never become,” he wrote, “At Vancouver he had the courage to lead at the same speed in a closely competitive race. His boldness caused me to abandon my time schedule and lose myself quite completely in the struggle itself. After this experience I felt that I could never be interested again in record-breaking without the thrill of competitive struggle.”

When Eliud Kipchoge broke the two-hour barrier for the marathon, it was not recognised as a world record. It was symbolic, Kipchoge showed us it could be done. But it was not run in open marathon conditions in competition, and he had pacesetters. Competition is the key.