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An Evening in May: An alumnus' eyewitness account of Roger Bannister's 4-minute mile

photo of Roger Shakeshaft surrounded by garden plants

Roger Shakeshaft

  • Alumnus, 1953
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Alumnus Roger Shakeshaft (1953) and Roger Pinnington (1953) - both members of the Lincoln running team - were among some 20 Lincoln students at Iffley Road track on the historic evening when Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile on 6 May 1954. Both men are to attend the 70th anniversary celebration weekend on 5-6 May 2024. In addition to Roger's blog and moving poem below, we highly recommend reading his colourful eyewitness account of the excitement of the day in his article, An Evening Fixture in May.

Roger writes:

Most of the great moments in sport over the last hundred years required three restrictions on the part of any individual who was lucky enough to be present at that occasion, including:

  • a sacrifice of time: hours, days, weeks have to be set aside in order to be at the precise venue at the precise time
  • financial consideration: entrance to arenas, courts, grounds can set one back hundreds, thousands of pounds at present day values – never mind travelling and food.
  • barrier restrictions: the spectator at such an event would never, almost certainly, be allowed to ‘rush onto the pitch’ to congratulate the winner or winners.

But at Oxford that evening, seventy years ago, all these restrictions were swept aside as:

  • the fixture, timed at 5pm to 7pm on a May evening, sandwiched between tea and dinner, is unlikely to intrude into any student’s or member of the public’s work schedule
  • apart from paying sixpence for a programme at the gate, there was no opportunity to spend any more money on food or drinks; and most, anyway, came by foot or by bicycle.
  • there were no marshals at the ground; the runners swept past me four times, almost within touching distance. Many in the crowd rushed onto the central reservation, no doubt some offering handshakes to the victors. At no stage was there concern about safety, or even improper behaviour.

Quite simply, this momentous event hardly intruded in the day’s routine, cost practically nothing, but what’s more it took place in our own ‘back yard’.

The difference between success and failure was just three-fifths of a second;  it was a rapturous experience, and that’s the only way I could describe it (and still do), to have been there, when, for a brief period, Oxford was at the centre of the world.

THE IMPERIOUS MILE

Come, join the cavalcade of cyclists down the High,

Early May, at Oxford, nineteen fifty-four;

We leave our college quads spurred by  this simple cry:

“Roger Bannister is knocking at our door”.

 

Cross at Magdalen Bridge and follow round.

We are propelled, the wind is at our back,

To reach the Iffley Road Athletics Ground

Which has a bona-fide running track.

 

Three  Achilles meet; a target -  theirs  to snatch.

One of them to run four circuits on the track

Against the second hand’s four circuits of a watch.

Something that the record books still lack.

 

The wind is going to be a problem, though.

Saint George’s flag flies from the church nearby;

All day it’s had a thorough testing blow.

While there is wind, there’ll be no record try.

 

Saint George is both sentinel and signaller;

His English sons are under his command.

With minutes left, the sign could not be clearer-

The standard drops – execute the plan in hand.

 

The plan is simple – four laps at an even pace,

With Brasher pacing at laps one and two;

And Chataway taking the third lap of the race;

Leaving Bannister to do what he can do.

 

With two saints Christopher, a glory route to forge

Cry “God for England, Roger and Saint George”.

 

A false start from Brasher, in the interim

No harm done - helps boost the adrenalin.

 

The crowd of several hundred cognoscenti

Feel the burden of those waiting years;

Chances like tonight are far from plenty;

All the more reason to bolster our cheers.

 

Fifty- seven point five, at the quarter;

Is this good or is this bad? Who can say?

People are confused; time‘s not what it aught-er;

But, keep on shouting - on your feet, come what may.

 

One fifty-eight point two at the half – looks good;

Brasher has done well – Chataway takes the lead,

Beyond his best, but pushing, as he should.

“Go on” the crowd shouts; must not lose the speed.

 

The watchman calls “Three minutes and a bit”,

When Bannister is greeted by the bell.

Time stood still; we question: “Is this it?”

The crowd decides: “It is” and starts to yell.

 

Chataway grimly paces to the bend

Where Bannister, now free, starts his stride for glory;

The crowd , united in the message that they send:

“Go on, go on, go on”: repeat this simple story.

 

His adversary, the watch’s sweeping hand,

Is ruthless, chasing like the reaper’s scythe;

But, this stage, carefully, has been planned.

The hope of triumph, still, is very much alive.

 

Unbroken is his unrelenting stride;

He breasts the tape while several  watches click.

A final act - his arms are open wide;

After all these years – has he done the trick?

 

Norris McWhirter of the Guiness Record Book,

Agent, friend, chauffer, coach, official? - or not?

Declaims the result, whatever it  took;

And spins it out with whatever he’s got.

 

We’d no idea what his plan would be;

When it came to times all we heard was “THREE”.

 

The crowd went wild, showing no restraint

Grown men waived and jumped up in the air

Like anything we’ve met before, it surely ain’t

Oxford, centre of the world…. and we were there!

 

Fated, we thank the gods for Iffley Meadow

And I can claim: “Et in arcadia ego”

 

 - by Roger Shakeshaft. March 2024