OXFORD, England – Roger Bannister returned to the track where he broke the 4-minute barrier for the mile 58 years ago, walking slowly but smiling broadly as he carried the Olympic torch across the finish line Tuesday just 17 days before the start of the London Games.
Bannister, 83, walked 30 yards along the track, holding the Olympic torch aloft in his left hand as hundreds cheered for a man who is an embodiment of sporting achievement in Britain.
“In a way, I’m back in the sport that I belong to,” he said. “I spent 10 years training before I broke the 4-minute mile.”
Bannister – who shattered an ankle in a car accident in 1975 and didn’t run again – put his walking cane aside and leaned on a young man to descend three stairs from the podium where the Olympic torch was lit to start the day’s relay.
He walked down the track before handing the torch to an Oxford doctoral student Nicola Byrom, who ran a lap wearing the white torchbearer uniform.
Bannister declined to wear the uniform, fueling speculation that the Oxford-educated neurologist might put on the outfit to light the cauldron at the opening ceremony July 27 in London.
Bannister is among those considered a candidate to light the cauldron.
He refused to speculate, saying he was fully focused on Tuesday’s torch relay event.
Bannister said he felt “right at home” on the track where he ran the mile in3 minutes, 59.4 seconds on May 6, 1954. The Iffley Road Track is now called the Roger Bannister Running Track.
“It’s an honor to be included in a list of torch carriers, which has included injured soldiers back from Afghanistan and other places,” Bannister said.
The strong winds on a chilly, rainy Tuesday reminded him of that historic day when “the weather was so bad that I nearly decided not to attempt it.”
“In retrospect, I’m glad because if I hadn’t attempted it that day I might not have had another chance,” Bannister said.
Also in attendance Tuesday was Sebastian Coe, the former two-time Olympic 1,500-meter gold medalist and mile record-holder who chairs the organizing committee for the London Games.
He called Bannister one of Britain’s “national treasures of sport.”
“Breaking the four-minute mile as a mark of athletic achievement is central in the history of our sport,” Coe said. “He paved the way for what we did in the late ’70s and early ’80s.”
Bannister never won an Olympic medal. He finished fourth in the 1,500 meters at the 1952 Helsinki Games.
Had Bannister won the Olympic gold in Helsinki, he probably would have retired and the first sub-4-minute mile would have been achieved by someone else. Instead, he competed for another two years and attacked the mile landmark.