Harold Abrahams book places question mark over Bannister's mile record

Author Mark Ryan’s acclaimed biography of the Chariots of Fire hero Harold Abrahams contains the startling revelation that the landmark moment in athletics history at which Roger Bannister became the first man to run a mile in less than four minutes might have been ruled invalid.

Abrahams, who won the 100 metres gold medal at the Paris Olympics of 1924, went on to become a journalist and than an administrator and as such one of the sport’s most influential voices.

He was a key figure as one of the official timekeepers when Bannister completed the Iffley Road course on May 6th, 1954 in three minutes 59.4 seconds

Ryan’s research for the book, Running With Fire (JR Books), included extensive consultation with experts and it was at a meeting with two of them, the former Athletics Weekly editor and statistician Mel Watman, and the athletics historian Kevin Kelly, that evidence came to light that could have led to the legitimacy of the record being challenged.

It was the role of Abrahams that came into question as the experts studied the record certificate and photographs taken at the time. Watman had the official certificate with Harold Abrahams clearly shown as one of the three timekeepers, but Kelly had a photograph -- reproduced in Ryan's book -- showing that Abrahams was not standing where he should have been to perform the duties of a timekeeper, namely by the finish line.

Ryan explained: “I found myself in an email conversation between these two experts in which Kevin was saying ‘No, he can’t have been an official timekeeper.  I’ve even got photographs of him showing that he was not standing by the line, by the finishing tape’ and Mel was replying along the lines of ‘Well, you may have those photos but I’ve got the official certificate saying he was a timekeeper.‘

“It may sound ridiculous but it felt at the time like it was a Woodward and Bernstein moment.  I was thinking ‘whoa -- this was the four-minute mile, one of the most famous moments in athletics history and it looked like something was amiss in the way it was officiated.’”

The discovery prompted a discussion between the author and the experts over what they should do about what they had happened upon and whether it should be queried.

“We had a talk but we decided that we couldn’t do that to Roger Bannister,” Ryan said. "We were sure that he had run the mile under four minutes.

"But we were honour-bound nonetheless to point out that the officiating was, shall we say, irregular.”

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Read a full interview with Mark Ryan.