England: Everest moment at Oxford track

By David Leggat

Lesser-known Iffley Rd grounds matches Wimbledon for its contribution to British sporting history, writes David Leggat.

Roger Bannister, a medical student, was 25 when he ran a mile in less than 4min, setting a new record. Photo / Supplied
Roger Bannister, a medical student, was 25 when he ran a mile in less than 4min, setting a new record. Photo / Supplied

The American woman hurried into the busy Oxford tourist information office.

"Excuse me", she asked the middle-aged assistant at the counter, "but can you tell me where they filmed Chariots of Fire?"

From the other side of the desk, the local woman - and there's no other way to put this - drew herself up, paused for dramatic effect, and replied: "That was Cambridge, madam."

Easy mistake, really. After all, we all know it was one of them. I'd wager Marge from Minnesota is not the first visitor to pose the question.

Oxford's greatest claim to fame is as a celebrated seat of learning. But, while it may have missed out on Chariots of Fire, it is also the site of one of the most famous moments in sport, the Everest moment in the athletics' world, if you will.

So I asked directions to the Iffley Rd athletics track.

Well, said the information office woman, they don't like to advertise themselves, sir, but there is a number if you wish to try ...

I did and the good folk at the athletics centre could not have been more helpful. "Come on down and have a look about," the receptionist replied.

It's a pleasant, leafy, 20-minute walk from the busy city centre, out along Iffley Rd, past the building dedicated to the celebrated Oxford-born cellist, the late Jacqueline du Pre.

There are tennis courts and cricket pitches, a rowing tank and gymnasium, a pool and squash courts, but it's athletics we're here about.

At a glance, it's not a particularly notable location. Indeed, even as a name Iffley Rd doesn't sound inspiring.

In truth, without its special history it would be just another sports ground. Instead, to those with athletic blood in their veins and a keen sense of history, it resonates to match Wimbledon, Wembley and Twickenham for England's contribution to the sports world.

A group of buildings housing indoor sports facilities - a particularly aggressive indoor soccer game was in full, boisterous swing at the time - stand at one end of this famous piece of athletic real estate.

For it was here, on a windy day on May 6, 1954, that a medical student named Roger Bannister ran a mile faster than anyone had done.

There were only a couple of thousand on hand to witness history. No one had broken 4min for the mile, and therein lies its significance.

As Bannister crossed the finish line, there was a hush as the time was announced: "Result of the one mile ... time, three ..." - and then came the roar.

Bannister was 25 and went on to win the Empire Games gold medal for the mile in Vancouver that year before retiring. He became a noted neurologist and was knighted for services to sport in 1975.

There is memorabilia to please the curious: giant newspaper clippings - "Britain's jolly Roger Bannister has done it!" roars the Daily Mail off the wall - the faded white finishing post, one of three stop watches used that day, part of the original cinder track and the bell rung at the start of the final lap.

Running alongside the Roger Bannister track, the outside wall of the pavilion is adorned with photos of celebrated sporting Oxford old boys, including former All Black captain Anton Oliver and Pakistan cricket great Imran Khan.

There are development plans to the tune of £30 million ($62 million) for the site. And it does need an upgrade. But if you narrow the eyes, set the imagination running, you can get a sense of what it must have been like 56 years ago when Bannister briefly became the most famous sports person on Earth.

CHECKLIST

* Getting there: Air New Zealand has daily flights to London. See airnz.co.nz

* Getting around: For information about rail travel see britrail.com

* Further information: See visitbritain.co.nz or oxfordcity.co.uk

David Leggat visited Oxford with help from Air NZ and Visit Britain.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

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