Tuesday 12 November 2019

Delany, Bannister and the golden age of the milers

Irish Olympic gold medallist Ronnie Delany talks about running legend Roger Bannister and his career of camaraderie on the track

Making strides: Delany followed in Bannister's footsteps by breaking the four-minute mile barrier two years after the Englishman. Photo: Mark Condren
Making strides: Delany followed in Bannister's footsteps by breaking the four-minute mile barrier two years after the Englishman. Photo: Mark Condren
Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile barrier in 1954
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

To the Olympic gold medallist Ronnie Delany and millions of sports fans of his generation, Roger Bannister, who died this week, was like the first man on the moon.

On the evening of May 6, 1954, the medical student entered the history books on a track in Oxford.

After dining on a light meal of ham salad, Bannister became the first man to run a mile in under four minutes.

It was considered the landmark sporting achievement of the post-war era, and at that point in his career, the teenage Ronnie Delany had not run a mile competitively.

As a schoolboy, Delany reckoned he was not even the greatest athlete in his own family. When we met up this week, he was keen to emphasise that his brother Joe outshone him as a junior athlete. "I remember helping Joe to carry his cups and prizes home from the sports," says Ronnie of his upbringing in Sandymount, Dublin.

But Ronnie had iron determination as well as talent. Within two years of Roger Bannister breaking the world record, he had emerged from his brother's shadow to become Ireland's greatest athlete - and ultimately a world beater.

He smashed through the four-minute mile barrier himself in June 1956 on a track in California at the age of just 21 - becoming the youngest athlete ever to achieve the feat at the time.

Six months later, he stunned the athletics world by sprinting from near the back of the field to win Olympic Gold in Melbourne.

A colour film on YouTube with a Russian commentary shows an electrifying turn of speed from 150 metres out as Delany leaves his rivals for dead.

By that time, the hero of the four-minute mile Bannister had just retired, but he was in Melbourne to watch the final, and he was mightily impressed.

In a letter to Ronnie, Bannister wrote: "Your win in Melbourne was one of the really great 1,500 metre races and a lesson in well-judged timing - which is to me the fascination of middle-distance running."

Although they never raced against each other, partly because they ran different distances when their careers overlapped, Delany and Bannister enjoyed a fellowship as champions from a golden era of middle-distance running.

Gentlemen athletes

These were Corinthian amateur men with a large hinterland, and a broad range of interests beyond their chosen sport. Bannister always said that he wanted to be remembered for his achievements in medicine as a consultant neurologist more than his running accolades.

In one of his letters to Delany, the four-minute miler noted how he had become fascinated with James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Delany, who turned 83 this week, is tireless with curiosity, and likes to ask questions as well as answer them - with an ever-present glint in his eye. He has a crystal clear memory of events and his conversation ranges over a wide area - from his career in business for the shipping company B&I to his love of books, theatre and reading newspapers.

He swims three times a week, and runs on the spot in the pool for the time that it once took him to run a mile. "I picked up a fitness tip from the Irish Independent Health and Living supplement that you have to look after your legs at my age."

Delany first met Bannister when the Irishman competed in the final of the 800 metres in the European Championship in Bern in 1954, and Bannister won the 1,500 metres final.

"At the end of the Games, when Bannister had won his final, we went to a party," he says. Bannister and his fellow athletes Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway were smoking Cuban cigars.

"I was enthralled to be in the presence of the great four-minute miler. To me, these fellows seemed like true gentleman athletes."

One of the great rivals of both Bannister and Delany was the Australian John Landy.

Just 46 days after Bannister broke through the four-minute mile record barrier, his record was beaten by Landy. The Australian was hot favourite to prevail over Delany in the Olympic 1,500 metres, but was beaten into third place.

Landy, who is a friend of Delany, went on to become Governor of the State of Victoria, and a world-renowned collector of butterflies.

"There was great camaraderie between the runners," recalls Ronnie. "After races we had a beer or a lemonade together and we became friends with our opponents whether they beat us or we beat them. That friendship has lasted a lifetime." Yet, neither Delany nor Bannister earned a penny from their races.

Delany became an athletics star in the United States and went on a run of 40 races unbeaten on the indoor track, but he says at one point he didn't even have a decent pair of running shoes.

"I was packing out Madison Square Gardens and I had to borrow someone else's shoes," he says.

Bannister's training methods wouldn't pass muster in the professional era. He lived on a diet of pilchards and stew, trained for just 45 minutes a day and took the weekends off.

As a teenager, Delany was set for a career in the Army, but gave it up, and at one stage he was selling vacuum cleaners in Kilkenny.

He came to realise that running was his talent. He says he was so hard on himself training in bare feet at Railway Union Cricket Club that onlooking alickadoos holding their beers worried that he would kill himself. With his times getting faster, he won a scholarship to Villanova University in Pennsylvania, where he studied economics, and was steered in his career by the coach Jumbo Elliott.

There were no plaudits from Jumbo for finishing second and the motto on the wall was: "Win or Bust."

Delany recalls that he had an insatiable appetite as an athlete, eating two large dinners, typically of steak, pasta and vegetables - with 12 raw eggs per day, washed down with eight pints of milk.

Delany likes to talk of destiny and he says something felt right about the day of his Olympic race. Some of his rivals looked ashen-faced, and one of them asked him who would win. "I'm going to win," he replied.

He had been taught from a young age by a coach that he had one chance to seize the moment, and make a break for glory. Make one significant strike for the front, and only one, and don't make it too early.

"Once I was out in front, I knew I would not be beaten."

When Delany hit the winning tape, nobody in Ireland would have known. There was no RTÉ television and no live radio.

Irish sports fans picked up the news at breakfast time on a crackling BBC commentary.

After his win, spectators thought he had collapsed with exhaustion when he fell to his knees. But he was uttering a prayer of gratitude.

For 62 years, he has enjoyed an extended lap of honour as the last Irish person to win a gold medal on the track.

He likes to tell the story of a Dubliner who approached him on the Liffey quays some years ago and asked him: "Are you Ronnie Delany?

When he quietly replied that he was indeed, the response came back: "I never saw anyone who got so much bloody mileage out of winning a medal."

In truth, he wears the honour lightly and with good grace and humour. After over six decades, he deserves his place in the milers' hall of fame alongside Roger Bannister.


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