In Monte Carlo, Monaco
Half a century ago, at the high altitude (2,195 metres above sea level) Mexico Olympic Stadium, Kipchoge Keino and Jim Ryun conjured up a metric mile classic.
A selfless act by Kipchoge’s compatriot Ben Jipcho set the pace for the 1,500 metres final of the 1968 Olympic Games.
Jipcho took the lead from the gun and set a blistering pace – featuring a 55.98-second opening lap - knowing just what to do for policeman Keino to take the gold.
With two laps to go, “Kip” hit the front in what television commentators of the day described as “suicidal pace”, and rightfully so as it was inside world record pace.
At the bell, “Kip” was about 22 metres ahead of Ryun who was fast closing in on the German pair of Bodo Tummler and Harald Norpoth occupying second and third place.
“Kip” went on to win in an Olympic record three minutes, 34.91 seconds with Ryun (3:37.89) amazingly fighting for silver with Tummler (3:39.08) taking bronze.
Some 51 years later, Keino and Ryun were among mile legends celebrated by World Athletics (formerly International Association of Athletics Federations) at a nostalgic reception in Monaco on Thursday night.
Hosted by World Athletics President Seb Coe, himself a mile legend, the ceremony attracted a dozen legends of the distance, including 1956 Olympic 1,500m champion, Irishman Ron Delaney.
They were joined by latter day champions, among them the current record holder over the mile and 1,500m, Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj, Algeria’s Noureddine Morceli, Tanzania’s Filbert Bayi and New Zealand’s John Walker.
The night’s festivities were, of course, focused around Briton Roger Bannister, the athlete-turned-medic who was first man to run a sub-four-minute mile in 1954.
Bannister died on March 3 last year, and his daughters Charlotte and Erin represented the legend at Thursday’s nostalgic ceremony at Monaco’s Le Meridien Hotel.
In his keynote speech, that, interestingly, lasted four minutes and 25 seconds, just 26 seconds outside Bannister’s ground-breaking sub-four-minute mile, Coe celebrated the iconic distance.
“I’m a miler, I’ve been a miler all my life, but this is not the beginning of a confession in a self-help group or preparation for an Oprah interview,” the humorous Briton joked and went on to compare the mile to a play.
“I’ve always seen the race as a four-act play,” he launched his analogy.
“In the first lap, the curtain rises, the stage being set… the cast is introduced and they start finding their rhythm.
“In the second lap, the plot becomes a little clearer. Is this going to be a cat-and-mouse thriller or somebody will grab the race, the audience and the spectators by the throat and steal the show?
“This is the lap where you are figuring out whether you will stick to your race plan or jump into the prevailing tactics.
“The third lap beckons. This is the business end of the race. Whether it’s fast or slow, this is the critical lap, as it’s all about positioning and covering in your head and on the ground…
“To win you must be in the best possible position and able to deal with absolutely anything that is thrown at you as the bell chimes for the final lap.
“With every passing metre, the aim is to be focused and not compromising… the race needs to be brought home.”
Coe concluded: “For all the non-milers, the mile is a metaphor for life way, way beyond the track.”
Besides winning the 1,500m gold at the Mexico Olympics, the multi-talented Keino also won gold in the steeplechase at the 1972 Munich Games and was brilliant in the 5,000m and 10,000m, but he respected the mile most.
“I wanted to be a good miler when I saw of film of Dr Roger Bannister,” he explained to the audience.
“I tried the 800m, moved to 1,500m, 5,000m, 3,000m steeplechase.
“I’d take part in any event, from the 800m right up to the 10,000m, but the mile and 1,500m were the easiest events for me to take part in.”
American legend Ryun recalled his high altitude Mexico ’68 battle with Keino.
“I was very honoured to represent the US and to get a silver medal towards my treasured possessions,” he said.
Keino chipped in: “I knew there was Jim Ryun, the world record holder. I tried my best to be the best in the 1,500m and I trained in high altitude and was able to perform.”