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By Tom Ough and James Restall
Sir Roger Bannister made a triumphant return to the track where he ran the first sub-four minute mile in human history on Tuesday to carry the Olympic Torch.
Lord Coe, the Winklevoss twins and University of Oxford Chancellor Lord Patten were among the hundreds who packed the grandstand at the Iffley Road track which bears Bannister’s name to mark the 53rd day of the nationwide torch relay.
Bannister, himself an alumnus of the University, was also joined by many of Oxford’s 75 Olympic gold medallists including Dr Stephanie Cook, Modern Pentathlon champion in 2000, and Jonny Searle, winner of the Coxed Pairs in 1992.
Also in attendance was Dick Healy, an Oxonian Olympian at the last London games in 1948, while current student and Paralympic hopeful Nikki Emerson was on stage for the event. Oxford-based a cappella group Out of the Blue serenaded the spectators as Sir Roger kick-started the flame’s 87 mile journey to Reading.
He said: “It’s an honour to be included in a list of torch carriers which has included injured soldiers back from Afghanistan and other places, and I’m glad that it’s taking place on this track in Oxford where I ran the four-minute mile in 1954.”
The neurologist believed that his landmark achievement was especially significant for University sport. He added: “It provided a showpiece for Oxford sport from which there have been sporting developments, including a gym and a swimming pool, which were much needed.”
University Chancellor Lord Patten hailed the “iconic” Iffley track as “a reminder of one of the great sporting events here in Britain since the Olympics were last held here.” The Chancellor told The Oxford Student that Oxford and the Olympics both demonstrate “a commitment to excellence and generosity of spirit; high achievement with success lightly worn.”
Vice-Chancellor Andrew Hamilton also praised the “magnificent” event which celebrated “one of the iconic venues for sport in the world.” He said that the Iffley Road leg was “a moment of recognition, showing the importance of working together.”
Hamilton added: “(We’re also) celebrating the ethos of the scholar athlete, and in Roger Bannister we have someone who personifies this – a man who hit the highest levels. He took the discipline of sport and translated it to a new medium.”
Sir Roger’s wife, Lady Moyra, was delighted that LOCOG chairman Lord Coe was able to attend. She said: “It’s such a huge honour to have the Torch here. Lord Coe is putting everything down to be here with Roger, who helped him through his career.”
Coe, a double Olympic gold medallist, hailed the “extraordinary” Bannister, said that the athlete was “way ahead of anyone else at the time.” He added: “Breaking the four-minute mile as a mark of athletic achievement sits central in the history of our sport. He paved the way for what we did in the late Seventies and early Eighties.”
Spectators had been entering the venue from 5.45am to witness the legendary athlete pass the torch to current Brasenose doctorate student Nicola Byrom, who was running to “represent the students that battle with eating disorders”. Byrom has raised over £60,000 for her voluntary organisation Student Run Self Help which has provided support groups for students since 2009.
Tuesday’s torch bearing may not be Bannister’s sole contribution to this summer’s games – the legendary athlete is rumoured to be playing a leading role in the opening ceremony and speculation is mounting that he will be lighting the famous cauldron on 27 July.
The torch spent the night in Cowley, having arrived at South Parks from Luton the previous evening. The City Council estimated that 50,000 watched its procession through Blackbird Leys, Cowley and St Clements.
Throughout Monday afternoon South Parks had been hosting a celebration that featured the band Young Guns, 2010 Britain’s Got Talent runners up Twist and Pulse and local and national artists, as well as sporting activities including archery and football.
Members of the University were prominent in the final leg of the relay’s 52nd day with Maureen O’Neill, the Director of Development at the Law Faculty, carrying the torch in recognition of her volunteering and fundraising.
She said, “It is clear that I am no Olympian, but carrying the Torch made me feel like one. The day was remarkable in every way.” O’Neill and her fellow torch bearers “were able to share with our family, our friends, and our community a moment to shine.”
The culmination of the evening’s events came when Wantage resident Malcolm Fretter, concluded the flame’s 112-mile journey for the day by lighting an on-stage cauldron. Fretter, nominated for his teaching and voluntary work, said he was “extremely honoured”, adding that he had had “an absolute belting time”.
Having left Oxford, the torch moved westward to Reading on its journey which will be completed at the Olympic Stadium on 27 July for the opening ceremony of the game.