Aug. 7, 1954: An hour of Empire Stadium sporting drama forever etched in city’s history
Sixty years ago on Thursday, one of the most emotionally-exhausting afternoons in the history of world sport played out right here in Vancouver.
On Aug. 7, 1954, the fifth British Empire and Commonwealth Games were drawing to a close after eight memorable days of record-breaking competition.
In the shadow of the PNE’s wooden roller-coaster, 35,000 spectators at Empire Stadium were shot high into the stratosphere, riding the excitement of Roger Bannister and John Landy’s epic Miracle Mile duel.
Their backstory is well-known today. Bannister, a recently minted English medical doctor, ran the first sub-four-minute mile that May at Oxford’s Iffley Road track. Landy, an Australian schoolteacher, smashed Bannister’s record just 46 days later in Turku, Finland.
They met for the first time in Vancouver at the Empire Games, attracting hundreds of world media, including Life magazine and Sports Illustrated, whose inaugural issue just days later featured the Mile as its lead story. An estimated North American TV audience of 70 million watched, enthralled, the first-ever event televised live continent wide by a CBC-NBC partnership.
Royal Air Force bombers flew kinescopes of race footage back to Britain, developing the film on the flight. Tens of millions more listened to radio broadcasts worldwide.
Secretly running with four stitches in the sole of his foot after stepping on a photographer’s flashbulb, Landy, as expected, forged to an early lead. By the halfway mark, he held a daunting 15-yard advantage over Bannister, trailing in second but slowly gaining. On the final corner, Landy looked back over his left shoulder, trying to locate his rival. At that same instant, Bannister unleashed his famous finishing kick and passed Landy on the right. Empire Stadium’s stands seemed to shake as the overpowering thunderclap of excitement drowned out everything else.
Bannister sprinted home to win in 3:58.8, with Landy five yards back in 3:59.6 — the first time in history two men broke the four-minute barrier in the same race.
“I have tremendous respect for John Landy,” Bannister said at the time. “I knew that if I did beat him it would take everything I’d got.”
Landy felt understandably crushed by the defeat.
“Of all the races I ran, that was the one I’d have most liked to win,” he said ruefully.
After witnessing this spine-tingling race, just 30 minutes later the crowd plunged abruptly back to earth with the fragile, courageous humanity of Jim Peters’ gut-wrenching marathon collapse.
Peters, an English optician, had broken the world-best marathon time on four occasions in the previous four seasons. He was expected to claim gold in Vancouver.
Conditions weren’t in his favour. The 26-mile, 385-yard route featured a dozen significant climbs of five per cent grade or higher. But it was the 28-degree Celsius heat that felt more like 38 degrees out on Vancouver’s exposed streets that did the most damage. Only six of the 16 original marathon entrants finished.
Peters staggered down the ramp into an Empire Stadium that was still buzzing from the Mile. He fell to the cinder track. The crowd fell silent.
“That deathly silence ... it was unreal, something I’d like to forget — but I’ll never forget it,” recalled New Zealand miler Murray Halberg.
For the next 10 excruciating minutes, Peters fell another dozen times — at times crawling, staggering drunkenly, and even lying motionless on the ground. In that time he covered two hundred yards of Empire’s track. Normally, in the same amount of time he’d pound out two miles.
“I thought I could see the tape, you know, sort of a mirage,” Peters later recalled. “I thought I’d made it, but the tape didn’t seem to be coming any nearer.”
The crowd watched helplessly, literally watching a man run himself to death. Some wept openly. Others became physically sick. Many called for someone to help him.
Finally, English masseur Mick Mayes, wearing a flowing white lab coat, had seen enough. He stepped onto the track and pulled Peters onto a stretcher, just 200 yards short of the finish line. Peters was disqualified, but that was the least of his worries.
“It was a hell of a scene, one of the most horrific in athletic history,” recalled English runner Chris Brasher. “They took his brain temperature right there and it was about 107 or 108 degrees. He was on the verge of cooking his brain.”
Peters remained unconscious for several hours while tended to by doctors in hospital, before eventually making a full recovery. He never ran another marathon again.
Almost forgotten in the chaos, Scotland’s Joe McGhee trotted in 17 minutes after Peters entered the stadium to claim marathon gold.
Of the more than 70 individuals I interviewed who were there that August day, virtually all remembered the drama of the marathon more vividly than Bannister and Landy’s heart-pounding clash.
“Spectacular as the mile was, for sheer drama, the 26-mile marathon dominated the Games,” stated Time magazine.
Combined together, the mile and marathon made headlines around the world. Not a single American athlete took part in the Games, yet these two events appeared on front pages of newspapers across the U.S. “This is competitive sport at its very best,” said the New York Times.
Many historic moments have taken place on Vancouver soil since, but for sheer range of emotions nothing quite compares with what occurred in a one-hour window on that sweltering August afternoon. When games organizers chose “A Week You’ll Remember a Lifetime!” as an advertising slogan, they couldn’t have known how true that phrase would prove decades later.
Jason Beck is the curator and facility director of the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame, which just opened a new signature exhibition about the 1954 Games called A Week You’ll Remember a Lifetime! He intends to publish a book under the same name in the coming year.
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