(Updates with quotes and details of Birmingham tribute)
By Ian Chadband
BIRMINGHAM, England, March 4 (Reuters) - Roger Bannister’s death at the age of 88 prompted a host of emotional tributes to athletics’ great barrier breaker on Sunday with the sport’s senior figure, Sebastian Coe, saluting him as the “man who made the impossible possible”.
Coe and Steve Cram, who followed in the spike tracks of the sport’s first sub-four minute miler to also become world beaters, emphasised that, while Bannister had been their running hero, he meant so much more to the life of his home nation.
To Coe, another British world record holder at the mile, Bannister’s landmark achievement in 1954 “transcended sport beyond athletics”.
Cram, who broke the mile world record in 1985, told Reuters in Birmingham: “Bannister really started off that great British tradition of great middle-distance runners which people like Seb (Coe), Steve (Ovett) and myself were able to continue.
“But beyond that, he was part of that pioneering spirit which seemed to exist in the 1950s — with a new Queen on the throne, Everest being conquered, the new TV age and the idea that you could do anything you put your mind to in barrier-breaking.
“The four-minute mile stood out. Someone was going to break that barrier and it turned out to be him. What a great period that must have been to be alive.”
To Cram and Coe, the man who now runs the sport as the IAAF president, Bannister’s run of three minutes 59.4 seconds in Oxford was the almost mythical tale which underpinned their own youthful athletics days.
“The first book I read was (Bannister’s book) The Four-Minute Mile; my coach (Jimmy Hedley) used to get me to sit and watch that grainy film in the days before YouTube,” said Cram.
“I got to meet him after I got selected to go to the Commonwealth Games when I was 17 and he was a big part of my early athletics career development, as the biggest hero in our sport, especially for a 1500 metres runner like me.
“I was completely awe-struck when I met him but he was a gentleman, an engaging personality who put you at your ease.”
Cram felt the next generation of athletes were just as inspired by Bannister’s legacy.
Mo Farah, the greatest British distance runner of all and one of the finest in the sport’s annals, tweeted on Sunday: “I’m so sorry to hear the sad news about Roger Bannister.
“I met him several times throughout my career and he was always humble, supportive and encouraging. He was an inspiration to so many.”
At the world indoor championships, the news cast a shadow over the final day of events on Sunday with the sell-out crowd in Arena Birmingham breaking into long applause after a special tribute to Bannister was screened.
Coe, who had learned the news just before the launch of a new IAAF Heritage initiative designed to showcase the sport’s former greats such as Bannister, said: “This is a day of intense sadness both for our nation and for all of us in athletics.”
Coe told his audience: “On May 6, 1954, Roger made the impossible possible...
“It was as much a psychological as it was a physical barrier and Bannister’s success allowed mankind to enter a new world filled with possibilities,” he added.
“His achievement was a moment in history that lifted the hearts of a nation and boosted the morale of a world still at a low ebb after the war. We have all lost a giant and for many a deep close friendship. Thank you.”
Paula Radcliffe, Britain’s world marathon record holder, said Bannister had broken “the most iconic barrier in the history of sport”.
“Even if (Eliud) Kipchoge had broken the two-hour barrier in the marathon, I’m not sure it could compare. Nothing will top it; it will always be the most inspirational moment in our sport.”
Globally, too, Bannister’s legacy was enduring with the great U.S. sprinter Michael Johnson crediting him as the inspiration behind his ground-breaking bid to combine the 200 and 400 metres.
“Every athlete owes a great debt of gratitude to Sir Roger Bannister,” Johnson told the BBC. “He set up the idea for athletes of pushing the limits of human achievement, like (long jumper) Bob Beamon went on to do.
“Nobody had ever done the 200 and 400 at this level before and it was special for me too, pushing those boundaries and it was all inspired over the decades by Sir Roger Bannister.” (Additional reporting by Aditi Prakash; Editing by Toby Davis and Clare Fallon)