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Bannister carries Olympic torch on fabled track

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July 10, 2012: The Olympic Flame is passed between Sir Roger Bannister and Oxford doctoral student Nicola Byrom on the running track at Iffley Road Stadium in Oxford, England. (AP2012)

Roger Bannister returned to the track where he broke the 4-minute barrier for the mile 58 years ago, walking slowly but smiling broadly as he carried the Olympic torch across the finish line Tuesday in a powerful moment just 17 days before the start of the London Games.

The 83-year-old Bannister walked 30 meters (yards) along the track, holding the Olympic torch aloft in his left hand as hundreds cheered for a man who is an embodiment of sporting achievement in Britain.

"In a way I'm back in the sport that I belong to," he said. "I spent 10 years training before I broke the 4-minute mile."

Bannister -- who shattered an ankle in a car accident in 1975 and has been unable to run since then -- put his walking cane aside and leaned on a young man to descend three stairs from the podium where the Olympic torch was lit to start the day's relay.

Wearing a blue blazer, red sweater and black tie, he walked down the track before handing the torch to an Oxford doctoral student who then ran a full lap wearing the white torchbearer uniform.

Bannister declined to wear the uniform, fueling speculation that the Oxford-educated neurologist may put on the outfit to light the cauldron at the opening ceremony in London on July 27.

Bannister is among those considered a candidate to light the cauldron.

He refused to speculate, saying he was fully focused on Tuesday's torch relay event.

Bannister said he felt "right at home" on the track where he ran the mile in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds on May 6, 1954. The Iffley Road track is now called the Roger Bannister track.

"It's an honor to be included in a list of torch carriers which has included injured soldiers back from Afghanistan and other places," Bannister said.

The strong winds on a chilly, rainy Tuesday reminded him of that historic day when "the weather was so bad that I nearly decided not to attempt it."

"In retrospect I'm glad because if I hadn't attempted it that day I might not have had another chance," Bannister said.

Among those on hand Tuesday was Sebastian Coe, the former two-time Olympic 1,500-meter gold medalist and mile record-holder who chairs the organizing committee for the London Games.

He called Bannister one of Britain's "national treasures of sport."

"Breaking the four-minute mile as a mark of athletic achievement is central in the history of our sport," Coe said. "He paved the way for what we did in the late `70s and early `80s."

Despite attending eight Olympics -- one as an athlete and seven as a spectator -- Bannister never won an Olympic medal. He finished fourth in the 1,500 meters at the 1952 Helsinki Games.

Had Bannister won the Olympic gold in Helsinki, he probably would have retired and the first sub-4-minute mile would have been achieved by someone else. Instead, he competed for another two years and attacked the mile landmark.

Australia's John Landy and American Wes Santee ran times of 4:02, and it was a question of who would get there first.

Bannister scheduled his attempt for May 6, 1954 during a meet between Oxford University and the Amateur Athletic Union. The weather was miserable -- rainy, cool and windy. He only decided to make the attempt when he saw the English flag from a neighboring church start to flutter more gently as the race time approached.

He was paced by English runners Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway. Brasher ran the first lap in 58 seconds and the first half-mile in 1:58. Chataway moved to the front and took them through three laps in 3:01. Bannister had to run the final lap in 59 seconds and did.

The record didn't stand for long. Six weeks later, Landy ran 3:57.9 in Turku, Finland.

Bannister settled the score with Landy in August 1954 at the Empire Games, now called the Commonwealth Games, in Vancouver in what was dubbed the "Mile of the Century" or the "Miracle Mile." Bannister won in 3:58.8, with Landy second in 3:59.

The current record stands at 3:43.13, held by Morocco's Hicham El Guerrouj since 1999.

Bannister had a distinguished 40-year medical career since retiring after the 1954 Empire Games. He was knighted in 1975.

He was among number of sporting celebrities carrying the Olympic flame on Tuesday. At Henley-on-Thames, five-time Olympic rowing gold medalist Steve Redgrave carried the torch in his left and an oar in his right as he helped steer a boat to the Leander rowing club.

"To have my hands on the torch is pretty special," he said.

It may not be the last time. Redgrave is the British bookmakers' favorite to light the cauldron at the opening ceremony.

The flame was also stopping at Royal Ascot race course, where Italian jockey Frankie Dettori was to climb aboard the retired Monsignor to carry the torch around the parade ring.