Sixty years ago Diane Leather smashed world record but not sex barrier
Leather’s run was not recognized as a world record, only a world’s best, because the IAAF did not keep records above 800m for women. And that is a story in itself.
By Sean Ingle, The Guardian
Sixty years ago this May, on a crushed cinder track in the Midlands, an athlete ran into history by lowering the world Mile record under a significant mark. But here the story – and perhaps your expectations – takes a different fork. The date is May 29, not May 6, 1954. The venue Birmingham not Oxford. And the runner with textbook‑straight back and elbows jabbing at sour-faced skies is Diane Leather, a 21-year-old analytical chemist at the University of Birmingham and the woman who broke the 5-minute barrier for the Mile.
Three weeks earlier, Roger Bannister celebrated his sub-4 minute Mile with fizz at Vincent’s Club at Oxford University, before heading up to London where he appeared on Sportsview, went nightclubbing until 2am, and saw his name stretched across the front pages on the way home. Leather’s achievement did not even merit a sentence in the Observer or Sunday Times.
“There was a bit of attention,” Leather – or Diane Charles as she now is – told me at the weekend. “At least locally.” But in the high era of Boy’s Own and Brilliantine, women’s athletics was often an afterthought – if it was thought about at all. Staggeringly, Leather’s run was not recognised as a world record, only a world’s best, because the IAAF did not keep records above 800m for women. And that is a story in itself.
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