The Third Man

Posted by Daniel on Apr 8, 2013

Many (most?) of us know about the Miracle Mile when Roger Bannister edged out John Landy in a "miracle" finish in the mile run at the 1954 British Empire Games, held in Vancouver. It was the first time that two runners ran the mile in less than four minutes in the same race and it caused an international sensation.

I was reminded of that long-ago event recently when I read that the North Vancouver Museum had received a donation of memorabilia from Joan Parnell, widow of middle-distance runner Bill Parnell. In a sense Parnell, who was from North Van, was the "third man" in that historic race. Even though he was not competing himself, it is often forgotten that Parnell was the holder of the Games record for fastest mile that was shattered by Bannister and Landy that day.

Parnell, who was born in 1928, began running the mile in high school and won a scholarship to Washington State University. In 1948 he set a Canadian record in the mile and the next year was named the country's outstanding amateur athlete. In 1950, competing in the Empire Games in New Zealand, he won the mile race, setting a Games record of 4 min. 11 sec.

At the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Parnell was Canada's flag bearer, though he did not bring home any medals. Big things were expected at the '54 Empire Games in his hometown but by this time he was little past his prime and he was disqualified in a preliminary heat. So he was on the sidelines watching as both Bannister and Landy smashed his record by more than 12 seconds.

The memorabilia donated to the museum include some photos and the blazer Parnell wore at the Empire Games in Auckland where he set his record.

For a full account of Bill Parnell's career, see here.