Diane Leather

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Diane Leather
Medal record
Women’s Athletics
Competitor for  United Kingdom
European Championships
Silver 1958 Stockholm 800 metres
Silver 1954 Bern 800 metres

Diane Leather (born 7 January 1933, Streetly, West Midlands, England) was the first woman to run a mile in less than 5 minutes. Representing the Birchfield Harriers club, Leather broke the 5-minute barrier with a time of 4 minutes and 59.6 seconds, during the Midlands Women's AAA Championships at Birmingham's Alexander Sports Ground[1][2] on 29 May 1954 - just 23 days after Roger Bannister became the first ever man to run a sub 4-minute mile.

However, the time was never ratified. It was an example of what Leather had to endure during her fabulous career, because the 800m and 880y were the only women’s middle distances recognised for world record purposes. Women did not run such distances at international level for another 15 years, but she had made her mark, whatever history said or did not say.

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 – said. “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. 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.[3]

The policy stemmed from the first time the women’s 800m was included at the 1928 Olympics. After the final, several athletes collapsed, just as they might do today. But interpretations from newspapers such as the Times – which warned that “the half-dozen prostrate and obviously distressed forms lying about on the grass at the side of the track may not warrant a complete condemnation of the girl athletics championships, but it certainly suggests unpleasant possibilities” – and the Daily Mail, which claimed that women who raced more than 200m would age prematurely, became proscriptions.

After that race, women were not able to run beyond 200m at the Olympics until 1960, and further than 1500m until 1984. Even though, as the historian Lynne Duval of Staffordshire University has shown, the decision was based on hysteria not hard fact.

Several eyewitnesses to that 800m race in 1928, including Harold Abrahams – the 1924 Olympic 100m champion immortalised in Chariots of Fire – reported that the women quickly recovered and any tears were “not due to the physical exertion but to the simple psychological disappointment of being beaten”.

Throughout her career Leather blazed a hot trail through this physiological mumbo-jumbo. Indeed, on that Whitsun Saturday in 1954 her time of 4min 59.6sec came after she had run an 800m race earlier in the afternoon.

She prepared by running hard intervals of mostly 150m or 400m five times a week, with every session monitored by her coach Dorette Nelson Neal. And she thinks she was fuelled by kippers for lunch. She certainly was before one of her world‑beating runs – the trouble is, there were just so many.

Over the next year Charles chiselled away at her mile record until it had dropped to 4:45.0 – a time that stood for seven years. She also broke three world records over a glorious nine-month period between September 1953 and June 1954: twice in the 3x880‑yard relay and also in the 880 yards. And her personal best of 2:06 in the 800m would still be decent today, particularly when you subtract the 1-1.5 seconds per lap you lose on a cinder track.

“It was a sad thing that the mile wasn’t ratified as a world record, and there wasn’t any event longer than 200m at the Olympics back then,” she said before Saturday’s Westminster Mile, which named a trophy in her honour. “But I will always have the two 800m silver medals I won in the European Championships in 1954 and 1958.”

Leather won five WAAA titles between 1954 and 1957 and she won the national cross-country title between 1953 and 1956, her first triumph not long after she had joined Birchfield Harriers to gain fitness because she was a hockey player. Her talent for running shone through, and within two years, she had run five world bests for the Mile. In 1953, only a year after she had started running properly, she was timed at 5:02.6, to 4:45.0 at the White City Stadium in 1955, via 5:00.2 and 4:59.6 in 1954 and 4:50.8 in 1955. During that period, she was ratified as a world record-holder on three occasions - but not at the distance where she excelled.

Leather’s three world records all came at White City, in a nine month period where she was arguably Britain’s finest woman runner. On August 3, 1953, running the last leg of a British relay team of Norah Smalley and Christine Slemon, Leather anchored them to 6:49.0 in a 3 x 880y in a match against France. It was on June 19 the following year, though, where she triumphed individually with a superb run to break the 880y mark, taking 2.6 off of the best time to win in 2:09.0. A month later, on July 17, she teamed up with Anne Oliver and Smalley to take the 3 x 880y best to 6:46.0.

Leather narrowly missed out on gold medals at her two European Championship appearances, running the 800m in Berne in 1954 and Stockholm in 1958. In the first of those, she clocked 2:09.8 as Nina Otkalenko, of the Soviet Union, won in 2:08.8, before the victory margin was even closer four years later. She was again beaten by a Russian, this time Yelizaveta Yermolayeva, who triumphed in 2:06.3, with Leather at 2:06.6, a personal best, Leather ran at the Olympic Games in Rome in 1960, but she eliminated in the first round, finishing fifth in her heat. Her glory years had gone, and had records been different, she would have had more ‘officially’ than many others in British athletics history. She was trained as a micro-analyst at chemistry and later became a social worker in London and Cornwall.

In 1955, Leather broke the mile record by a further 15 seconds, achieving her personal best of 4:45.[4] This world record remained untouched for a further seven years until New Zealand's Marise Chamberlain ran a 4:41.4 in 1962. It was not until 1967 that the IAAF started recognising women's world records at this distance.

Leather won two European Championship silver medals at 800 metres. At the 1954 event in Bern, she was second behind the Soviet Union's Nina Otkalenko in 2:09.8, while at the 1958 event in Stockholm, she was second to another Soviet, Yelizaveta Yermolayeva, running 2:06.6.

In 1960, she competed at the Olympic Games in Rome. By now past her best, she was eliminated in the heats of the 800 metres, in 2:14.24.[5] Her trainer was Mrs Nelson Neal.[6]

International Championships

1954: 2nd 800m Europeans

1958: 2nd 800m Europeans

1960: ht 800m Olympics

UK Internationals: 16 (1954-60)

National Championships

Won WAAA 880y 1954-5, 1957; 1M 1956-7; National CC 1953-6.

Personal bests

400m 56.3 (1955), 440y 56.6 (1954), 800m 2:06.6 (1958), 1500m 4:22.2 (1955), 1M 4:45.0 (1955).

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