Diane Leather: First woman to run the five-minute mile
In the 1950s she ran circles around the men who were incredulous of a woman’s ability to perform on the track
While the eyes of the world were on Roger Bannister as he ran the first sub-four minute mile, athlete Diane Leather, who has died aged 85, was preparing to set a record of her own.
On 29 May 1954, three weeks after Bannister’s triumph, Leather became the first woman to run a sub five-minute mile, setting a new world best of four minutes 59.6 seconds. Her astonishing achievement was declared a “world best” rather than a “world record” because at the time the International Amateur Athletic Federation didn’t even recognise the mile as a suitable distance for women.
Diane Susan Leather was born in Streetly, West Midlands. She came to athletics relatively late by modern standards. As a girl, she played lacrosse and hockey. She was inspired by the 1952 Helsinki Olympics to join Birmingham’s Birchfield Harriers, hoping that athletics training might improve her hockey game. However, coach Dorette Nelson Neal soon spotted Leather’s talent as a runner. Though the longest women’s race at that time was just 200m, Neal insisted that Leather train for the mile. Just a year after starting to run properly, Leather achieved a mile time of 5.02.6.
It was under Neal’s auspices that Leather broke the five-minute barrier on the cinder track at the Midlands Women’s AAA Championships, having broken the record for the 880 yards less than an hour before. When she heard that she’d achieved a new best for the mile too, Leather replied, “Oh good, at last.”
Fifty years later, Leather told The Independent: “I think I did wake up nervous that day. You always did. The mile was important to me because it had gone down, year after year, to five minutes. Then everyone was saying that someone was going to break it, and it happened to be me.”
Between 1954 and 1958, Leather won five WAAA titles. She won the English Women’s Cross Country Championship four times in succession. She was also three-time winner of the Women’s race at the International Cross Country Championships. She took two silver medals for the 800m at the European Championships in 1954 and 1958. However, Leather’s most astonishing achievement was shaving a further 15 seconds off her groundbreaking 1954 mile time. She ran her personal best of 4 minutes and 45 seconds at the White City Stadium on 21 September 1955. It was a time that would stand unbeaten for seven years, when she ceded the record to New Zealand’s Marise Chamberlain.
In 1959, Leather married Peter Charles. She competed at the 1960 Olympics in Rome under her married name. However, Leather was not to achieve her dream of Olympic gold, crashing out of the 800m in the first heat.
That same year, Leather retired from athletics. She would never run again. Trained as an analytical chemist, she became a teacher and later a social worker. She and her husband fostered half a dozen babies and raised four children of their own. In 1986, the family moved to Cornwall. In her seventies, Leather continued to volunteer for a child bereavement charity and hospice.
In 1954, Leather proved that a woman could run a mile in under five minutes. Misconceptions of the era – running long distance was considered dangerous for a woman’s health – robbed Leather of the chance to hold the official title of “world record holder” for her achievement. It seems unbelievable that it would be a further six years before women were even allowed to run for more than 200m at the Olympics. Furthermore, it would not be until 1984 that female Olympic athletes would get to compete in distances above 1500m.
Leather’s mile record was never ratified but she was remarkably sanguine about the IAAF’s failure to recognise her achievements, telling Athletics Weekly in 2014, “I wasn’t surprised. It’s just the way it was.”
Diane Leather, athlete, born 7 January 1933, died 6 September 2018