Roger Bannister runs the four minute mile
In terms of cold logic, why one particular record-setting run should be more memorable and more epoch-making than another is hard to explain. The four-minute mile barrier broken by Roger Bannister on May 6th 1954 has, however, become a significant part of British folklore, and even today more than 50 years on there are probably more people who will recognize his name and link it with his world record than could name recent Olympic gold medallists. Millions have seen the grainy film of Bannister falling into a friend’s arms just beyond the line, unaware for some time if he had reached his goal.
All the elements were there to make the story stick in the popular imagination. The good looking medical student. The tough Australian rival looming in the background. Defeat and despondency beforehand. And on the day, the suspense of watching the weather conditions that for much of the day looked like making a record attempt futile.
Bannister had not even worn spikes before starting his university career aged 17 in 1946. Athletics had taken a back seat during World War II , and although he was inspired to race, Bannister early on set himself what would today be regarded as incredibly light training schedules for one of such evident talent.
Athletics never fully dominated Bannister’s life, indeed when asked in later life if the four-minute mile achievement was his most important he said that his work as a neurologist surpassed it in his mind.
Picked as a possible for the 1948 Olympic squad he did not take up the offer, believing he was not ready. He did race in the 1952 games, but with semi-finals as well as heats before the final his stamina did not hold out and he finished fourth.
After the Helsinki Olympics Bannister was close to quitting athletics to concentrate solely on his studies and career, but instead decided on a new target – to be the first man to beat the four-minute mark for the mile. His determination was matched by Australian John Landy, and between Helsinki and the early summer of 1954 the pair watched one another’s progress with concern. Landy set a new personal best of 4.02 at the end of 1953, and seemed the likelier of the two to take the record which had stood at 4.01.4 for several years.
Landy was expected in Europe to continue his efforts, having recorded several times just slower than his best during the latter part of the Australian 1953-54 season. Bannister knew it was a matter of time before Landy succeeded, so he set his mind on breaking four minutes at the Oxford University V AAA meeting at the University’s Iffley Road Track on May 6th. Until the very last moment high winds looked likely to put a stop to the attempt, but they died to acceptable (but far from ideal) speeds just before the start of the race.
Bannister was lucky in having two similarly gifted contemporaries at Oxford, Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway. They pace-set for him, first Brasher, then Chataway. With about 200 yards to the finish Bannister, famed for his last-lap speed, hit the front and sprinted for the line, collapsing just after crossing it – he said that he lost his sight for a few moments with the effort taking its toll.
Stadium announcer for the day Norris McWhirter drew out the suspense for the crowd of more than 3,000 there to witness the attempt. His preamble to the announcement of the time ran on for more than sixty words until he came to say: “The time was three….” The rest was drowned by cheering.
The English gentleman-amateur had in fact crossed the line in 3.59.4.
A month and a half later Landy took the record in a race in Turku, Finland, lowering the time to 3.58, a huge improvement, but it will be Bannister whose name endures in the athletics roll of honour.
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