Remembering Roger Bannister, the First to Break a Four-Minute Mile
Few events are powerful enough to raise the human spirit worldwide. The moon landing comes to mind. The discovery of the polio vaccine. Reaching the summit of the earth’s highest peak. In my lifetime, one athletic feat reached this level: the breaking of the four-minute-mile barrier. I can still remember May 6, 1954 as if it were yesterday. And I contend that Roger Bannister’s achievement matters more to us than ever.
In 1954, we had no internet or cable television and even network television played a smaller role in our lives. Sport was not entertainment or big business. There were no agents, personal trainers or multi-million-dollar contracts. Sport was just sport, and that is precisely my point. Bannister was chasing a personal dream, not an endorsement.
I was a college sophomore at Princeton and arrived at track practice that afternoon to learn that Bannister, a 25-year-old medical student, had just run a 3:59.4 mile on the Iffley Road Track in Oxford, England. Our workout was magical. Bannister’s race made us feel that our potential was unlimited.
For years medical researchers had been saying that there were human limitations, and a sub-four mile was one of them. However, when Gunder Haegg of Sweden lowered the mile record to 4:01.4 in 1945, many assumed a sub-four was coming. But for more than eight years, no one could improve on Haegg’s time. This only increased the the sub-four’s mystique, and whetted the public’s appetite for those runners willing to attempt it. By early 1954, three great champions stood out from the pack: John Landy of Australia, Wes Santee of the United States, and Bannister.
The lead up to Bannister’s epic race tells much of the man and the era.
Bannister, a loner by nature, began doing track sessions with two of Britain’s top middle-distance runners: Chris Brasher, a 3000-meter steeplechase specialist who would later go on to be the co-founder of the London Marathon, and Chris Chataway, a 5000-meter runner. For Bannister, his medical studies came ahead of his training. In fact, he knew that 1954 would be his last year as an athlete.
In those days, track and field was a sport for students. There were no professionals. I once asked Bannister about rumors of money in the sport, those little brown envelopes that we heard talk of back in the 1950s. He told me that there was a strict limit of not accepting anything greater than $20 in value, and that he had once turned down a beautiful silver trophy that was worth much more. “It just wasn’t done,” he said.
On the morning of his big race, Bannister went to St. Mary’s Hospital in London. After completing a few duties, he sharpened his spikes on a grindstone in the hospital’s lab, then took an early train to Oxford.
When he arrived, the gusty winds were whipping up the leaves on campus. He and Chataway discussed postponing the attempt at the record and instead running an easy mile that evening. The final decision was held until the last moment.
As Bannister lined up with five other runners a few minutes after 6 p.m., he noticed that the flag on nearby St. George’s church had begun to flutter more gently as the wind died down. “The decision was mine alone,” he said later.
He told his pacemakers, Brasher and Chataway, that the sub-four attempt was on.
Brasher went right for the lead and Bannister settled in effortlessly behind him. Brasher ignored Bannister’s urging to go faster and took the field through a 57.5-second first quarter. Perfect pace. After the halfway split of 1:58, Chataway took over as planned and brought the crowd of some 1,000 to a full-throated roar. He led Bannister past the three-quarter mark on 3:00.7. On the backstretch, Bannister swept by Chataway, accelerating into the cool, damp evening.
“I felt at that moment that it was my chance to do one thing supremely well,” Bannister wrote in The First Four Minutes, his autobiography.
Of course, that is what he did, crossing the finish line in 3:59.4 and collapsing into the arms of track officials. “I felt like an exploded flashlight,” he recalled.
Within minutes came the slow suspense-filled words of the track announcer, Norris McWhirter: “Ladies and gentlemen, here is the result of event No. 9, the one-mile. First No. 41, R.G. Bannister of the Amateur Athletic Association and formerly of Exeter and Merton Colleges, with a time which is a new meeting and track record, and which, subject to ratification, will be a new English native, British national, British all-comers, European, British Empire and world’s record. The time is three….” The noise of the crowd eclipsed the rest.
Bannister grabbed Brasher and Chataway for a victory lap. “We had done it—the three of us!” he rejoiced in his book.
Bannister never tried to capitalize on his fame. A few months later, he won the so-called Mile of the Century against John Landy in Vancouver, running 3:58.8, and he also added a European championships gold medal in the 1500 meters to his resume for that year. Then he quietly retired from track and field to become a doctor and researcher.
Chataway once said, “There must have been times when Roger felt that a good day for him was one when nobody mentioned the four-minute mile. One day many years ago when he and I had returned from an afternoon on his small sailboat near is summer cottage at Arundel, a man looked closely at him and said, “Aren’t you the bloke who ran the four minute mile?” Roger acknowledged that he was with a smile and a simple shrug.
In 1979 when I was publisher of The Runner magazine, I invited Bannister to New York for the 25th anniversary of his sub-four. He agreed only after making me promise not to make a big fuss of it. I planned a small press luncheon and an interview or two, leaving plenty of time for Roger and his wife, Moyra, to enjoy the city. As we walked through Central Park one day, Bannister marveled at the running boom that was in full swing in this country. In his day, there were no recreational runners.
Bannister once said that when he met Moyra, a few weeks after his historic sub-four, she knew nothing about sport. “She thought I had run four miles in one minute, and she wasn’t much impressed,” he said.
Today as we look back, that evening at Oxford 64 years ago may seem like some gauzy image out of Chariots of Fire. And in truth, it comes close.
Noble purpose counted more than winning at any cost. Bannister and the others in his race seem drawn from another time. Yet their goals and ideals are as refreshing today as they are old-fashioned. “We remember the sun on our backs, the laughter, and friends, “ Bannister said years later. “And we forget the torment.” It's a wonderful message for athletes today.
George A. Hirsch is the chairman of New York Road Runners' Board of Directors, the longtime worldwide publisher of Runner’s World, and the founding publisher of New York magazine.