“Oh gosh, Sir Roger Bannister is dead…”
“Oh, who was he?”
“He was a great athlete…”
“Ah an Olympic champ?”
“No, he never won an Olympic medal even…”
“A world champ?”
“There were no world championships at that time…”
“Oh ok, so what was he known for?”
“He was the first person to run the mile in under four minutes…”
“The mile? What is that – 1500 meters?”
“No, no, it is not an Olympic event, actually, it is not contested in many athletic events now…”
“So all this fuss is over a guy who had no Olympic medal, and held a record in an event which is hardly contested!”
Sacrilegious though those words may be to many veteran sports followers, it is difficult for many younger folk (or “millennials,” to lapse into marketing lingo) to appreciate just what Sir Roger Bannister achieved. Especially when you consider that the man’s name appears in no list of Olympic victors, or as a World Champion. He did win the Commonwealth Gold, but retired soon after.
The “four minute barrier”
There is a school of thought that promotes the theory that some scientists had gone to the extent of saying that a four minute mile was beyond the human body. However, this does not seem to have been the case, as Sweden’s Arne Andersson had run the distance in 4:01.4, which was just a second (well, a second is a LONG time in athletics, but still…) in 1945. However, the record had not been broken for nine long years and there was a certain symmetry in “four minute mile” (four laps of the track in less than four minutes) that other records lacked. Add to this the fact that the British were extremely competitive about middle distance running (the Americans bossed the sprints and the Scandinavians held sway in the longer distances – Africa had yet to emerge as a power), and the hype around a four minute mile was considerable.
So much so that at some events (though not at the Olympics, where the 1500 meters was run rather than the 1609 meter mile), the mile became the star attraction, with crowds thronging to see if they would be fortunate enough to see the first “sub four minute mile.” Athletes tried to artificially create record-breaking conditions by using pacemakers (other athletes who would run fast for a short distance and then drop out in an attempt to make the person attempting to break the record run faster), and the likes of John Landy of Australia and Wes Santee of the US came close with times of 4:02.4.
One of the most hyped contenders for the record was a young doctor from Oxford who had started running at the rather advanced age of 17. Roger Bannister had finished fourth in the 1500 meters at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952 and set a British record there. He had since declared that he wanted to run the mile under four minutes and had himself run a very dubious 4:02.0 in 1953 in a race that had been literally created at the last minute and had been liberally assisted by pacemakers.
But until 6 May, 1954, the four minute barrier seemed insurmountable. No one had even been able to run under four minutes, one second, leave alone four minutes.
Run, Roger, Run!
And even on that day, it seemed that the four minute barrier for the mile would stay in place. For May 6, 1954 was a blustery day at the Iffley Road Stadium at Oxford where the mile was part of a meet between the British AAA and Oxford University. With winds up to 25 miles an hour, Bannister is reported to have more than once considering withdrawing from the race. However, the wind dropped and the race went ahead. There were six runners in the field but all the attention was on Roger Bannister, with a crowd of around three thousand expecting an attempt on the four minute mark.
Bannister once again had pacemakers to help him in his attempt. And these were no mean athletes but both champions in their own right: Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher. Chataway would set a world record in the 5000 meters and Brasher would win an Olympic gold in the 3000 meters steeplechase.
Brasher set the pace and it was a blistering one. The first lap flew by in 58 seconds. The second was slightly slower, but by the time the mid way mark was reached, the clock read 1 minute 58 seconds – a bid for the record was very much on. However, doubts began to creep in as the third lap was even slower, even though Chataway had taken over from a now-fading Brasher. It was 3 minutes, 1 second when the bell went for the final lap. Bannister would have to run the last lap almost as fast as the first one to break the four minute record. It was a hell of a task, even for someone who was known to have as devastating a “kick” (acceleration towards the finish) as Bannister did.
But when WOULD the kick one. As the final lap proceeded, some felt that Bannister might consider conserving his energy for another day. Then with about 250 meters to go, Bannister literally exploded off the track, leaving Chataway and the others in his wake. As the crowd roared, the Englishman seemed to channel energy from some deep source within, going faster and faster and crossing the finish line well ahead of the others. The spectators clearly seemed to have sensed that something special had happened as they flocked on to the track to hug the exhausted Bannister even though the times had not been announced.
“The most famous announcement in athletics”
When the timings were announced, tension was high in the stadium. Many felt that the clip at which Bannister had finished would have carried him below the four minute barrier. But had it? Announcing the results was the task of a certain Norris McWhirter. McWhirter would later become famous as the co-editor and co-publisher of the iconic Guinness Book of World Records, and he sure knew how to milk the suspense of the occasion.
As the crowd waited with bated breath, McWhirter started what many to this call the most famous announcement in athletics, and one of the most famous in the history of sport.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began. “Here is the result of event nine, the one mile: first, number forty one, RG Bannister, Amateur Athletic Association and formerly of Exeter and Merton Colleges, Oxford.”
And then he dropped the first hint that something special had happened:
“with a time which is a new meeting and track record, and which—subject to ratification—will be a new English Native, British National, All-Comers, European, British Empire and World Record.”
So Bannister had broken Andersson’s nine year old record. But what of the four minute barrier? McWhirter had kept the best for last.
“The time,” he announced, “was three…”
He could not finish. For the rest of the sentence was lost in a tumult of wild cheering. People threw their caps in the air, and Bannister was embraced and his hand shaken again and again. History had been created.
For the first time, a human being had run the distance of a mile under four minutes! (For the record, Bannister’s time was 3:59.4)
No Olympic medals…none needed
That evening made Bannister perhaps one of the least decorated pillars in athletic history. He did not have the sort of medals and honours tally that many champions did. In fact, even his world record for the mile did not stand long – forty six days later, John Landy ran the mile in 3:58.0 (the shortest duration for a record in the mile!). That said, Bannister still had one more famous race in him – on 7 August, 1954, he beat Landy in the mile at the Commonwealth Games in an incredibly close battle between the only two people at that time who had run the mile in under four minutes (the race was billed as The Miracle Mile). Landy was leading but made the classic mistake of looking back to check his position, allowing Bannister to pull away – the moment was so famous that a sculpture was made of it.
Bannister also would win the 1500 meters at the European championships later that year. He then retired to concentrate on medicine, working as a neurologist and made such considerable contributions to the field that at a later date, he would say he considered his contribution to medicine far greater than his achievements on the racing track.
The public, however, thought otherwise, making Bannister perhaps the most famous athlete to have never won an Olympic or world title. His sub four minute mile was rated 13th in a poll conducted by Channel 4 for a list of the 100 greatest moments in sport. Films were made of that evening in Oxford and books were written about it. The track at Oxford University was named the Roger Bannister track. Bannister himself was knighted in 1975. There was also time for one final track appearance. On July 10, 2012, at the Iffley Road stadium at Oxford, an 83-year old Bannister carried the Olympic torch for the London Olympics. Although suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, he was dressed immaculately in a suit and gently walked on the track where he had once set a world record.
Roger Bannister was not an Olympic champion. He was a legend.
And if that STILL sounds hard to believe, take a look at a 50 pence coin issued in 2004. It contains no names, no faces.
Just the legs of a runner. And a stopwatch.
The stopwatch reads 3:59.4.