The First Sub-Four Minute Mile -
6th May 1954, Iffley Road Stadium, Oxford
Many believed it could not be done. For years people had tried. However they were getting closer. The ‘miracle mile’ would happen soon and two men were vying for the honour – the Australian John Landy and the Englishman Roger Bannister. The current record, of 4.01.04, was set by Gunder Hägg back in July 1945 in Malmö and try as they might that last second and a bit was proving hard to crack creating a myth that it simply was not possible.
Roger Bannister was born on 6th May 1929 in Harrow, son of Ralph and Alice, and was said to have run everywhere as a child. He went to Vaughan Primary School in Harrow and then the City of Bath Boys’ School and finally to University College School, London. He won his school’s cross-country titles at the ages of 12,13 and 14 and at the age of 16 decided to become a runner. He won a scholarship to Study medicine at Oxford University and spent his lunch hour in Paddington Park training. However he barely made the University 3rd team.
Then on March 22nd 1947 he acted as a pacemaker in the annual match against Cambridge University. Not only did he complete the race but also he went on to win by over 20 yards in a time of 4.30.8. He was considered as a possible for the London Olympics of 1948 but declined as he felt he was not ready. In 1949 he won two races in the States and got his time down to 4.11.1 showing great speed on the final lap, which he ran in 57.5. By 1951, in the Penn Relays, his time was down to 4.08.3 and he also won the British Mile Championship. He won it again in 1953.
The London Olympics had inspired him to try and make the British team in Helsinki in 1952. He did make that team, qualified for the final but finished 4th. A year later he ran 4.02 with Chris Brasher and Don Macmillan running as pacemakers. Although this was a new British record pacemakers were not allowed and it never made the record books. Fortunately this rule was soon to be changed. Bannister knew that Landy was making an attempt to break the four-minute barrier and decided to make an attempt of his own on 6th May at the annual match between his old university, Oxford, and the Amateur Athletic Association. To relax beforehand he went rock climbing in Scotland.
He took a train on the morning of the race from London, where he was working as a doctor, to Oxford and walked to a friend’s house in Oxford for lunch – a ham salad. The race had been carefully planned. His two pacemakers were Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway. Brasher would take him to ‘Base Camp’ as Bannister later called it, which was the half-mile mark. Chataway would then take over with Bannister hitting the front from about 200m out. The weather, though, was not good and Bannister could not decide whether to attempt the record or not. There was a 15mph crosswind and gusts of 25mph. There were also rain squalls and the cinder ash track would be heavy. His Austrian coach, Franz Stampfl, told him that if he did not make an attempt he might regret it for the rest of his life. They arrived at the track at 4.30pm. The wind was still gusty and at 5pm there was another shower. Brasher and Chataway were now getting restless and wanted to know if it was on or off. Half an hour before the race Bannister decided to go for it.
There were 7 in the race but one runner, Nigel Miller, did not realise he was entered until he arrived at the stadium and read the programme. Attempts to find him kit and spikes proved fruitless and he was unable to run, reducing the field to just 6. The race was due off at 6pm and what happened next is best written by Bannister himself in his book ‘Twin Tracks’, published in 2014.
As we lined up for the start, I glanced at the church flag again. It fluttered more gently now and the scene from Shaw’s Saint Joan flashed through my mind, how she, at her desperate moment, waited for the wind to change, so that her army could cross the river. This was the second moment of chance, a moment of calm, which I took as a sign that the wind was dropping.
There was complete silence on the ground… then a false start by Chris B … I felt angry that precious moments during the lull in the wind might be slipping by. The gun fired a second time … Brasher went into the lead and I slipped in effortlessly behind him. My legs seemed to meet no resistance, as if propelled by some unknown force. We seemed to be going so slowly! I shouted: “Faster!” But Brasher kept his head and did not change the pace.
At one-and-a-half laps I was still worrying about the pace. A voice shouting “relax” penetrated to me above the noise of the crowd. I learnt afterwards it was Stampfl’s. Unconsciously, I obeyed. If the speed was wrong it was too late to do anything about it, so why worry? I was relaxing so much that my mind seemed almost detached from my body. There was no feeling of strain.
I barely noticed the half-mile, passed in 1.58 minutes. At three-quarters of a mile my effort was still barely perceptible; the time was 3.07 minutes and by now the crowd was roaring. Then I pounced past Chataway, 300 yards from the finish.
There was a moment of mixed excitement and anguish when my mind took over. It raced well ahead of my body and drew me compellingly forward. There was no pain, only a great unity of movement and aim. Time seemed to stand still. The only reality was the next 200 yards of track under my feet. I felt at that moment that it was my chance to do one thing supremely well. The noise in my ears was that of the faithful Oxford crowd. Their hope and encouragement gave me strength: I had now turned the last bend and there were only 50 yards more.
My body must have exhausted its energy, but it still went on running just the same. The physical overdraft came only from greater willpower. This was the crucial moment when my legs were strong enough to carry me over the last few yards, as they could not have done in previous years.
With five yards to go, the finishing line seemed almost to recede. Those last few seconds seemed an eternity. The faint line of the finishing tape stood ahead as a haven of peace after the struggle. The arms of the world were waiting to receive me only if I reached the tape without slackening my speed. If I faltered now, there would be no arms to hold me and the world would seem a cold, forbidding place. I leapt at the tape like a man taking his last desperate spring to save himself from a chasm that threatens to engulf him.
Then my effort was over and I collapsed almost unconscious, with an arm on either side of me. It was only then that real pain overtook me. It was as if all my limbs were caught in an ever-tightening vice. Blood surged from my muscles to my brain and seemed to fell me. I felt like an exploded flashbulb. Vision became black and white. I existed in the most passive physical state without being quite unconscious.
The stopwatches held the answer. The announcement came from Norris McWhirter, delivered with a slow, clear diction: “Result of Event Eight: One mile. First, R. G. Bannister of Exeter and Merton Colleges, in a time which, subject to ratification, is a new Track Record, British Native Record, British All-Comers Record, European Record, Commonwealth Record and World Record… Three minutes…”
The rest was lost in the roar of excitement. I grabbed Brasher and Chataway and together we scampered round the track in a burst of happiness. We had done it, the three of us!
His time of 3.59.4 was bettered the following month by John Landy in a time of 3.57.9 but the honour of being the first could never be taken away. At the end of 1954 Bannister retired to concentrate on his medical career and he became a distinguished consultant neurologist and later Master of Pembroke College, Oxford, before retiring in 1993. British runners held the world mile record from 17th July 1979, when Sebastian Coe broke the record in Oslo, through Steve Ovett and Steve Cram until 5th September 1993 when Noureddine Morceli of Algeria broke it. The current record stands at 3.43.13 and is held by the Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj who broke the record in Rome on July 7th 1999, nearly 17 years ago.
Although Roger Bannister held the record for only a month he is probably one of the most famous athletics record holders ever. He continued running to keep fit until he broke his ankle in a car accident in 1975 and had to stop – the same year he was knighted for services to sport after he had served as the first chairman of the Sports Council (now called Sport England). On the 50th anniversary of his achievement the Royal Mint produced a commemorative 50p coin that showed the legs of a runner and the time 3:59:4. In 1996 Pembroke College named a building in his honour and in 2012, when the Olympic flame was carried around the UK in readiness for the London Olympics, he took it around the Iffley Road stadium where he had made history 58 years before.