Too Modest by Half – Reliving Sir Roger Bannister’s Four-Minute Mile

20 March, 2012

Image shows Roger Bannister, exhausted after the end of his mile run. Roger Bannister shortly after he ran the mile.

Oxford is perhaps more associated internationally with academic achievement than sporting success – but it was on the University of Oxford’s Iffley Road track that Sir Roger Bannister became the first man in the world to break the four-minute mile, all the way back on the 6th May, 1954.

Image shows the statue of Roger Bannister and John Landy racing.

This statue in Vancouver celebrates not Bannister’s original 4-minute mile, but the Miracle Mile, a race later that summer between Bannister and his rival John Landy, the two fastest mile runners in the world.

It was a tense event. A huge crowd had gathered, mostly by word of mouth, to come and see Bannister attempt the feat. The race was very nearly called off due to high wind – there was a 15mph crosswind with gusts of up to 25mph, equivalent to gale force. Yet Bannister’s coach, Franz Stampfl, persuaded him to go for it, saying “If you pass it up today, you may never forgive yourself for the rest of your life.”

Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher acted as Bannister’s pacemakers. Brasher ran the first lap in 58 seconds and the first half-mile in one minute 58 seconds – a pace that at the time, Bannister felt was too slow. At that point, Chataway moved to the front, making a time of 3:01 for the first three laps. Bannister had to complete the last lap in 59 seconds – and overtook Chataway with just 275m to go.

Harold Abrahams, 100m winner at the 1924 Paris Olympics (and inspiration for the film Chariots of Fire), acted as timekeeper. The announcement of the winning time was made by Norris McWhirter, co-writer of The Guinness Book of World Records. McWhirter milked the tension for all it was worth, saying, “As a result of Event Four, the one mile, the winner was R.G. Bannister of Exeter and Merton colleges, in a time which, subject to ratification, is a track record, an English native record, a United Kingdom record, a European record, in a time of three minutes…” The roar of the crowd drowned out the rest of the announcement. Bannister had beaten the record with a time of 3 min 59.4 sec.

Image is a button that reads, "Browse all History & Classics articles."Bannister’s record didn’t hold for long – it was beaten by his rival, John Landy, a mere 46 days later, with a time of 3:57.9, which remained the record for more than three years. Nonetheless, as Bannister himself observed in a recent interview with Associated Press, more people have climbed Mount Everest than have beaten the 4-minute mile.” Bannister himself retired from running to pursue his medical studies full-time (in impressive Oxford style, he had been running competitively and maintaining his academic studies at the same time) and had a distinguished career as a neurologist.

Image shows the Iffley Road track where Bannister ran his mile.

The now-renamed Roger Bannister track where the record was set.

It had been believed by some that it wasn’t physically possible to break the 4-minute mile, but Bannister’s medical studies led him to believe otherwise; he said, “There was no logic in my mind that if you can run a mile in 4 minutes, 1 and 2/5ths, you can’t run it in 3:59. I knew enough medicine and physiology to know it wasn’t a physical barrier, but I think it had become a psychological barrier. I thought it would be right for Britain to try to get this. There was a feeling of patriotism. Our new queen had been crowned the year before, Everest had been climbed in 1953. Although I tried in 1953, I broke the British record, but not the 4-minute mile, and so everything was ready in 1954.”

If you’re in Oxford, head to Iffley Road and see the track where the 4-minute mile was broken. Alongside the blue plaque commemorating Bannister’s success, the neighbouring road has also been renamed in his honour – as Bannister Close.

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Image credits: banner; statue; track.

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