In a recent interview with Associated Press, Sir Roger Bannister, the first man to break the four-minute mile, remembers his exertions as if they were yesterday – rather than May 1954. “It’s amazing,” says Bannister, “that more people have climbed Mount Everest than have broken the 4-minute mile.”
The enduring image of Bannister, eyes closed, mouth agape, straining across the finish line at the University of Oxford’s Iffley Road track, symbolise the supreme test of speed and endurance that captured the public’s imagination. It made him a global celebrity as the first man to run the mile in under 4 minutes – the mythical barrier that some through was beyond human reach.
With London 2012 less than 150 days away, Sir Roger finds himself in the spotlight again, the embodiment of sporting achievement in Britain. While Bannister never won an Olympic medal he still represents a strong link to the Olympic ideals of faster, higher, stronger. This had led to speculation that now, after a distinguished 40-year career as a neurologist, Bannister could still capture his Olympic moment by lighting the flame to open the London Games.
Bannister politely declined to comment. He did, however, talk animatedly about his quest to break the 4-minute mile, which carried a special mystique. The numbers were easy to grasp: 1 mile, 4 laps, 4 minutes. Many thought the human body was incapable of running that fast, but when Finland’s Paavo Nurmi clocked 4:10.4 in 1923, the pursuit was on. Sweden’s Gunder Hagg lowered the mark to 4:01.4 in 1945, and it stood for nine years. Until Bannister.
“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,” he said. “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.”
Bannister had lined up English runners Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway as pacemakers. He tucked in behind Brasher, a steeplechaser, who ran the first lap in 58 seconds and the first half-mile in 1:58. Chataway moved to the front and took them through three laps in 3:01. Bannister would have to run the final lap in 59 seconds.
His long arms and legs pumping, his lungs gasping for oxygen, he surged in front of Chataway with about 275 metres to go. "I then went flat out for the finishing line, and just about managed to stagger over it," he said. "I couldn't stand at the end."
The chief timekeeper was Harold Abrahams, the 100-metre champion at the 1924 Paris Olympics whose story inspired the film "Chariots of Fire." He handed a piece of paper to Norris McWhirter, who announced the time: "3... "
"That was when the crowd exploded and we didn't hear any more," Bannister said. "It didn't matter what the rest was."
The Olympic Torch will pass through Oxford on its way to London on 9 July. We expect Sir Roger will be there…