Bannister’s Milestone Recalls a Different Era in Sport

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    Bannister’s Milestone Recalls a Different Era in Sport


    Published: April 25, 2004

    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 now

    than ever.

    In 1954, we had no Internet or cable television.

    Network television played a much smaller role in our

    lives. Sport was not entertainment or big business.

    There were no agents, personal trainers, or

    multimillion-dollar contracts. Sport was just sport,

    and that is precisely my point. Bannister was chasing

    a personal dream, not a footwear 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-minute-59.4-second 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 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 3,000-meter steeplechase

    specialist, and Chris Chataway, a 5,000 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 track and field,

    those little brown envelopes that we heard talk of

    back in the 1950’s. 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 for the

    start 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 in 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


    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 1,500 meters to his rsum 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.”

    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 50

    years ago may seem like some gauzy image out of

    “Chariots of Fire.” And, in truth, it comes close.

    Noble purpose counted for 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 10 years ago. “And we forget

    the torment.”

    Perhaps that’s why we need Roger Bannister more today

    than ever.

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