- April 27, 2004 at 3:20 am #1442
Bannister’s Milestone Recalls a Different Era in Sport
By GEORGE A. HIRSCH
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
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
Perhaps that’s why we need Roger Bannister more today
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