With relatively little fanfare, the anniversary of one of sport's most hallowed milestones came and went last month. Forty years ago, on May 6, 1954, Great Britain's Roger Bannister ran history's first sub four-minute mile.
It was a feat that was compared with Linbergh's trans-Atlantic flight. It ranks with Hillary ascending Everest, with Yeager breaking the sound barrier, with Peary reaching the North Pole. All those pioneers had this much in common: They broke barriers, both mental and physical, and opened the floodgates for others to follow. Bannister recognized this instantly."I think people have been frightened of the four-minute mile," he said shortly after his historic race. "Now that it's been broken, I'm sure other runners will break it, too."
Only 46 days after Bannister did what had been thought to be impossible, Australia's John Landy ran faster. By the time the Melbourne Olympics arrived 21/2 years later, nine other men had run four-minute miles. All they had needed was someone to show them the way.
According to Track & Field News, since Bannister's historic run, 703 men have run four-minute miles a total of 3,615 times in 1,180 races. John Walker and Steve Scott have run more than 100 sub-four miles each. A handful of high school students have run sub-four miles. Earlier this year, a 41-year-old man, Ireland's Eamonn Coghlan, ran a mile in 3:58.15.
The world record for the mile has fallen 17 times in the 40 years since Bannister's run. The latest world record came just last year, when Algeria's Noureddine Morceli ran 3:44.39 - a performance that would have placed him at least 100 meters (or a full straightaway) ahead of Bannister's first sub-four mile. Now there is talk of breaking 3:40 and even 3:30.
Impossible? That's what the experts said about the four-minute mark. Gunder Haegg's record of 4:01.3, set in 1945, stood nine years, making the nice, even number of four minutes for four laps an irresistible target. It would have been one thing if the record had been 4:10 or even 3:58, but there was something magic about four minutes. And something elusive.
After all attempts failed to break Haegg's record, many postulated that a four-minute mile was simply impossible for human flesh and bone. Recalls Bannister, "The fact that (the record) stood for nine years was used as an argument for some people to say, `Well, there has to be a barrier somewhere. Maybe this is the barrier.' "
In 1952, Landy ran 4:02.1. A year later, Bannister ran 4:02.0 and America's Wes Santee 4:02.4. "As it became clear that somebody was going to do it, I felt that I would prefer it to be me," says Bannister.
Bannister feared that Landy would get there first because, while Bannister was training in the British winter, Landy was racing in the Australian summer. But Landy fell two seconds short and announced that he would make another attempt in Europe in June.
With time growing short, Bannister planned to make his record attempt in his first race of the season in a meet between the Amateur Athletic Association and his alma mater, Oxford University, on Oxford's Iffley Road track. But when the day broke cold, windy and rainy, Bannister had doubts. He intentionally hadn't announced his record attempt plan, fearing he would have to call it off at the last moment because of the weather.
His coach had other thoughts. "If you have the slightest chance today and don't take it, you may never forgive yourself," Coach Franz Stampfl told him. "In life, you must take your chances."
A flag near the stadium was snapping in the wind, but a half-hour before his race Bannister saw the flap fall limp. The race against the clock was on.
To break four minutes, Bannister of course needed to average just under 60 seconds per lap on the wet, rough cinder track. His training partner, Chris Brasher, served as rabbit and took him through the first lap in 57.5 and the second in 60.7, giving him a half-mile split of 1:58.2. Chris Chataway rabbited the third lap in 62.3, giving Bannister a time of 3:00.5 with a lap to go. Even as he was making the long, painful drive to the finish, Bannister fully recognized the moment for what it was.
"I felt that the moment of a lifetime had come," he wrote in his autobiography. "The world seemed to stand still, or did not exist. The only reality was the next two hundred yards of track under my feet . . . I felt at that moment that it was my chance to do one thing supremely well. I drove on, impelled by a combination of fear and pride. The air I breathed filled me with the spirit of the track where I had run my first race. The noise in my ears was that of the faithful Oxford crowd. Their hope and encouragement gave me greater strength. I had now turned the last bend and there were only fifty yards more.
"Those last few seconds seemed never ending. 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 if only I reached the tape without slackening my speed. If I faltered, there would be no arms to hold me and the world would be a cold, forbidding place, because I had been so close. I leapt at the tape like a man taking his last spring to save himself from the chasm that threatens to engulf him."
As has been recounted many times, the public address announcer, playing the drama for all it was worth, called out every record that Bannister had broken before giving the time. "Three . . . ." The rest was lost in cheers from the 1,000 or so spectators.
BRITON SMASHES 4-MINUTE MILE, RUNS IT IN 3:59.4, ran the headline on the front page of the Deseret News the next day. The story read, "Great Britain's Roger Bannister finally smashed the long-sought four-minute mile Thursday when he was clocked in the world record time of 3:59.4.
"The mark, long the Holy Grail of track men, was two full seconds under the world record. Bannister raced to the most memorable track and field mark of all time . . . A mighty roar went up from the small gathering when it was announced that he had shattered the barrier that many deemed unbreakable."
Bannister was later knighted and his place in history made secure, but he never lost perspective. A few months after his record run, he retired, at the age of 25, to pursue a medical career. But first he raced Landy, who had since lowered the record to 3:57.9, in a much-celebrated showdown and won, 3:58.8-3:59.6. Bannister went on to become a distinguished neurologist and recently retired as master of Pembroke College in Oxford.
When informed earlier this year of Coghlan's sub-four mile at the age of 41, Bannister told an Associated Press reporter, "Well, I wonder what else he might have done with his life. He obviously doesn't do it unless he enjoys doing it, so good luck. But I myself had lots of other things that I wanted to do and couldn't envision myself going on training."
Running always ran second to Bannister's studies and the demands of medical school. He trained only a half-hour a day, five days a week - a regimen that left him poorly prepared to handle heats, semifinals and finals on consecutive days in the 1952 Olympic Games. As a result, he placed only fourth. It was a disappointing finish for Bannister, but it proved to be the best thing that ever happened to him. He had planned to retire after the Olympics, but his poor showing there convinced him to continue for two more years, until he finished medical school, which set the stage for his historic run.
The world's fascination with the mile has continued since then, and so has progress. Training has become a full-time occupation for the world's top milers, and performance is aided by improved training programs, synthetic tracks and money. Since Bannister, there has been a procession of brilliant milers, often coming along in pairs, pushing each other to faster times. Bannister had Landy, then there was Ryun-Keino, Walker-Bayi, Coe-Ovett, Cram-Aouita. Only Morceli has been left to run alone, and one can only wonder how fast he would run if he had someone on his shoulder on the gun lap.
John Walker was the first to run under 3:50. Sebastian Coe broke the world record three times in three years, lowering it from 3:49.4 to 3:47.33, and won two Olympic gold medals in the metric mile. Ryun held the world record for nine years. New Zealand's Herb Elliott was unbeaten in 44 races at 1500 meters or one mile. Morceli dropped the record by nearly two seconds while running virtually alone.
But none of them have quite overshadowed Bannister and that day at Oxford. On the anniversary of the first sub-four mile, a dozen of the 13 men who have set world records from Bannister to the present gathered at Iffley Road track to remember and celebrate the race that had been held there 40 years earlier (only Steve Ovett refused to attend).
"(Bannister) proved it wasn't impossible and gave the chance to others," said Morcelli.
"We are all creatures of our time and this was not just another record," recalled Chataway, the fourth man to break four minutes. "Difficult though it may be for young people to believe, all those years ago it seemed that the four-minute mile was an impenetrable barrier. To break it needed someone with exceptional inner qualities: independence of mind, determination, self belief, concentration and passion . . . and all of that Roger brought to bear in that thrilling race."
As for Bannister, he looked ahead, as always. "I believe we could be moving closely toward 3:30 in the early part of the next century . . . if there is peace in the world and if more of the population becomes involved in the sport."
3:30? Who are we to doubt one of the world's great pioneers.
The graphic below illustrates the distance the top mile runners of teh past 70 years would be behind the current mile record holder* if they could be brought together for a race today.
1. Noureddine Morceli
Sept. 5, 1993
2. Sebastian Coe
Aug. 28, 1981
3. John Walker
Aug. 12, 1975
4. Jim Ryun
July 17, 1966
5. Roger Bannister
May 6, 1954
6. Gunder Haegg
July 17, 1945
7. Glen Cunningham
June 16, 1934
8. Paavp Nurmi
Aug. 23, 1923