Roger Bannister

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Sir Roger Bannister was the first person to run a mile in under four minutes.

One of the greatest inspirational figures in the history of British sport, Bannister smashed a barrier once considered well beyond the limit of human capability.  On May 6, 1954, in Oxford, England, the 25-year-old medical student went 3:59.4 to run the first sub-four minute mile ever recorded.  The mark lasted just 46 days, but his place in history was assured.

Sir Roger helped lift a nation out of a lingering sense of post-war austerity.  He started a tradition of great British middle distance runners.  Between July 1979 and September 1993, the world record for the one-mile run belonged to the U.K, as Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram all held the mark at one point.  “There is not a single athlete of my generation who was not inspired by Roger and his achievements both on and off the track,” said Coe, who ran a record 3:47.33 in 1981 and later became a member of Parliament.

Born March 23, 1929, in Harrow, Middlesex, Sir Roger Gilbert Bannister stood six-two and was a gangly 154 pounds when he left home at the end of the Second World War to study at University College School in London.  After earning his undergraduate degree, Bannister went on to Oxford, and then St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School.  He viewed running as a diversion from the demands of his medical studies.

When Bannister took to the Iffley Road track at Oxford in spring 1954, the world record for the mile was 4:01.4, set by Sweden’s Gunder Hagg July 17, 1945.  Bannister was obsessed with running a mile in under four minutes.  He set his sights on the mark after the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, where he had set a new British record while finishing fourth in the 1,500-meter final.  Bannister nearly achieved it twice in 1953.  “It had become rather like Everest,” recalled Bannister years later, “a challenge for the human spirit.”

He had been considered for the British team at the 1948 London Olympics – just two years after taking up running as a 17-year-old.  He earned a spot on the team that went to Helinski, then returned on a mission.  Medical studies limited his training time to 30 minutes a day on the track, so Bannister strove for efficiency.  He used his medical knowledge to devise a training regimen.  Bannister incorporated interval training, running 200 meters at a very fast pace, followed by a 200-meter jog.  He considered the four-minute barrier more mental than physical, and sought to perfect the mechanical aspects of running.

Bannister set out to lower the mile mark on a blustery May evening.  Running for the Amateur Athletic Association in a meet against Oxford University, Bannister used teammates Christopher Chataway and Chris Basher – who went on to co-found the London Marathon – as pacesetters.  The race was broadcast live by BBC Radio, with about 3,000 spectators present for the event.  Brasher led for the first two laps, covering the half-mile in 1:58, with Bannister tucked in behind.  Chataway moved to the front at the halfway point.  After completing three laps in 3:01, Chataway continued to lead until Bannister began his finishing kick with just over a half-lap to go.

Head thrown back and arms flailing coming down the home straight, Bannister finished first, covering the last lap in just under 59 seconds.  The crowd awaited the results.  When timekeeper Norris McWhiter tried to announce the time of “Three…”, the rest of his words were drowned out by cheers.  Roger Bannister, who once wrote that the ideal athlete was one who enjoyed a few drinks and even the odd cigarette – had done the impossible, breaking the four-minute barrier by six-tenths of a second.

The following month, Australian John Landy bettered Bannister’s record in Finland with a time of 3:57.9.  It set up a much-anticipated clash between the two men in the 1954 Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, slated for early August.  In a race billed as The Miracle Mile, Landy led until the final turn, when he made the mistake of looking back for his rival.  Bannister burst ahead to break the tape in 3:58.8.  Landy ran 3:59.7.  Their two times were the third and fourth sub-four minute miles in history.

After winning the 1,500 meters [better known as the metric mile] at the European Championships in late summer 1954, Bannister retired from athletics to concentrate on medicine.  He became a neurologist and was appointed as the Master of Pembroke College, Oxford.  In 1971, Bannister served as the first chairman of the British Sports Council, leading a crusade for drug testing in track and field.

He continued to run for fitness until he broke an ankle in a car accident in 1975, the same year he was knighted.  Mr. Bannister always said he was more proud of his contribution to medicine than his running career.  Although he is arguably the most famous record-setter in the mile, Roger Bannister also held the world record for the shortest period of time.

Ironically, after pioneering groundbreaking research into failures of the autonomic nervous system, Sir Roger Bannister was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2011.   He died in Oxford March 3, 2018, at 88.

This Sunday marks the 19th anniversary of the current world record for the one-mile run.  On July 7, 1999, Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj ran 3:43.13 in Rome.  At 19 years, this is the longest-standing record for the mile.  In August 1923, the great Paavo Nurmi ran 4:10.4, bettering the record set by American Norman Taber eight years earlier.