Bannister, first to break 4-minute mile, dies at 88
It was a typical British afternoon in early May: wet, cool and blustery. Not exactly the ideal conditions for running four laps around a track faster than many thought humanly possible.
A lanky Oxford medical student named Roger Bannister looked up at the white-and-red English flag whipping in the wind atop a nearby church and figured he would have to call off the record attempt.
But then, shortly after 6 p.m. on May 6, 1954, the wind subsided. Bannister glanced up again and saw the flag fluttering oh-so gently. The race was on.
With two friends acting as pacemakers, Bannister churned around the cinder track four times. His long arms and legs pumping, his lungs gasping for air, he put on a furious kick over the final 300 yards and nearly collapsed as he crossed the finish line.
The announcer read out the time:
The rest was drowned out by the roar of the crowd. The 3 was all that mattered.
Bannister had just become the first runner to break the mythical 4-minute barrier in the mile — a feat of speed and endurance that stands as one of the seminal sporting achievements of the 20th century.
The black-and-white image of Bannister, eyes closed, head back, mouth wide open, straining across the tape at Oxford’s Iffley Road track, endures as a defining snapshot of a transcendent moment in track and field history.
Bannister died peacefully in Oxford on Saturday at the age of 88. He was “surrounded by his family who were as loved by him, as he was loved by them,” the family said in a statement Sunday. “He banked his treasure in the hearts of his friends.”
British Prime Minister Theresa May remembered Bannister as a “British sporting icon whose achievements were an inspiration to us all. He will be greatly missed.”
Bannister’s time of 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds captured the world’s imagination and buoyed the spirits of Britons still suffering through post-war austerity.
“It’s amazing that more people have climbed Mount Everest than have broken the 4-minute mile,” Bannister said in an interview with The Associated Press in 2012.
Bannister followed up his 4-minute milestone a few months later by beating Australia’s John Landy in the “Miracle Mile” or “Mile of the Century” at the Empire Games in Vancouver, British Columbia with both men going under 4 minutes. Bannister regarded that as his greatest race because it came in a competitive championship against his fiercest rival.
While he will forever be remembered for his running, Bannister considered his long medical career in neurology as his life’s greatest accomplishment.
“My medical work has been my achievement and my family with 14 grandchildren,” he said. “Those are real achievements.”
The quest to break the 4-minute mile carried a special mystique. The numbers were easy for the public to grasp: 1 mile, 4 laps, 4 minutes.
When Sweden’s Gunder Hagg ran 4:01.4 in 1945, the chase was truly on. But, time and again, runners came up short. The 4-minute mark seemed like a brick wall that would never be toppled.
Bannister was undaunted.
“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.”
Bannister was born on March 23, 1929, in the London borough of Harrow. At the outbreak of World War II, the family moved to the city of Bath, where Bannister sometimes ran to and from school.