Full Name: (Sir) Roger Gilbert Bannister.
Date of Birth: 23 March 1929
Born: Harrow, London.
Coach: Franz Stampfl.
Now That Is History
It was doubted that it could be achieved, that a man could break the four minute barrier for the Mile, but if one is to consider the essence of such a remarkable May occasion in 1954 when Roger Bannister did just that, you have to look behind the time of 3:59.4. There were no histrionics. It was an extraordinary end to an ordinary day, when Bannister, a medical student at St Mary's Hospital left Paddington after a morning of work, took the train to Oxford and by the evening he was among the most famous men in the world.Roll the clock forward to today and just by returning to the famous track in Iffley Road, you feel you are stepping into history. Times have might changed, times literally have improved, but looking at the flag on the church in the distance, the signal that gave Bannister the impetus of the weather being to his liking, and within an instant you can be transported back to arguably the most seminal day in the history of athletics.
How Did It Begin
Bannister was 25 when he broke the world record, an amazing achievement in itself, but one which becomes all the more remarkable because he had been running for only eight yearsl. Education for Bannister came at the City of Bath Boy’s Grammar School before University colleges in London and Oxford and then onto medical school. His first mile was clocked in 4:53, and it was the first time that he had worn spikes. The race had taken place at..Iffley Road. Who could have imagined that once he had learned the art of adapting to proper running shoes, he would turn that Oxfordshire track into a Mecca. In 1947, Bannister competed at the White City Stadium, running for Oxford, and he was given advice by Austrian Franz Stampfl, who was coach to Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher, men who became so influential in the world-record race. Competing sparingly, he won the mile in the Oxford-Cambridge Varsity match each year between 1947 and 1950 and though there was no recognition of junior records in those days, but his Mile times of 4:18.7 and 4:17.2 (5th AAAs) in 1948 were just that. Bannister’s senior international career was so short: he had finished third at the European Championships in Brussels in 1950, and two years later he progressed to the final of the Olympic 1500m. Bannister finished fourth in 3:46.0 as Josef Barthel, of Luxembourg, triumphed in an Olympic record of 3:45.1, a surprise that he was out of the medals because he was considered to be among the favourites. Barging had taken place during the race and he ended disappointed. It would be the only time that Bannister would run at the Games, yet his great day was drawing ever closer, though by 1953, he had broken a ‘mile’ world record which few people remember.On August 1, in an international between Britain and France, Bannister ran the final leg of the 4 x 1 Mile event where the team set of a time of 16:41.0. The rest of the quartet was Chris Chataway, Bill Nankeville and Don Seaman. But all the time the target became breaking the four-minute barrier for the mile. He was not alone, of course. It was a worldwide desire by so many to be the first…if there could be a first.
The record stood at 4:01.4, run by Sweden’s Gunder Hagg in Malmo, nine years earlier, in July 1945, at a time when peace had not even been declared in World War II. But by the mid-1950s, Australian John Landy, who had run 4:02.1 in late 1952, was doing all he could to edge near the barrier, recording marks between 4:03 to 4:02 on five occasions and in 1953, Bannister, being paced by Brasher, tried to break it at a meeting in Surrey. He ran 4:02.0 and here lay the foundation for what 1954 would bring. With the backing of Chataway, Brasher and Stampfl, sport would have its golden headlines.
It is amazing to think that this record was like no other. Those chasing the ‘great barrier’ were not so much after breaking the time that stood for the Mile that of Hagg’s 4:01.4, because dipping just below it but not going under four minutes would be seen as a job only half completed.The wind was blowing on the track and as the runners took to the start line, there was a fear that this day would not be the day. It was 6pm. The race was being broadcast live on BBC Radio and among the commentators was Harold Abraham, Britain’s Olympic 100m champion from Paris in 1924, and one of the country’s most famous athletes. Chataway and Brasher would be the pacemakers, but would the weather allow Bannister to achieve his aim?
Just before the start, he looked across at the Church in the distance and the flag of St George was moving because starting to slow. In the build-up to the 50th anniversary of the achievement, Bannister recalled in an interview with The Guardian: “In 1954 I watched the flapping of the St George's flag on top of that church and worried myself half to death about whether the wind would ruin everything." The wind died. The conditions were far from perfect, but the Oxford runner knew at least one obstacle had been eased.As the run began, the conditions did worsen, with a cross wind growing, but by then Bannister was in his stride. Brasher led for the first two laps, recording a time of 1:58.2. Bannister stayed close and then as the race reached lap three, Chataway came through to take control. The time at three-quarters was 3:00.5 but Bannister knew he had to bide his time; with 300 yards to go, he strode his way into legendary status. He broke away from Chataway and threw everything at the challenge ahead, his tall, powerful style driving him on. Could he do it? The pain was immense, even though he did not realise it. He was being carried by history. The line was drawing near. And through the tape he went, with no energy left, wondering whether he had made it.
Norris McWhirter was the announcer and timekeeper. There was hush as he said the words: “Three…” No more had to be said. Spectators rushed from everywhere to find the hero. Bannister had done it. The record no one could smash had been broken by a medical student who had travelled down by second-class rail a nobody and now forever would be an athletics icon. In his book, The First Four Minutes, Bannister revealed his initial feeling. He said: “Pain overtook me. I felt like an exploded flashlight with no will to live.” Yet perhaps the success was summed up perfectly by Brasher, who said: "We believed that, if you have a dream and you work to make it come true, then you really can change the world. There's just nothing you can't do".
Gone, But Never Forgotten
Bannister was the first but six weeks later Landy improved the mile record to 3:57.9, but the Briton had achieved it first.It was Bannister’s last season before concentrating on his medical career yet there was still one great occasion to come. The stage was the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver in an event dubbed ‘The Mile Of The Century’ and what a race it proved. It was Bannister v Landy - and both men were under the four minutes, but not inside the record, Bannister ran 3:58.8 and Landy 3:59.6, the first time two men had beaten four minutes in one race. Bannister then added the European title at 1500m when he won the Championships in Berne in 3:43.8.He progressed to become a distinguished neurologist. He was awarded the CBE in 1955 and was knighted in 1975 for his services to medicine. He was Chairman of the Sports Council between 1971 and 1974, and was Master of Pembroke College, Oxford, between 1985 and 1993, and forever, the man who believed he could achieve the impossible - and did.
1950: 3rd 800m Europeans
1952: 4th 1500m Olympics
1954: 1st 1M Commonwealth Games, 1st 1500m Europeans
UK Internationals: 9 (1950-4)
Won AAA 880y 1952, 1M 1951, 1953-4
880y 1:50.7 (1953), 1500m 3:42.2 (1954), 1M 3:58.8 (1954)