ADDRESSES: Home—Kingston-on-Thames, England. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Random House, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Rd., London SW1V 2SA, England; fax: 44020 7233 8791.
CAREER: Times, London, England, deputy editor; Daily Mail, consultant editor.
3:59.4: The Quest to Break the Four-Minute Mile, Hutchinson (London, England), 2004.
SIDELIGHTS: Journalist and editor John Bryant is the author of 3:59.4: The Quest to Break the Four-Minute Mile, an examination of amateur athlete Roger Bannister's 1954 achievement of running a mile in less than four minutes. With the perspective gained as a lifetime amateur runner and the coach of an Olympic-level competitor, Bryant examines the event that defined the limits of human endurance and the pinnacle of athletic development in the middle of the twentieth century.
According to Bryant, on May 6, 1954, a windy, rainy day in Oxford, England, Bannister arrived at the Iffley Road cinder track after a morning of nervous travel from St. Mary's Medical School, where he was a dedicated medical student. Training less than an hour each day and well aware of the medical world's opinion that the feat was beyond human capability, he still believed that the four-minute mark could be broken. More importantly, he believed he was the man who could do it. Bannister also felt that his chances to become the world's first under-four-minute miler were quickly diminishing. Two other athletes—Wes Santee, from the United States, and John Landy, from Australia—were also closing in on the record.
In front of a crowd of some 1,200 spectators, Bannister powered forward to the limits of his skill and endurance to turn in a time of three minutes, fifty-nine and four-tenths seconds. He became an instant celebrity, hailed as a British national icon. Bannister's record, however, did not last long—forty-six days later, Landy ran the mile in three minutes, fifty-eight seconds—but Bannister proved it could be done. During an August race in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, that same year, both Landy and Bannister finished the mile in under four minutes, the first time two men would break the four-minute mark in the same race.
In his book Bryant also offers a detailed history of the mile-long race and the event's past and development, including an unconfirmed race result of three minutes, fifty-eight seconds in 1785. Readers "are whizzed through a fine history of mile-runners," commented William Leith in the New Statesman. Stating that Bryant's history "is not uninteresting, and in places it is fascinating," Leith also remarked that he would have liked to know more about lesser-known persons who contributed to Bannister's success, expressing a particular interest in pacemakers Christopher Chataway and Chris Brasher, who persuaded Bannister to run on that blustery May day.
After the record-breaking race, Bannister returned to his medical studies. He enjoyed a long and successful career in medicine as a neurologist and in academia as master of Pembroke College, Oxford. Bannister was awarded a knighthood in 1975.
London Guardian reviewer Blake Morrison observed that Bryant "writes with [deep] inside knowledge and offers the [long] historical perspective," while an Economist critic called the book "well-paced and diligently researched."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Economist, May 1, 2004, review of 3:59.4: The Quest to Break the Four-Minute Mile, p. 85.
Guardian (London, England), May 1, 2004, Blake Morrison, review of 3:59.4, p. 14.
New Statesman, May 3, 2004, William Leith, "Off Track," review of 3:59.4, p. 45.
Spectator, May 8, 2004, "The Sunset Glory of the Amateurs," review of 3:59.4, p. 44.