Bannister, Roger

views updated May 14 2018

Roger Bannister


English track and field athlete

In 1954, Roger Bannister became the first person to run a mile in under four minutes. A noted British runner, he won the British mile championships in 1951, 1953, and 1954, and also won the Empire championship in 1954. In addition, he won the European 1,500 meter championship in 1954.

"I Just Ran Anywhere and Everywhere"

Bannister was born in 1929 in Harrow, England. As a child, he loved to run. According to Cordner Nelson and Roberto Quercetani in The Milers, he once said, "I just ran anywhere and everywherenever because it was an end in itself, but because it was easier for me to run than to walk"

He won his school's cross-country meet for three years in a row when he was 12, 13, and 14. When he was 16, he decided to become a runner, but when he began studying medicine at Oxford University in 1946, he had never run on a track or worn running shoes with spikes. In 1946, Bannister began medical school in Oxford, where he had won a scholarship. Every day, during his lunch hour, he paid threepence to enter Paddington Park, near the hospital where he worked, so that he could practice running.

At the time, Bannister was not obviously talented as a runner; he had an ungainly walk, and barely made Oxford University's third track team. On March 22, 1947, however, he was running as a pacer for members of Oxford's first team in a mile race against Cambridge. Instead of stopping, as a pacer was supposed to, he kept on running, not only completing the course but winning by 20 yards with a time of 4:30.8. According to Frank Deford in Sports Illustrated, Bannister later said, "I knew from this day that I could develop this newfound ability." He still did not think of athletics as a career, but simply as something one did in order to be well-rounded.

In June of 1948, Bannister ran his first big race, the Kinniard Cup, and came in fourth. His time was 4:18.7. In the same year, he came in fifth in the Amateur Athletic Association Race with a time of 4:17.2. The Olympics were held in London that year, and Bannister was fascinated and inspired by the athletes. He decided to set his sights on competing at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952.

In 1949, Bannister won races in the United States with times of 4:11.1 and 4:11.9. After taking six weeks off, he came in third in another race with a time of 4:14.2. In 1950, he ran a mile in 4:13, not an impressive time compared to some of his earlier efforts. However, his last lap was an amazing 57.5, indicating that he was capable of greater speed, and that he had the ability to push for a burst of speed at the end of a race.

In 1951, he ran in the Penn Relays, starting out slowly but then taking the lead after two and a half laps. He won with a time of 4:08.3, and his last lap was 56.7. He knew from this performance that he could probably run a mile in 4 minutes, 5 seconds. At the time, no one had ever run a mile in less than four minutes, and most observers of track and field believed it could not be done.

1952 Olympics

Bannister won the British mile championships in 1951 and 1953. He competed in the 1500 meters in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. In the semifinal, he came in fifth, but the next day, in the final, his legs were tired and heavy. Fourth place was the best he could do. Although he was initially disgusted with his performance, he later was proud that he had made it to the Olympics.

After the Olympics, Bannister spent some time deciding whether or not he wanted to continue running. He decided to devote himself to breaking the four-minute barrier for the mile. He trained for half an hour each day; this does not seem like much time, but Bannister spent it doing arduous speed workouts. To help him track his timing and set the pace, he recruited a friend, Chris Chataway. On June 27, 1953, he ran 4:02 with the help of two other friends, Chris Brasher and Don Macmillan, as pacers. Although the time was a British record, the authorities would not allow it to be placed in the record books because Bannister had used pacers. At the time, runners were supposed to run on their own, and pace themselves.

In the winter and spring of 1954, Bannister was so busy with his studies that he did not have time to run much. He would soon start his medical residency, which would leave him with even less free time. He was further frustrated by the knowledge that Australian miler John Landy was aiming to break the four-minute barrier, and that Landy might do it by spring. Bannister decided that he would try to break the record on May 6, in his first race of 1954, at a small meet. And, in order to relax, he went rock-climbing in Scotland.

Bannister knew he would have the best chance at breaking the record if the weather was perfect. When May 6 dawned with rain and win, he went to his job at St. Mary's Hospital Medical School in London, knowing as he made his rounds that he might lose his chance at the meet later that day.

"A Scene of the Wildest Excitement"

After his work, Bannister took the train from London to Oxford. On the train he met Franz Stampfl, who coached Bannister's teammate Chris Brasher. Stampfl told Bannister that despite the weather, he should give it his best try, saying, according to Deford, "If you don't take this opportunity, you may never forgive yourself." Bannister remained undecided through lunch and teatime later that day. As the race began at the Iffley Road track in Oxford, only about 1,100 spectators had showed up. Among them were Bannister's parents, who had been told by a friend that something special might happen that day.

As Bannister warmed up on the track, he kept looking toward the church of St. John the Evangelist, where a flag flying straight out above the steeple showed the strength of the wind. A few minutes before the race started at 6:10 p.m., the flag began to drop, and Bannister told himself that if everyone in characteristically rainy and windy England waited for good weather before doing anything, nothing would ever be done. He told Chataway and Brasher he was going to make the attempt on the record.


1929Born in Harrow, Middlesex, England
1945Decides to become a runner
1946Begins medical studies at St. Mary's College, Oxford University
1947Shows talent while running as a pacer in a mile race at Oxford
1948Is inspired by the Olympics, held in London, to try and compete in 1952 Olympics
1952Competes in Helsinki Olympics
1954Becomes first person to run a mile in less than 4 minutes
1954Graduates from St. Mary's College, continues medical studies
1955Publishes The Four-Minute Mile
1963Earns medical degree from Oxford University, becomes a neurologist
1975Is involved in an automobile crash; knighted by Queen Elizabeth II
1975-presentContinues working in neurology, writing scientific papers, and conducting research

The gun sounded, and the runners took off. Brasher was in the lead until the end of the third lap, when Chataway took over the pace. On the backstretch Bannister passed him, moving ahead of all the other runners, into a new pace, never run before. On the stretch, a gust of wind pushed him sideways, stealing valuable fractions of seconds, but Bannister kept going, hitting the tape at 3:59.4. According to Nelson and Quercetani, he later said of those last few seconds of the race, "I felt that the moment of a lifetime had come. There was no pain, only a great utility of movement and aim. The world seemed to stand still or did not exist, the only reality was the next two hundred yards of track under my feet." As he crossed over the finish line, he was so spent that he collapsed, almost passing out.

The crowd went wild, rushing onto the track and surrounding Bannister. A report in the London Times on the following day noted, "There was a scene of the wildest excitementand what miserable spectators they would have been if they had not waved their programmes, shouted, even jumped in the air a little."

The Miracle Mile

At the end of that summer, Bannister was due to compete in the mile race on August 7 at the Empire Games in Vancouver, Canada. By then, Landy had already broken Bannister's mile record with a time of 3:58.0, and the contest between the two men to see who would be the world's fastest miler was billed as "The Miracle Mile." Thirty-five thousand spectators attended, and the race was broadcast live throughout North Americaa highly unusual event, since the two lead runners were not Americans. It was the first international sporting event to be broadcast live to all of North America. The event was also the lead story in the first issue of Sports Illustrated.

At first Landy was boxed in by other runners, but he took the lead at the second bend. Bannister was fifth. At the first quarter mile, the time was 58.2. Landy remained in the lead for the second and third laps, but Bannister worked his way up from the back. With one lap to go, he was just behind Landy. Landy, knowing that Bannister liked to save a burst of speed for the end of a race, ran has fast as he could. With 90 yards to go, Landy looked over his shoulder to see where Bannister was, and at that moment, Bannister passed him, running to victory with a Commonwealth record time of 3:58.8. Landy's final time was 3:59.6. It was the first time two runners had broken the four-minute barrier in the same race. According to a reporter in the Melbourne, Australia Sunday Herald Sun, Bannister felt pushed and inspired by Landy's ability, and the competition between the two men fueled Bannister's desire to win. Bannister said, "John Landy had shown me what a race could really be at its greatest."

The people of Vancouver were so excited by the race that they commissioned a statue of the two men, depicting the moment when Landy looked over his shoulder and Bannister passed him, and erected it outside Empire Stadium, where the Commonwealth Games were held. In honor of his achievements, Bannister was named the 1954 Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year. He also received the Silver Pears trophy, awarded for outstanding British achievement in any field.

After the Commonwealth Games race, Bannister retired from competition. He graduated from St. Mary's College in Oxford and devoted himself to his medical training, although he did take the time to write a book, The Four Minute Mile, which described his training and the record-breaking race.

Bannister the Neurologist

Bannister earned his medical degree from Oxford in 1963, and became a neurologist. When asked why he did not become a neurosurgeon, he said, according to Deford, "The interesting thing for me was deciding where the tumor wasrather than taking it out." Beginning in 1969, he served as the editor of a textbook, Brain's Clinical Neurology. In 1990 it was retitled Brain and Bannister's Clinical Neurology.

Related Biography: Miler John Landy

John Landy was Roger Bannister's closest competitor; if Bannister had not broken the four-minute barrier, Landy would have been the first person to do so. The two men spurred each other on, gaining strength and determination from each other's presence.

Born April 12, 1930 in Melbourne, Australia, Landy attended the University of Melbourne, where he ran on the track team and studied agricultural science. From 1954 to 1956, he taught biology and science at a grammar school in Geelong, Australia. In 1955, Landy was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire. The following year Landy was a member of the Australian Olympic track and field team and won a bronze medal in the 1,500 meters.

Landy married Lynn Catherine Fisher, a journalist, in 1971; they have two children. He has devoted most of his career to agriculture, and the development of his family's farm. He was also deeply interested in natural history and nature photography, and in 1985 published a book, Close to Nature, featuring the flora and fauna on his family property.

From 1985 to 1989, Landy was a consultant to the Australian Department of Sport, Recreation, and Tourism, and from 1988 to the present he has worked as a consultant to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Organization. In 2002, Landy was Governor General of Victoria, Australia. He told Robert Phillips in the London, England Daily Telegraph, "Roger got the four-minute mile first and he got to the tape first in Vancouver. He deserved them both."

Awards and Accomplishments

1948Wins Kinniard Cup
1951Wins mile race in Penn Relays
1951, 1953-54Wins British mile championships
1954Wins Empire mile championship
1954Wins European 1,500 meter championship
1954Becomes first person to run a mile in less than 4 minutes, setting new world record of 3:59.4
1954Wins Empire mile championships, setting new world record of 3:58.9
1954Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year; Pears Trophy
1975Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II

In 1975, Bannister was involved in a head-on automobile crash that almost killed him. Although he recovered from his severe injuries, he has been unable to run

since then, although he still bicycles. After his crash, he spent his enforced period of rest thinking about his work and what he wanted to do, and became involved in medical research; he set up a laboratory to study the part of the brain that controls blood pressure.

Also in 1975, Bannister was knighted by Queen Elizabeth, receiving the title "Sir Roger Bannister." The honor was not in recognition of his running, but of his life's work as a runner and a physician. Bannister has written hundreds of scholarly papers, and has edited medical textbooks. During the 1970s he was chair of the British Sports Council, and he helped design urine tests that would detect athletes who used performance-enhancing drugs.

In 1996, speaking at the Cincinnati Heart Mini-Marathon Clinic, Bannister said that he believed the next time barrier for the mile is 3:30, according to Bob Queenan in the Cincinnati Post. He noted that Algerian athlete Noureddine Morceli had run 3:44.29 on July 3, 1995.

In 2001, Bannister's breaking of the four-minute barrier was chosen as the Greatest British Sports Performance of the Century, according to Alison Kervin in the London Times. Bannister told Kervin that he was "very flattered indeed," especially since his performance was placed above that of five-time Olympic gold-medal winner, Steve Redgrave , an athlete whom Bannister had long admired.


The Four-Minute Mile, Lyons and Burford, 1955.



"Roger Bannister," Encyclopedia of World Biography Supplement, Vol. 21, Gale Group, 2001.

Nelson, Cordner, and Roberto Quercetani, The Milers, Tafnews Press, 1985.


"Bannister Breaks Magical Barrier: Times Past" (reprint of May 7, 1954 article), Times (London, England), (September 28, 2001): 8.

"Bannister's Tactics Best by a Mile," Sunday Herald Tribune (Melbourne, Australia), (April 28, 2002): 63.

Berry, Kevin, "Race Turned Two Athletes into Legends," Sunday Mail (Adelaide, Australia), (April 28, 2002): 48.

Deford, Frank, "Pioneer Miler Roger Bannister and Everest Conqueror Edmund Hillary Became, at Mid-century, the Last Great Heroes in An Era of Sea Change in Sport," Sports Illustrated, (December 27, 1999): 102.

Jackson, Tony, "A Four-Midable Feat: Britain's Bannister Took 3 Minutes, 59.4 Seconds to Shock Athletic World," Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO), (August 29, 1999): 32C.

Kervin, Alison, "Winner by a Mile: Bannister's Historic Run the Best of British Athletics," Times (London, England), (September 28, 2001): 1.

Philip, Robert, "Landy Second to None Among Nice Guys of Sport," Daily Telegraph (London, England), (July 29, 2002): NA.

Queenan, Bob, "Bannister Sees 3 1/2-Minute Mile as Next Great Barrier to Break," Cincinnati Post, (March 23, 1996): 7B.


"A Brief Chat with Roger Bannister," Runner's World Daily. (January 14, 2003).

"John (Michael) Landy," Contemporary Authors Online, (January 17, 2003).

Sketch by Kelly Winters

Where Is He Now?

Bannister and his wife, Moyra, live in Oxford, about a mile from the Iffley Road track where he set his record. Bannister told Deford, "It was a significant event in my life to come back to Oxford, where I had been so very happy." He continues to work in the field of neurology, and occasionally speaks at running events.

According to Deford, Bannister said, "Running was only a small part of my life. Even now, my friends and colleagues just accept the fact that in my life, I happened to do this one thing."

Roger Bannister

views updated May 09 2018

Roger Bannister

Roger Bannister (born 1929) was the first person ever to run a mile in under four minutes.

"I just ran anywhere and everywhere-never because it was an end in itself, but because it was easier for me to run than to walk," Roger Bannister said of his childhood, according to Cordner Nelson and Roberto Quercetani in The Milers. When he was 12, 13, and 14, he won his school's cross-country run three years in a row. At the age of 16, he decided to become a runner. However, when his studies in medicine began at Oxford University in the fall of 1946, he had never run on a track or worn spiked running shoes.

Bannister's only training that first winter at the university was a weekly workout and a seven-and-a-half-mile cross-country race. However, he was so immensely talented that even on this meager schedule, he ran a mile in 4:30.8 in March of 1947; by June of that year he had decreased his time to 4:24.6. In 1948, Bannister was selected as a "possible" runner for the Olympic team, but he felt that he was not yet ready to compete at the Olympic level.

"Restless and Anxious to Compete"

In June of 1948 Bannister ran in his first major race, the Kinniard Cup. He came in fourth with a time of 4:18.7. In the Amateur Athletic Association (AAA) race he came in fifth with 4:17.2. That year, the Olympics were being held in London, and he watched them with great interest. When Bannister saw the athletes compete, he felt inspired to become a great runner like them. According to Cordner and Quercetani, he decided "New targets had to be set and more vigorous training programs prepared. I was restless and anxious to compete. There were four years to wait before my chance would come at Helsinki [Olympics] in 1952."

In June of 1949, Bannister ran the 880 in 1:52.7, and traveled to the United States to compete in the mile, which he won with times of 4:11.1 and 4:11.9. He took six weeks off from training, but came in third with a time of 4:14.2.

Bannister began using a new training method called Fartlek, in which runners alternate bursts of speed with steady running, and rapidly improved. On July 1 of 1950, he ran a mile in 4:13, but in the last lap his time was 57.5. This was the first sign of his impressive "kick"-a burst of speed in the last quarter of a race.

At the Penn Relays in April of 1951, he began slowly, trailing the other runners, but took the lead after two and a half laps, running the last lap in an amazing 56.7, with a total time of 4:08.3. He later said, according to Cordner and Quercetani, "I knew from my fast finish that I was now capable of a time near 4 minutes five seconds."

Bannister's philosophy of training was to train lightly and stay fresh. For the rest of that spring he felt over-trained and somewhat burned-out. Nevertheless, in July, he ran 4:07.8, a record for the AAA championships. After this, feeling utterly exhausted, he took training for five weeks, then raced again, but was beaten by a Yugoslavian runner.

1952 Olympic Games

Bannister ran in the 1500 meters at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland. He shared a room with his friends from Oxford: Chris Chataway, Nick Stacey, and Alan Dick. He wrote in The Four Minute Mile that the room they shared must have been the messiest one in the whole Olympic Village, and that he and his friends spent most of their time simply lying on their unmade beds, reading, and talking. "It was not that we lacked the energy to make our beds or tidy the room," he wrote. "We simply existed in a state of complete suspension, in which nothing seemed important until our races were over. We were thinking all the time about the precious fractions of seconds that would make us champions or failures." In the semifinals of the 1500 meters, Bannister came in fifth, and was disappointed with his performance. He wrote, "The following night was one of the most unpleasant I have ever spent. My legs ached and I was unable to sleep. I felt I hated running." The next day, before the final, Bannister was pale and weak with anxiety. From the start, he ran "sensibly," and was in second place before the final curve. "This was the crucial moment," he wrote, "for which I had waited so long. But my legs were aching, and I had no strength left to force them faster." Sickened, he watched as others passed him, and came in fourth. Later, however, he was proud of his result and glad that he had learned that "the important thing was not the winning but the taking part-not the conquering but the fighting well."

Attempted to Break Four-Minute Barrier

Bannister spent two months after the Olympics deciding whether he wanted to keep running. He eventually decided to continue, but with a new goal: to run the mile in under four minutes. This feat had never been accomplished by any runner. He trained for half an hour a day, running intense speed workouts. Bannister realized that in order to meet his goal, he would have to make sure that he was keeping up a hard pace throughout the race. He arranged for another runner, Chris Chataway, to keep track of his timing and be his pacer. At a meet at Oxford, paced by Chataway, he ran the mile in 4:03.6, which made him certain that he could break the four-minute barrier. After a brief period of rest following an injury, he began running again. On June 27, 1953, paced by his friends Chris Brasher and Don Macmillan, he ran 4:02. Despite the fact that this time was faster than any British miler's, the authorities would not allow it into the record books because the use of pacers was frowned on: runners were expected to win without such aid. According to Nelson and Quercetani, Bannister later said, "My feeling as I look back is one of great relief that I did not run a four-minute mile under such artificial circumstances." Throughout 1953, however, he remained undefeated.

The Moment of a Lifetime

In 1954, Bannister decided to make another attempt to break the four-minute barrier. He trained more intensely, and reached a plateau at which, no matter how much he trained, he couldn't improve his time. Frustrated, he took time off and went mountain climbing with Chris Brasher for three days. When he came back, he beat his time by two seconds.

Bannister planned to make the sub-four-minute attempt on the Iffey Road track at Oxford during an AAA event on May 6. He rested for five days before the event. "I had reached my peak physically and psychologically," he later said, according to Nelson and Quercetani. "There would never be another day like it."

On May 6, he spent the morning at St. Mary's Hospital, where he worked as part of his medical studies, then took the train to Oxford. He was concerned about the weather: a strong wind had come up, and it could affect his time. At 5:15 in the evening, it began to rain lightly. By race time, the wind was about 15 miles per hour and Bannister decided to run. After 220 yards, he felt as if the race was effortless, as if he were flying.

When the bell rang, marking the last lap, Bannister's time was 3.07. The crowd was roaring and he knew he would have to run the last lap in 59 seconds. Chataway led, then Bannister sped past him at the beginning of the final straightaway, with only 300 yards to go. In his book First Four Minutes, quoted by David Levinson and Karen Christensen, he later wrote, "I felt that the moment of a lifetime had come. There was no pain, only a great utility of movement and aim. The world seemed to stand still or did not exist, the only reality was the next two hundred yards of track under my feet."

Although he was exhausted, Bannister kept running, forced on by an immense effort of will and aided by his years of training. When he was only five yards from completing the race, the tape marking the end of the race seemed to be moving farther away from him. He wrote, "My effort was all over and I collapsed almost unconscious. The stop-watches held the answer, the announcement came-'Result of the one mile time, 3 minutes'-the rest was lost in the roar of excitement." His time was 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds.

Later Bannister wrote, according to Nelson and Quercetani, "I felt suddenly and gloriously free of the burden of athletic ambition that I had been carrying for years. No words could be invented for such supreme happiness, eclipsing all other feelings. I thought at that moment I could never again reach such a climax of single-mindedness."

"The Mile of the Century"

Track fans still talk about the "Bannister-Landy 1-Mile Duel," which was the number one choice for "Six Most Dramatic Events in Sports History," in the Book of Lists, according to David Levinson and Karen Christensen. The event was known as "The Mile of the Century" at the time, and took place at the Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, Canada in 1954, where fans anxiously awaited the contest between the two best milers in the world. Bannister was the first person to break the four-minute mile. John Landy of Australia, was the only other runner to have completed a mile in under four minutes; he held the world record. Landy was in front from the start. Bannister was in third, then moved up to second. He had planned to run easily through the third lap, but became nervous when Landy stayed in front, so he began speeding up at the halfway point. Nelson and Quercetani wrote, "With great poise, he spread his effort evenly over the entire third lap. In the middle of the backstretch he had cut Landy's frightening lead in half. As they reached the bell he had closed the gap." When the bell rang to mark the last lap, Landy was in the lead, with Bannister right behind him. When Landy turned to see where his opponent was, Bannister passed him. He poured on his powerful "kick," and won the race in 3:58.8, against Landy's 3:59.6. The moment when Bannister passed Landy is commemorated by a statue of both men outside the Empire Stadium in Vancouver, marking the "Miracle Mile Games."

Bannister later wrote in Four Minute Mile, "[Running] gives a man or woman the chance to bring out power that might otherwise remain locked away inside. The urge to struggle lies latent in everyone. The more restricted our society and work become, the more necessary it will be to find some outlet for this craving for freedom. No one can say, 'You must not run faster than this, or jump higher than that.' The human spirit is indomitable."


Bannister, Roger, The Four-Minute Mile, Lyons Press, 1981.

Encyclopedia of World Sport, edited by David Levinson and Karen Christensen, ABC-CLIO, 1996.

Hanley, Reid M., Who's Who in Track and Field, Arlington House, 1973.

Nelson, Cordner and Roberto Quercetani, The Milers, Tafnews Press, 1985. □