Like a proud patriarch regaling wide-eyed children, the 83-year-old avidly recounts that magical four-lap race on a cinder track in Oxford on May 6, 1954 — an event that still stands as a transcendent moment in sports.
3 minutes, 59.4 seconds.
“It’s amazing,” says Bannister, expressive as ever, “that more people have climbed Mount Everest than have broken the 4-minute mile.”
The enduring black-and-white images of Bannister, eyes closed, mouth agape, straining across the finish line at the Iffley Road track, symbolise the supreme test of speed and endurance that captured the public’s imagination. It made him a global celebrity as the first man to run the mile in under four minutes — the mythical barrier that some thought was beyond human reach.
With London hosting the Olympics this summer, the Oxford-educated neurologist knighted Sir Roger in 1975 finds himself in the spotlight again, the embodiment of sporting achievement in Britain.
While Bannister never won an Olympic medal, having finished fourth in the 1,500 metres at the 1952 Helsinki Games, he still represents a strong link to the Olympic ideals of faster, higher, stronger.
And that has led to speculation that now, after a distinguished 40-year medical career, Bannister could still capture his Olympic moment by lighting the flame to open the London Games.
“I think it should be somebody representing youth,” he says, coyly deflecting questions about whether he might have a starring role at the July 27 opening ceremony. “Can’t answer.”
The epitome of the English gentleman, Bannister welcomes a visitor to his modest Oxford flat with a warm smile, firm handshake and a cheery, “I see that you are punctual.”
He still lives only minutes away from the track where he made history.
His wife Moyra, a keen artist, proudly points out her framed paintings on the wall and photographs of her husband meeting a young Queen Elizabeth II, Winston Churchill and other dignitaries. Pictures of their four children and 14 grandchildren also line the hallway and the bright reception room.
Bannister’s 6ft2 frame is still sturdy, his silver-white hair neatly combed, his blue eyes shining, voice strong and resonant, his words colourful and precise.
Wearing a blue blazer, grey trousers and pink shirt and tie, he looks every bit the master of Oxford’s Pembroke College, which he once was.
Bannister jots down a few notes on a yellow legal pad before he settles into a swivel chair and talks animatedly for more than hour about his life and career.
Occasionally, his wife, seated at the back of the room, reminds him to talk about his work as a neurologist. “He’s so darned modest,” she says.
In 1945, with Britain recovering after World War II, Bannister’s father took his teenage son to a track meet at London’s White City Stadium, which was built to host the 1908 Olympics. They were there to watch British middle-distance star Sydney Wooderson, who had emerged as a rival to the trio of Swedish runners who had taken the mile world record down close to the 4-minute mark.
“He came up to Arne Andersson’s shoulder and it was inspiring to see him challenge this tall Swede,” Bannister said. “The Swede managed to shake him off and win.
“So I made up my mind then when I got to university, got to Oxford, I would take up running seriously.”
With the 1948 London Games approaching, Bannister established himself as a promising young talent, running mile times of around 4:10. The 19-year-old was selected as a “possible” for the British Olympic team, but decided it was too soon.
“I thought I wasn’t ready,” Bannister said. “At that stage, it was thought that if you indulged in too much racing when you were too young, that you could burn yourself out. ... I decided I would wait for the ‘52 Olympics.”
Bannister did play a role off the track at the London Olympics. He was an assistant to the administrator for the British team. When the national flags were distributed for the teams marching in the opening ceremony at Wembley Stadium, the Union Jack was missing. Bannister was dispatched to find one. He rushed back to their car, smashed the window and grabbed a small flag from the back seat.
“I actually carried and managed to get it to the British team just before they were going into the stadium,” he said. “So I do think I made a minor contribution to the ‘48 Olympics.”
Criticised by the British press for not competing in London, Bannister put all his efforts into preparing for Helsinki. By now, he was a full-time medical student at Oxford and had to juggle his studies with his training, which was light by today’s standards.
Bannister was considered the favourite for the gold in the 1,500 metres — the shorter metric mile distance run in the Olympics. Then, just before the games, he learned that organisers had added an extra round of heats, meaning he would have to run on three consecutive days.
“I’m afraid that was such a shock to me,” he said. “I really didn’t manage to give it my best, although I was in the fourth position in the last lap of the final, which was the position from which I would usually expect to unleash a finishing burst. I’m afraid there was nothing there.”
Josy Barthel of Luxembourg won the race in 3:45.2, as the top four finishers all broke the Olympic record. Fourth place for Bannister came as “a massive disappointment.”
Here, fate came into play.
Had Bannister won the Olympic gold that day, he probably would have retired and the first sub-4-minute mile would have been achieved by someone else.
Instead, he vowed to make up for the failure, compete for another two years and attack the mile landmark.
“I decided I could just manage to fit running in with my medical studies until 1954,” he said.
The quest to break the 4-minute standard carried a special mystique. The numbers were easy to grasp: 1 mile, 4 laps, 4 minutes. Many thought the human body was incapable of running that fast, but when Finland’s Paavo Nurmi clocked 4:10.4 in 1923, the pursuit was on. Sweden’s Gunder Hagg lowered the mark to 4:01.4 in 1945, and it stood for nine years. Until Bannister came along.
“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.
“I thought it would be right for Britain to try to get this. There was a feeling of patriotism. Our new queen had been crowned the year before, Everest had been climbed in 1953. Although I tried in 1953, I broke the British record, but not the 4-minute mile, and so everything was ready in 1954.”
Bannister wasn’t alone. Australia’s John Landy and American Wes Santee ran times of 4:02, and it was a question of who would get there first.
Bannister scheduled his attempt for May 6 during a meet between Oxford University and the Amateur Athletic Union. He started the day at his hospital lab in London, where he sharpened his spikes and rubbed graphite on them so they wouldn’t pick up too much of the track’s cinder ash. He took a midmorning train from Paddington Station to Oxford.
The weather was miserable — rainy, cool and windy. Bannister was uncertain whether to go for the attempt in such conditions. His Austrian coach, Franz Stampfl, told him this might be his best chance. When the red-and-white English flag flying from a neighbouring church fluttered more gently as the 6pm race approached, Bannister made up his mind.
“I decided it was time to make the attempt even if I failed,” he said.
Bannister had lined up English runners Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway as pacemakers. He tucked in behind Brasher, a steeplechaser, who ran the first lap in 58 seconds and the first half-mile in 1:58. Chataway moved to the front and took them through three laps in 3:01. Bannister would have to run the final lap in 59 seconds.
His long arms and legs pumping, his lungs gasping for oxygen, he surged in front of Chataway with about 300 yards to go.
“I then went flat out for the finishing line, and just about managed to stagger over it,” he said. “I couldn’t stand at the end.”
The chief timekeeper was Harold Abrahams, the 100-metre champion at the 1924 Paris Olympics whose story inspired the film “Chariots of Fire.” He handed a piece of paper to Norris McWhirter, who announced the time: “3... ” “That was when the crowd exploded and we didn’t hear any more,” Bannister said. “It didn’t matter what the rest was.”
The record didn’t stand for long. Six weeks later, Landy ran 3:57.9 in Turku, Finland. (The current record stands at 3:43.13, held by Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj since 1999.) Bannister settled the score with Landy in August 1954 at the Empire Games, now called the Commonwealth Games, in Vancouver in what was dubbed the ‘Mile of the Century’ or the ‘Miracle Mile.’ When the Australian glanced over his left shoulder on the final bend to see where Bannister was, the Englishman raced past him on the right and won by about four yards in 3:58.8. Landy clocked 3:59, the first time two men ran under 4 minutes in the same race.
Bannister capped his amazing year by winning the 1,500m at the European championships in Bern, Switzerland, in 3:43.8, his third major achievement in the span of a few months. “Each one proved something different,” he said. “Each one was necessary.”
With that, Bannister retired from competition and pursued a full-time career in neurology. He is currently editing the ninth edition of a textbook on nervous-system disease, and his most treasured trophy is the lifetime achievement award he received in 2005 from the American Academy of Neurology.
Ever since his right ankle was shattered in a car accident in 1975, he has walked with a limp and has been unable to run. “Over the years I’ve been able to walk or sometimes jog a little but nothing that would really be satisfying to me,” he said. “It has been frustrating.”
Bannister also served as chairman of the British Sports Council, where he initiated the first tests for steroids.
Turning to the state of sports today, and the doping scandals that have tarnished track and field, he remains sanguine about the fight against drug cheats.
“I think there will be further efforts and I have hopes,” Bannister said. “The war on drugs, I believe, is possibly turning now, in that the sophistication of pharmacologists who are trying to invent new drugs are being countered now by the pharmacologists who are trying to win the battle against drugs.”
The power of the Olympic ideals still resonates for him.
“There is something noble about athletics sports events,” he said. “They give an opportunity to the youth of the world to find out about one another. Any competitor in athletics or in other Olympic sports goes back to his country as an Olympian. I believe that is a force for good.”
As for his own involvement, Bannister said he will be present when the torch relay passes through Oxford, and he will attend the men’s 1,500-metre final at the Olympic Stadium on August 7th.
Might he also be there on July 27 for the lighting of the Olympic cauldron? Five-time rowing gold medalist Steve Redgrave is the British bookmakers’ favourite, but wouldn’t Bannister make an ideal candidate? Among those making that call will be Sebastian Coe, himself a former world-record holder in the mile and a two-time Olympic champion in the 1,500 meters. He heads the organising committee for the London Olympics.
“There will be no shortage of candidates given the Olympic history in the UK,” Coe said. “I’m sure Roger’s name will be in the mix, but we have not even remotely begun to consider the decision of who will light the cauldron.” Bannister himself says it’s not for him to say.
And, After seeing his visitor to the door, Bannister offers a smile and parting words. “I’ll see you,” he says, “for the 60th anniversary.”