Iffley Road track 6th May 1954 the crowd waits in anticipation as the men’s mile lines up. The occasion is a match between the British Amateur Athletic Association and Oxford University. Roger Bannister has targeted this race for an attempt to become the first ever person to run a sub four-minute mile. It is a quest that has captured the imagination of the world in the post war period as the world’s best milers vie for the historic honour.
Fast forward to 18th January 2016 and another crowd waits in anticipation. This time it is a rare opportunity to hear first-hand from Sir Roger about the 3 minutes 59.4 seconds it took for history to be made that day in 1954. We are in the impressive setting of the Concert Hall in Reading Town Hall for ‘An Audience with Sir Roger Bannister’; Steve Rider acts as a well-researched question master but his questions are mere prompts as Sir Roger’s answers are full and eloquent.
With Sir Roger’s permission I am pleased to share with you a report of the interview.
Discovering his talent
Sir Roger’s school days coincided with the second world war when the family had been evacuated from London to Bath. Tension between local’s and evacuees sometimes ran high and Sir Roger faced bullying from one much larger boy. The teacher’s solution to this was to take the boys to the gym to fight it out with boxing gloves in front of the rest of the school! The smaller Roger ended up being knocked out by the larger boy. Fortunately, soon after Sir Roger discovered his more natural sport, when winning the school cross country. Once recognised for his sporting ability he was never bullied again. “The person who is good at sport is able to get away with other things’ advised Sir Roger.
His route to school took him from one side of hilly Bath to the other and it came naturally to him that he should run the route, down Landsdown Road to the city centre, then up Combe Hill, finally sprinting up the steps of Beechen Cliff. Sir Roger credited this with helping build his condition and stamina.
‘Genes are important’ Sir roger declared. His father was from a small village in Lancashire and had won a mile race.
The final element was the inspiration to want to be a series runner and that came from his father taking him to a famous race at the White City London. After six years of tough war time days there was a huge appetite in the Summer of 1945 for sporting events. The big attraction was the mile race between Sydney Wooderson of Britain and Arne Andersson of Sweden. Wooderson had set a World Record in 1937 and would have been favourite in the cancelled 1940 Tokyo Olympics. Unlike Wooderson who served in the British Army, Andersson, being from a neutral country had been able to continue competing during the war years, lowering the world record to 4:01.6. Such was the enthusiasm for this race, a crowd of 45,000 crowded in. Roger and his father only gained entry when the surging crowd pushed down a barrier. The race lived up to expectation with the crowd cheering Wooderson on to the line only for Andersson to overhaul him at the last. The watching Bannister decided there and then he wanted to be a runner.
Becoming an International Runner
Sir Roger went up to Oxford in 1946 and at an early opportunity took part in the freshman’s sports winning the mile in 4:52 and competing in spikes for the first time. Sir Roger’s rangy style did not please all, with the watching university coach commenting ‘If you stopped leaping along like a kangaroo you’d knock 20 seconds off.’
It was a good enough performance to earn selection for the university as a third string. The winter of 1947 was one of the severest ever and Sir Roger reflected that his selection was probably because of his energy in shovelling snow. As it was he got to the last 270 yards of the race with the realisation that he could go faster. He overhauled the other Oxford runners to win by 10 yards in 4:25, prompting Harald Abrahams (of Chariots of Fire fame) to comment in the Times that he was someone to watch out for.
By 1948 Sir Roger was marked as a possible for the London Olympics. One thing that meant was that he would receive extra rations. This would have been very welcome as post-war rationing was if anything worse than that of wartime. However, he was advised that over training as a younger athlete would strain his body. This was a popular theory at the time but one which Sir Roger now describes as ‘Nonsense’. In fact, by 1948 they were aware of the sort of training Emil Zatopek was doing with his huge number of reps and training in army boots.
The 1952 Helsinki Olympics though were very much a serious attempt. Winter preparation contained many cross-country runs of around 7 miles distance. Then two months before the Games this switched to more track. A key indicator session for Sir Roger was a ¾ mile time-trial, where he believed that in race conditions he could maintain the same time-trial speed for the full mile race distance. The time-trial was timed by Norris McWhirter (of Guinness book of Records fame) in 2:52 indicating low 3:50s shape. However, he received a psychological blow when it was announced that the event would have a heat, semi-final and final in 3 days. Sir Roger knew that his training was ‘slender’ for such an intense race sequence. He went into the final tired and when the time came to ‘order his legs’ to kick it was not there for him and he finished fourth. Reflecting on that performance Sir Roger commented that he would have retired to concentrate on his medical studies if he had won gold. Instead he determined to remain in the sport for the 1954 commonwealth games. Sir Roger believes ‘Titles are much more important than records’, but it was a career extension that also meant the elusive four-minute mile could be a target.
Build up to the four Minute Mile
Sir Roger saw his main rivals for the first 4-minute mile as being John Landy of Australia and Wes Santee of the USA. This gave a great time pressure to make the attempt as soon as possible hence the early season date in May was targeted. Teamwork would be vital if the attempt was to succeed and Sir Roger turned to two friends. Chris Brasher ‘a true friend ‘ with an interest in climbing as well as running could be relied on to pace on target for a 1:58 half mile. Chris Chattaway with a background at 5000m and more speed would be the man to take it on from Brasher with the aim of hitting the ¾ mile in 3:00-3:01. Together they trained for the attempt, often on the track at Chelsea Barracks, but five days out all track training ceased so that he would be fresh on race day.
On the day of the attempt Sir Roger went into his hospitals laboratory which had a grindstone. In those days the spikes were fixed to the running shoe and the aim was to give a sharp finish. As a finishing touch Sir Roger rubbed graphite into the spikes so that the cinders from the track would not stick to the shoe. Travel to Oxford was by train and on arrival Sir Roger visited a friend for his pre-race lunch.
However, Sir Roger was still in doubt as to whether the attempt should go ahead. Weather conditions were windy and the thought was that conserving energies for more favourable conditions could be the right choice. This internal debate continued to within 20-25 minutes of the race with his close team trying to influence his decision. Coach Franz Stampfi was an exuberant and confident character who told him ‘If you have a chance and don’t take it because of conditions you may never forgive yourself’. Sir Roger described his pacemakers growing irritation at his ‘vacillating’. Eventually as he stared up from the changing room at the flag flying from the nearby church tower he felt that the wind was reducing and announced that the attempt was on.
The four-minute mile
After such a build up the tension was high as they went to the start. To add to it all Chris Brasher made a false start. ‘He was that kind of person, and I loved him for it’ said Sir Roger. As they went through the first lap Bannister felt ‘So Easy’. ‘Faster Faster’ he called to Brasher who had the good sense to ignore him as they hit the ¼ mile at 58 seconds. The pre-race target was sustained through the half mile at 1:58 before Chattaway took it on and played his part hitting ¾ mile in 3:01. With 260 yards to go Bannister strode out. It was painful and he forced himself through the remaining yards down the home straight feeling that the ‘tape was receding’.
Once over the line he had no idea if the attempt had been successful as he collapsed into the arms of his coach. In the pre-electronic timing days, stopwatches had to be compared and a wait ensued. The announcer was Norris McWhirter who miked the moment, ‘The result of event ten the one mile.’ … pause … ‘Is won by Roger Bannister of Merton and Exeter colleges’… pause…. ‘In a time which subject to ratification is’… pause … ‘A new track, British, Commonwealth, European and World record’ … pause… ‘Of three……’ The rest was lost in the noise and excitement of the crowd but the important digit was known. At long last a mile had been won in three minutes something.
Sir Rogers feeling was of team successes, ‘We did it, the three of us, when and where we wanted’.
Aftermath of the Record
1954 was the infancy of television and of outside sports broadcasting. Historic footage exist of the BBC Sport Coverage from the one camera, hand held and situated on top of a van in the centre of the track. The cameraman swivelled round to follow the action. They were there at all only because Norris McWhirter had tipped the BBC off that ‘I think you should be there’ whereas Sir Roger had not wanted to make a promise he might not be able to keep. After the race Bannister headed back to London to appear on Sports View hosted by Peter Dimmock. This was the first regular BBC sports program and had begun less than a month before.
Sir Roger’s 3:59.4 world record lasted 46 days as on June 21st 1954 in Turku Finland, John Landy hit 3:58.0. ‘Après moi, le déluge ‘said Sir Roger meaning that once the ‘impossible’ barrier was broken many would follow.
Landy’s record set the scene for a historic confrontation at the Commonwealth Games in Vancouver with the two milers set to go head to head over the classic distance. Sir Roger felt the strain of the world’s interest in the build-up but had his strategy clear. ‘Landy was stronger than me and I had to have him take the pace, knowing I had the stronger finish’. In the final Landy was 10 yards up at the ½ mile point, a gap that Bannister slowly closed coming up to his shoulder on the last bend. The crowd noise was immense disguising the noise of feet on the cinder track, Landy looked over his left shoulder in the hope of seeing Bannister dropped. At that point Sir Roger ‘seized the advantage’ passing on the outside to take the race and title.
Sir Roger continued to run for pleasure enjoying runs with his children as well as orienteering; ‘the thinking man’s sport’. He expressed his love of cross country runs as the ‘best basis for training’.
Sir Roger became involved with the Sports Council, first as an advisor and then as the first chairman of a properly independent body. He noted the expansion of recreational sport as an activity, with this first growth being seen in the USA, as a blue collar workforce no longer laboured and had time and energy for sport. This was a trend also observed by his friend Chris Brasher who went on to found the London Marathon having seen the success of the New York event. However he recognised that running was not for everyone, and one of his achievements was to expand the number of Sports Centres in the country. He followed a strategy of encouraging a new sports centre in every alternate town, relying on neighbourly jealousy to fill the gaps.
How should we compare Sir Roger’s historic achievement on a cinder track against the performance of today on synthetic tracks? Sir Roger’s running career finished before the advent of synthetic tracks so he turned to the advice of fellow mile world record holders Coe, Ovett and Cram who’s running careers spanned the two eras. Their advice was a four second difference. This led to the question as to whether a finite limit to the record would be reached. Sir Roger noted that Hitchem El Guerrouj’s 3:43.13 record had now lasted sixteen years. He concluded that ‘the margins to lower the record are less than sixty years ago, but that someone will still do it’.
Sir Roger’s career in medicine specialised in Neurology leading to the question as to whether understanding and influencing neurology could make someone run faster? Sir Roger felt it was the other was round, that a trained body would adjust its neurology.
Interest in the great achievement has not diminished. Last year the spikes Sir Roger wore for the record fetched £266,500 at auction. Some of the proceeds going to the Autonomic Charitable Trust, as it "encourages the area of neurological research to which I have devoted most of my life".
The evening concluded with Sir Roger spending a considerable time signing his book and chatting with just about every member of the audience. One had to admire and be inspired by the energy and passion still evident in the man responsible for an iconic moment in our sport.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2016 BMC News