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Roger Bannister

Medal record

Sir Roger Bannister in 2009
Competitor for  England and  Great Britain
British Empire and Commonwealth Games
Gold 1954 Vancouver 1 mile
European Championships
Gold 1954 Bern 1.500 metres

Sir Roger Gilbert Bannister, CBE (born 23 March, 1929) is an English former athlete best known for running the first recorded mile in less than 4 minutes. Bannister became a distinguished neurologist and Master of Pembroke College, Oxford, before retiring in 2001.

Sir Roger was the inaugural recipient of the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year award in January 1955 (1954 Sportsman of the Year).


[edit] Early life

Roger Bannister was born in Harrow, England. He was educated at the City of Bath Boys' School, University College School, London, Exeter College and Merton College, Oxford, and at St Mary's Hospital Medical School (now part of Imperial College London).

[edit] Early running career

Bannister was inspired by miler Sydney Wooderson's remarkable comeback in 1945. Eight years after setting the mile record and seeing it surpassed during the war years by the great Swedish runners Arne Andersson and Gunder Hägg, Wooderson regained his old form and challenged Andersson over the distance in several races. Wooderson lost to Andersson, but set a British record of 4:04.2 in Göteborg on 9 September.

Like Wooderson, Bannister would ultimately set a mile record, see it broken, then set a new personal best slower than the new record.

Bannister started his running career at Oxford in the autumn of 1946 at the age of 17. He had never worn running spikes previously or run on a track. His training was light, even compared to the standards of the day, but he showed promise in running a mile in 1947 in 4:24.6 on only three weekly half-hour training sessions.

He was selected as an Olympic "possible" in 1948, but declined as he felt he was not ready to compete at that level. However, he was further inspired to become a great miler by watching the 1948 Olympics. He set his training goals on the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki.

In 1949, he improved in the 880 yards to 1:52.7 and won several mile races in 4:11. Then, after a period of six weeks with no training, he came in third at White City in 4:14.2.

The year 1950 saw more improvements, as he finished a relatively slow 4:13 mile on 1 July with an impressive 57.5 last quarter. Then, he ran the AAA 880 in 1:52.1, losing to Arthur Wint, then ran 1:50.7 for the 800 m at the European Championships on 26 August, placing third. Chastened by this lack of success, Bannister started to train harder and more seriously.

His increased attention to training paid quick dividends, as he won a mile race in 4:09.9 on 30 December, then in 1951 at the Penn Relays, Bannister broke away from the pack with a 56.7 final lap, finishing in 4:08.3. Then, in his biggest test to date, he won a mile race on 14 July in 4:07.8 at the AAA Championships at White City before 47,000 people. The time set a meet record and he defeated defending champion Bill Nankeville in the process.

Bannister suffered defeat, however, when Yugoslavia's Andrija Otenhajmer, aware of Bannister's final-lap kick, took a 1500 m race in Belgrade 25 August out at near-record pace, forcing Bannister to close the gap by the bell lap. Otenhajmer won in 3:47.0, Bannister set a personal best finishing second in 3:48.4. Bannister was no longer seen as invincible.

[edit] The 1952 Olympics

Bannister avoided racing after the 1951 season until late in the spring of 1952, saving his energy for Helsinki and the Olympics. He ran an 880 on 28 May in 1:53.00, then a 4:10.6 mile time-trial on 7 June, proclaiming himself satisfied with the results. At the AAA championships, he skipped the mile and won the 880 in 1:51.5. Then, 10 days before the Olympic final, he ran a 3/4 mile time trial in 2:52.9, which gave him confidence that he was ready for the Olympics as he considered the time to be the equivalent of a four-minute mile.

His confidence soon dissipated as it was announced there would be semi-finals for the 1500 m at the Olympics, and he knew that this favoured runners who had much deeper training regimens than he did. When he ran his semi-final, Bannister finished fifth and thereby qualified for the final, but felt "blown and unhappy."

The 1500 m final on 26 July would prove to be one of the more dramatic in Olympic history. The race was not decided until the final metres, Josy Barthel of Luxembourg prevailing in an Olympic-record 3:45.28 (3:45.1 by official hand-timing) with the next seven runners all under the old record. Bannister finished fourth, out of the medals, but set a British record of 3:46.30 (3:46.0) in the process.

[edit] Bannister sets a new goal

After his failure at the 1952 Olympics, Bannister spent two months deciding whether to give up running. He set himself on a new goal: To be the first man to run a mile in under four minutes. Accordingly, he intensified his training and did hard intervals.

On 2 May, 1953, he made an attempt on the British record at Oxford. Paced by Chris Chataway, Bannister ran 4:03.6, shattering Wooderson's 1945 standard. "This race made me realise that the four-minute mile was not out of reach," said Bannister.

On 27 June, a mile race was inserted onto the programme of the Surrey schools athletic meeting. Australian runner Don Macmillan, ninth in the 1500 m at the 1952 Olympics, set a strong pace with 59.6 and 1:59.7 for two laps. He gave up after 2 1/2 laps, but Chris Brasher took up the pace. Brasher had jogged the race, allowing Bannister to lap him so he could be a fresh pace-setter. At 3/4 mile, Bannister was at 3:01.8, the record - and first sub-four-minute mile - in reach. But the effort fell short with a finish in 4:02.0, a time bettered by only Andersson and Hägg. British officials would not allow this performance to stand as a British record which, Bannister felt in retrospect, was a good decision. "My feeling as I look back is one of great relief that I did not run a four-minute mile under such artificial circumstances," he said.

But other runners were making attempts at the four-minute barrier and coming close as well. American Wes Santee ran 4:02.4 on 5 June, the fourth-fastest mile ever. And, at the end of the year, Australian John Landy ran 4:02.0.

Then early in 1954, Landy made some more attempts at the distance. On 21 January, he ran 4:02.4 in Melbourne, then 4:02.6 on 23 February and at the end of the Australian season on 19 April, he ran 4:02.6 again.

Bannister had been following Landy's attempts, and was certain his Australian rival would succeed with each one. But, knowing that Landy's season-closing attempt on 19 April would be his last until he travelled to Finland for another attempt, Bannister knew he had to make his attempt soon.

[edit] The sub-4-minute mile

Blue plaque recording the first ever sub-4-minute mile run by Roger Bannister on 6 May, 1954 at Oxford University's Iffley Road Track.

This historic event took place on 6 May 1954 during a meet between British AAA and Oxford University at Iffley Road Track in Oxford. It was watched by about 3,000 spectators. With winds up to 25 miles per hour (40 km/h) prior to the event, Bannister had said twice that he favoured not running, to conserve his energy and efforts to break the 4-minute barrier; he would try again at another meet. However, the winds dropped just before the race was scheduled to begin, and Bannister did run. Two other runners, Brasher and Chataway, provided pacing while completing the race. Both went on to establish their own track careers. The race[1] was broadcast live by BBC Radio and commented on by Harold Abrahams, of Chariots of Fire fame.

' "Ladies and gentlemen, here is the result of event 9, the one mile: 1st, No. 41, R.G. Bannister, Amateur Athletic Association and formerly of Exeter and Merton Colleges, Oxford, with a time which is a new meeting and track record, and which - subject to ratification - will be a new English Native, British National, All-Comers, European, British Empire and World Record. The time was 3..." '

The roar of the crowd drowned out the rest of the announcement. Bannister's time was 3 min 59.4 sec.

The stadium announcer for the race was Norris McWhirter, who went on to publish and edit the Guinness Book of Records. He famously "teased" the crowd by drawing out the announcement of the time Bannister ran as long as possible.[2]

50th anniversary of Bannister's four-minute mile, commemorated on a 2004 British fifty pence coin.

The claim that a 4-minute mile was once thought to be impossible by informed observers was and is a widely propagated myth cooked up by sportswriters and debunked by Bannister himself in his memoir, The Four Minute Mile, 1955. The reason the myth took hold was that 4 minutes was a nice round number which was slightly better (1.4 seconds) than the world record for nine years'longer than it probably otherwise would have been because of the effect of World War II in interrupting athletic progress in the combatant countries. Note that the Swedish runners Gunder Hägg and Arne Andersson, in a series of head-to-head races in the period 1942'45, had already lowered the world mile record by 5 seconds to the pre-Bannister record. (See Mile run world record progression.) What is still impressive to knowledgeable track fans is that Bannister ran a 4-minute mile on very low-mileage training by modern standards.

Just 46 days later on 21 June in Turku, Finland, Bannister's record was broken by his rival John Landy of Australia, with a time of 3 min 57.9 s, which the IAAF ratified as 3 min 58.0 s due to the rounding rules then in effect.

Statue of Bannister and Landy in Vancouver

On 7 August, at the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, B.C., Bannister, running for England, competed against Landy for the first time in a race billed as "The Miracle Mile". They were the only two men in the world to have broken the 4-minute barrier, with Landy still holding the world record. Landy led for most of the race, building a lead of 10 yards in the third lap (of four), but was overtaken on the last bend, and Bannister won in 3 min 58.8 s, with Landy 0.8 s behind in 3 min 59.6 s. Bannister and Landy have both pointed out that the crucial moment of the race was that at the moment when Bannister decided to try to pass Landy, Landy looked over his left shoulder to gauge Bannister's position and Bannister burst past him on the right, never relinquishing the lead. A larger-than-life bronze sculpture of the two men at this moment was created by Vancouver sculptor Jack Harman in 1967 from a photograph by Vancouver Sun photographer Charlie Warner and stood for many years at the entrance to Empire Stadium; after the stadium was demolished the sculpture was moved a short distance away to the Hastings and Renfrew entrance of the Pacific National Exhibition (PNE) fairgrounds. Regarding this sculpture, Landy quipped that "While Lot's wife was turned into a pillar of salt for looking back, I am probably the only one ever turned into bronze for looking back."

Bannister went on that season to win the "metric mile", the 1,500 m, at the European Championships in Bern on 29 August, with a championship record in a time of 3 min 43.8 s. He then retired from athletics to concentrate on his work as a junior doctor and to pursue a career in neurology.

[edit] Sports Council and knighthood

He later became the first Chairman of the Sports Council (now called Sport England) and was knighted for this service in 1975.[3] Under his aegis, central and local government funding of sports centres and other sports facilities was rapidly increased, and he also initiated the first testing for use of anabolic steroids in sport.

[edit] Legacy

On the 50th anniversary of running the sub-4-minute mile, Bannister was interviewed by the BBC's sports correspondent Rob Bonnet. At the conclusion of the interview, Bannister was asked whether he looked back on the sub-4-minute mile as the most important achievement of his life. Bannister replied to the effect that 'no, he rather saw his subsequent forty years of practicing as neurologist and some of the new procedures he introduced as being more significant'. His major contribution in academic medicine was in the field of autonomic failure, an area of neurology focusing on illnesses characterised by certain automatic responses of the nervous system (for example, elevated heart rate when standing up) not occurring.

For his efforts Sir Roger Bannister was also made the inaugural recipient of the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year award in 1955 (he was given the award as the 1954 Sportsman of the Year but it was awarded in January, 1955) and is one of the few non-Americans recognised by the American-published magazine as such.

In a UK poll conducted by Channel 4 in 2002, the British public voted Bannister's historic sub 4 minute mile, #13 in the list of the 100 Greatest Sporting Moments.[4]

Sir Roger Bannister is the subject of the ESPN movie "Four Minutes" (2005). This film is a dramatisation, its major departures from the factual record being the creation of a fictional character as Bannister's coach, who was actually Franz Stampfl, an Austrian, and secondly his meeting his wife, Moyra Jacobsson, in the early 1950s, when in fact they met in London only a few months before the Miracle Mile itself took place.

The 50th anniversary of Sir Roger's achievement was marked by a commemorative British 50 pence coin. The reverse of the coin shows the legs of a runner and a stop watch (stopped at 3:59.4).

Bannister, arguably the most famous record-setter in the mile, is also the man who held the record for the shortest period of time, at least since the IAAF started to ratify records.

[edit] Display of memorabilia

In the gallery of Pembroke College dining hall there are 3 cabinets containing approximately 100 exhibits covering Bannister's athletic career and including some academic highlights.[5]

At St Mary's Hospital (London), Imperial College School of Medicine have named a lecture theatre after Dr Bannister, with the stopwatch used to time the race on display, stopped at 3:59. Sir Roger has also given his name to both the trophy presented to the winning team in the annual Imperial College School of Medicine vs Imperial College London athletics Varsity match, as well as the award giving to the graduating doctor of Imperial College School of Medicine who has achieved most in the sporting community.

[edit] Quotations

  • "I knew I was very close. I did collapse at the end. If you don't keep on running, keep your blood circulating'the muscles stop pumping the blood back, and you get dizzy. I did lose my sight for a bit because I was crowded in. Everybody rushed on to the track."
  • "I felt like an exploded flashlight with no will to live" (Bannister, 2004: 167)
  • "I found longer races boring. I found the mile just perfect."
  • "The man who can drive himself further once the effort gets painful is the man who will win."
  • Roger Bannister on breaking the 4-minute mile (Cameron, 1993: 185): "No longer conscious of my movement, I discovered a new unity with nature. I had found a new source of power and beauty, a source I never dreamt existed."
  • "Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn't matter whether you're a lion or a gazelle--when the sun comes up, you'd better be running."[6]

[edit] References

  • The First Four Minutes: ESPN Classic Television Programme.
  • The Four Minute Mile TV mini-series (1988), available on DVD.
  • Bannister, Roger (1955), The Four-Minute Mile. Revised and enlarged 50th anniversary (of the race) edition, 2004, The Lyons Press.
  • Bascomb, Neal (2004), The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It. ISBN 0-618-39112-6.
  • Cameron, Julia (1993), The Artist's Way. Oxford, London: Pan Books. ISBN 0-330-34358-0.
  • Nelson, Cordner and Quercetani, Roberto (1985), The Milers, Tafnews Press, 1985, ISBN 0-911521-15-1, pp. 181'215
  • Quercetani, R. L. (1964), A World History of Track and Field Athletics, 1864'1964, Oxford University Press. (A history of the mile/1500 m. event.)

[edit] External links

Preceded by
Sweden Gunder Hägg
Men's Mile World Record Holder
6 May ' 21 June 1954
Succeeded by
Australia John Landy

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