Roger Bannister breaks the four minute mile barrier - 6 May 1954 - 3:59.4 (Getty Images) © Copyright
Iaaf News Monaco

Bannister, first man to run a sub-four-minute mile, dies

The IAAF is deeply saddened to hear that Roger Bannister, the first man to run a mile within four minutes, died on Saturday (3) at the age of 88.

Born in Harrow in 1929, Bannister was inspired to take up athletics after watching Sydney Wooderson in the 1940s. Following a year of light training, he ran a 4:24.6 mile at the age of 18 and was considered for the British Olympic team in 1948, but he declined selection.

Instead, he channelled his focus into training for the 1952 Olympics. Bannister fulfilled that goal and went on to finish fourth in the 1500m in Helsinki, setting a British record of 3:46.40.

His biggest achievement, however, came two years later.

After the 1952 Olympics, he set himself the goal of becoming the first man to run a sub-four-minute mile. A medical student at the time, Bannister used his medical knowledge to devise his own training regime and investigate the mechanical aspects of running.

A British record of 4:03.6 in May 1953 made him realise that his target was a realistic ambition. But several other leading runners of that generation - including USA’s Wes Santee and Australia’s John Landy - were also pursuing the same goal.

Bannister seized his opportunity during a meeting between the British AAA and Oxford University at the Iffley Road track on 6 May 1954.

British teammates Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway assisted with the pace-making duties. Bannister, who was a medical student at the time, had started his day with a shift at a hospital in London before heading over to Oxford for the 6pm race.

Paced through the first lap in 58 seconds and half way in 1:58, Bannister was on target for his goal. The pace slipped slightly on the third lap as the bell sounded in 3:01, but Bannister chased Chataway for a further half lap before kicking into the lead and charging for the line.

Stadium announcer Norris McWhirter, who went on to co-publish and co-edit the Guinness Book of Records, excited the crowd by delaying the announcement of Bannister’s time.

"Ladies and gentlemen, here is the result of event nine, the one mile: first, number 41, RG 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 three..."

And that told the crowd all they needed to know; their roar drowned out the rest of the announcement. Bannister's time was 3:59.4.

His world record lasted 45 days until it was broken by Landy. The pair met later in the year at the British Empire Games and, in a race billed as the ‘miracle mile’, Bannister won in a British record of 3:58.8, just short of Landy’s world record of 3:57.9.

At the end of 1954, having also won the European 1500m title, Bannister retired from athletics to pursue his medical studies full-time and later became a consultant neurologist.

He continued to run to keep fit until he broke his ankle in a car accident in 1975, the same year he was knighted.

Bannister was diagnosed with neurological disorder Parkinson’s disease in 2011. "I have seen, and looked after, patients with so many neurological and other disorders that I am not surprised I have acquired an illness," he said at the time. "It's in the nature of things, there's a gentle irony to it."

IAAF President Sebastian Coe, who had hugely been inspired by Bannister in his own career, paid tribute to the former world record-holder.

“On the 6 May 1954, Roger made the impossible possible,” said Coe, speaking at the launch event of IAAF Heritage. “One year after the coronation of a young Queen Elizabeth II and after man conquered Everest, Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four-minute mile with the help of his friends Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher.

“The world’s best runners had been attempting the four-minute barrier for a quarter of a century. It was as much of a psychological barrier as it was a physical barrier. Bannister’s assault allowed mankind to enter a world filled with new possibilities.

“His achievement transcended sport, let alone athletics,” added Coe. “It was a moment in history that lifted the heart of a nation and boosted morale in a world that was still at a low ebb after the war.

“We have all lost a giant and, for many of us, a deep and close friendship.”