His record breaking 4-minute mile happened on May 6th, 1954 – my late mother’s, Beria’s, birthday. I remember it clearly, for that reason. She joked it was a present for her. I am not sure I really understood what she was saying. I think I was puzzled that she knew him; such is the mind of a child.
Sir Roger is being remembered as a trailblazer who ‘made the impossible possible’, and inspired generations of British people to take-up the sport of middle distance running.
At is happened, within weeks of Bannister’s historic achievement, his mile record was broken by Australian, John Landy, the second man to run the mile in under four minutes.
Once deemed impossible, by 1954 it appeared certain the elusive four-minute barrier would be broken. Bannister, Landy and another runner, the American Wes Santee, all appeared close to the mark, but it was Bannister, then a medical student, who did it first when he ran 3-minutes 59.4 seconds at a sports ground in Oxford. Slightly offpace with one lap to go, he managed to run his final 400 metres in just 59-seconds: “The world seemed to stand still, or did not exist,” Bannister wrote in his book ‘The First Four Minutes’. “The only reality was the next 200yards of track under my feet. The tape meant finality – extinction perhaps.I felt at that moment that it was my chance to do one thing supremely well. I drove on, impelled by a combination of fear and pride.” Though Bannister reached the mark first, the record only stood for 26-days. On 21 June, Landy surpassed it with a time of 3-mins 57.9 seconds at a meet in Turku, Finland.
Bannister was helped during his record-breaking Oxford run by pace setters Christopher Chataway and Chris Brasher and, while Landy has never questioned the legitimacy of the run, he has also maintained that he wanted to do it differently.
In an interview in 2004, Landy was asked whether he believed Bannister’s run was “illegitimate” and dismissed the suggestion. “First of all, you’ve got to think the thing was done. The four-minute mile had been run. You couldn’t undo it, right. The four-minute mile had been run, however it had been run,” Landy told the London Sunday Telegraph, “but I have never criticised it. My attitude was that if it’s a bona fide run, and said to be by the authorities, that’s it. And that’s what happened and I have never ever, nor would I ever, doubt that it was a wonderful effort.” Landy was determined to do things differently from Bannister. “My only point is, people say, would you have done it that way?” he said. “The answer is no. I wanted to run the four-minute mile myself. I never saw it as a team business, even though I had some very good teammates who wanted to pace me, I wanted to do it myself. That was not to do with whether it was right to pace or not.
It was just simply that I saw it as an individual effort, and I was able to do that. I did have some help on the first lap-and-a-half from a Finnish runner. I didn’t ask for it. Probably the good part of that is they stopped me running too fast.” In any case, the first two sub-four minute runs coming so close together set the scene for a dramatic encounter between the two men in August of the same year at the Empire Games in Vancouver.The race became known as the Miracle Mile, and more than 60 years later is still among the most famous in the history of modern athletics.
Landy lead for most of the race, with Bannister close behind. Then, at the final turn, Landy looked over his left shoulder to check where Bannister was and the British runner overtook the Australian on the right. Both men finished in under four minutes, but Bannister was the winner.
A bronze statue of the moment Landy glanced around now stands outside the Pacific National Exhibition in Vancouver, and Landy once joked 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.” In an interview in 2004 Bannister said he considered winning that race – not the Oxford run – the highlight of his career: “I think that racing in the Olympics and Commonwealths is more important than breaking records,” Bannister said. “Vancouver was the pinnacle of my athletics career. It is very difficult to break records during Olympic competition, but winning races was better than holding world records.” John Landy became governor of Victoria. At the opening of the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Victoria, in his final term as governor, he passed the ceremonial Queen’s baton to the Queen.
Roland can be heard each MONDAY morning on 3BA at 10.30.