Roger Bannister, 1929–2018
The student athlete who broke the 4-minute mile
On May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister worked a morning shift at St Mary’s Hospital in London, before catching a train to Oxford and enjoying a ham salad lunch with friends. Later that day, in front of 3,000 spectators at the city’s Iffley Road running track, the 6-foot-2-inch medical student made history, becoming the first person to run a mile in under 4 minutes. In damp and windy conditions, and aided by pacesetters Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway, Bannister finished in 3 minutes 59.4 seconds—a feat many had thought was impossible. “With 5 yards to go the finishing line seemed almost to recede,” he later recalled. “Those last few seconds seemed an eternity.”
Born in the London suburb of Harrow, Bannister took to running at an early age, said The Washington Post. “I just ran anywhere and everywhere,” he recalled. “It was easier for me to run than to walk.” Bannister went to Oxford University to study medicine at age 17 and quickly became its athletic club’s star performer. He continued to improve after graduating and went to the 1952 Helsinki Olympics “favored to win the gold” in the 1,500 meters. Instead, he finished fourth, “and his crushing disappointment motivated him to pursue the 4-minute mile.” He trained while keeping up with his studies, which meant he often ran just 25 miles a week. Bannister’s triumph in Oxford was hailed in newspapers around the world, but “his record stood for only 46 days,” said The Times (U.K.). On June 21, Australian runner John Landy beat his time by over a second. The two rivals had a “dramatic showdown” at the Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, British Columbia, two months later, in what became known as the “Miracle Mile.” Both men finished in under 4 minutes—but Bannister won by 5 yards.
Later that year, after winning the 1,500 meters at the European championships, Bannister abruptly retired from competitive running “to concentrate on medicine,” said The New York Times. He would live “a distinguished life,” becoming a world-famous neurologist, working for several national and international sports bodies, and serving for eight years as head of Oxford’s Pembroke College. “Running was just a small part of my life,” he said. “[My career] is a greater source of satisfaction than happening to move my body at a certain speed for a few moments in 1954.”