55 years have passed since a great barrier in modern athletics was
surmounted: the first sub-four-minute mile run by an Oxford University
medical student named Roger Bannister (now “Sir” Roger Bannister since
his knighting by Queen Elizabeth II in 1975).
difficult to conceive just how emotional and gripping that Bannister’s
moment turned out to be, having been surrounded by a towering fortress
as psychological as it was physical. There were some who didn’t
believe that human beings had the stamina to traverse a mile in under
four minutes. But on May 6, 1954, the plucky amateur removed all doubt
by recording a stunning time/ of 3:59.4, a feat that caused major
reverberations around the world.
more than 17 seconds have been trimmed off of Bannister’s mile record
in the intervening half-century doesn’t diminish its impact in the
slightest. It remains an iconic moment in popular culture that has
since been showcased in a pair of made-for-TV biopics: 1988’s “The Four
Minute MileÛ¢bCrLf and ESPN’s “Four MinutesÛ¢bCrLfin 1988.
that doesn’t directly tell the tale of Bannister but pays significant
homage to the ongoing fascination with the magical four-minute mile
barrier. It’s a Hallmark Channel Original Movie entitled “Chasing a
Dream,Û¢bCrLf and it stars Andrew Lawrence in the fictional story of a young
man who takes on the sub-four-minute mile challenge as a way to honor
the unfulfilled mission of his deceased best friend.
movie, written by Bryce Zabel and Jackie Zabel, directed by David
Burton Morris and also starring Treat Williams and Joanna Going, drives
home the commitment, will and fortitude required to conquer The Big
the mile race itself has over the past few decades lost some of its
allure in a world that fully embraces the metric system save for the
United States, it still carries plenty of weight by simple virtue
of its grand history. It’s also endlessly fascinating as perhaps the
longest distance in track competition that is raced in something
approaching a sprint at the world-class level.
first recorded one-mile record given wide credence was the time of 4:28
by a professional racer named Charles Westhall in England in July 1852.
The first American to hold the record was Thomas Conneff with his run
of 4:17 4/5 in August 1893. Jules Ladoumegue of France finally took
the mile standard below 4:10 in October 1831 with a 4:09.2.
the time Bannister set out to bust four minutes, the record of 4:01.3
had been set nearly nine years before, by Gunder Hagg of Sweden in July
1945. He had already lowered his own personal time to 4:02 from the
4:30.8 he had logged for his first mile in March of ’47.
broke the record late in the afternoon on that fateful day, in a light
rain and backed by a 15 mile-per-hour wind. He would recall later in
his book, “The First Four MinutesÛ¢bCrLf that ÛÓ as he embarked on the final
lap, “There was no pain, only a great utility of movement and aim. The
world seemed to stand still or did not exist. The only reality was the
next two hundred yards of track under my feet.Û¢bCrLf
Bannister’s mark would survive for a mere seven weeks before
Australia’s John Landy turned in a scorching 3:57.9 mile on June 21 of
’54. The next sizeable leap downward in the mile record book was
achieved by an American named Jim Ryun, who blazed to a 3:51.3 in July
’66 and, in June ’67, a 3:51.1.
last of the mile barriers ÛÓ at least for now ÛÓ was the breaking of
3:50. And that finally came when New Zealander John Walker surged to a
3:49.4 in August 1975. The world mark would be lowered be another 2.5
seconds in the 1980s and finally to the current record of 3:43.13
achieved by Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco in July 1999. It has now
stood for nearly a full decade and is in no present danger of being
the record for women in the mile has a far less protracted and storied
history. It dates to 1921 and a time of 6:13.4 achieved by Elizabeth
Atkinson of Great Britain. Interestingly, as Bannister was smashing
four minutes in ’54, a fellow Brit named Diane Leather was breaking
five minutes for the first time ÛÓ and on nearly the same day: May 29,
woman has yet broken four minutes for the mile. The current record
stands at 4:12.56 by Svetlana Masterkova in August of ’96, or more than
a dozen years ago. The theory of why women can’t run as fast as men at
the highest levels of competition are many and varied, from their
greatly abundance of fat in lieu of muscle mass to insufficient hip
angles to lower heart and lung capacity. But the truth is no one
really knows for sure.
and fans alike, a measure that transcends time itself. It’s a gauge of
human performance that closely follows advances in equipment, athletic
achievement and physical capacity, a litmus test for will and
endurance. And its apex in our psyche arrived in the joyful triumph of
a fellow named Bannister.