If one word defined the running career of Roger Gilbert Bannister, it would have to be the number ‘three’.
Words came before it in Norris McWhirter’s ‘spontaneous’, rehearsed-in-the-bathtub-the-night-before, announcement of the result of the mile in the Oxford v AAA meeting on 6 May, 1954. Words followed, too, but they were lost in the pandemonium that ensued as soon as he uttered the word “three”.
As in three minutes 59.4 seconds. For the first time in history, a man had run a mile in under four minutes.
For Bannister and his supporters it was victory in a race that was every bit as important as the one he had just completed at Oxford University’s Iffley Road track. Getting there was the culmination of a quest he had embarked upon when he returned disappointed from the Helsinki Olympic Games little over 18 months earlier. He had decided then that he would devote another two years to athletics with the aim of being the first to run the mile in under four minutes.
It is one thing to set your own goals, but you cannot control the ambitions of others. Two other young men who had returned home, chastened, from Finland – John Landy of Australia and Wes Santee of the USA, also dedicated themselves to the four-minute chase. All three wanted to run the first sub-four, but Bannister and his backers were determined to achieve the honour for Britain.
Thus, Bannister, who died on 3 March, saw a real need to be first man to break the barrier. If he ever wavered in his commitment to the ultimate goal, one of his camp would steel him up again. On the very morning of the race, as he travelled up to Oxford from London by train full of the usual doubts about the weather, his own condition – in short, just about everything – Franz Stampfl told him:
“If you forgo this chance, would you ever forgive yourself. Nobody knows what the future holds. Wes Santee or John Landy may do it first.”
Stampfl continued with the usual stuff about falling under a bus, being struck down by injury – but there it was in stark simplicity: “Santee or Landy may do it first.”
The narrative of the remainder of 1954 is well known (if you are not familiar with it, shameless self-promotion alert, order The Landy Era through Runners’ Tribe). Forty-six days after Bannister’s 3:59.4, Landy ran 3:57.9 to take the world record off his rival and set up a climactic clash in The Miracle Mile at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver later that year.
The Vancouver mile, promoted like a heavyweight title fight, was the classic meeting of the bold front-runner (Landy) and the feared kicker (Bannister). At one point, there was even talk that Santee might run, as if the War of Independence had never been fought and won – but though the sun may never have set on the British Empire, nor did that same sun shine on Americans. Santee, instead, provided expert commentary on the race which was televised live into the US.
Bannister won that race, too. Landy managed to drag his opponent way out of his comfort zone, Bannister having to make a big effort to close most of a 15-metre gap in the third lap. But the Englishman had enough kick left to spurt past Landy off the final bend to win by five metres.
Thanks to Landy’s front-running, the only two men ever to have broken four minutes both did so again in a championship race: Bannister 3:58.8, Landy 3:59.6., daylight third.
This was the perfect mile, wrote Neal Bascomb in his book of the same name (‘The Perfect Mile,’ Collins Willow).
“It was (Bannister’s) finest moment. He had beaten the best of competitors in John Landy. He had brought glory to his country. He had captured victory in a race greater than any numerical barrier. Roger Bannister had run the perfect mile.”
It is a view both the main protagonists shared. Pleasingly, many of the Bannisters obituaries and tributes published this last week have included his summation of his career.
“Racing in the Olympics and Commonwealths is more important than breaking records,” Bannister said in a 2004 interview marking the fiftieth anniversary of his run.
“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.”
Bannister retired after 1954, Lady would have had he won in Vancouver.
“The most important race of my life to me was to beat Bannister in Vancouver,” Landy said in The Landy Era. “I don’t think I would ever have run again if I’d done that.”
Instead, it was Bannister who won. A few weeks later, he closed his career with an easy victory in the 1500 metres at the European championships.
Roger Bannister went on to achieve many things, as an eminent physician and neurologist, as chairman of the UK Sport Council, as an inspiration to others, among other things. He always emphasised that he wanted to be known for his achievements beyond running.
Many of us would agree with his view that his greatest athletic achievement was the win over Landy in Vancouver. Even 64 years later, the wider world still can’t seem to get beyond the first sub-four.
But there it is. From the moment the word “three” escaped Norris McWhirter’s mouth, that was always going to be Roger Bannister’s fate.
About the author: Len Johnson has been the long-time lead columnist on RT and is one of the world’s most respected athletic writers.
He is also a former national class distance runner (2.19.32 marathon) and trained with Chris Wardlaw and Robert de Castella among other running legends. He is the author of The Landy Era.