All achievers

Sir Roger Bannister

Track and Field Legend

If you have the opportunity — not a perfect opportunity — and you don't take it, you may never have another chance.

Roger Bannister at the Universities Athletic Union Championship at White City Stadium, London, 1949. Sport & General.
Roger Bannister at the Universities Athletic Union Championship at White City Stadium, London, 1949.

Roger Bannister was born in Harrow, Middlesex, England. He began school in a suburb of London, where he early showed a talent for running. University education had been beyond the reach of Banknote’s working class parents, and he resolved at a young age to win a place in one of England’s elite universities and study medicine. At the outbreak of World War II, the family moved to historic Bath, England, where Roger Bannister had daily opportunities to practice his running on the way to and from school. At first, his studiousness made him unpopular with his less motivated classmates, but his exceptional speed on the running track soon won him the acceptance he sought, and his scholastic efforts paid off with a scholarship to Oxford University.

At Oxford, Bannister’s speed in the mile and 1500-meter events drew the attention of the British sports press. To the consternation of many British track enthusiasts, the young miler declined to compete in the 1948 Olympics in London, preferring to concentrate on his training and his medical studies.

By 1951, Bannister had captured the British title in the mile and felt ready for Olympic competition. Unfortunately, a last minute change in the schedule of the events at the 1952 games in Helsinki forced Bannister to compete without resting between events as he was accustomed to. He finished fourth in the 1500-meter run and endured the scorn of the British sports media, who blamed Bannister’s rejection of conventional coaching and training methods.

Roger Bannister breaks the tape at 3 minutes 59.4 seconds, a new world's record. (Central Press Photo)
Roger Bannister breaks the tape at 3 minutes 59.4 seconds, a new world’s record. (Central Press Photo)

Bannister resolved to redeem himself by breaking the world’s record for the mile, the seemingly insurmountable four-minute barrier. By this time he was undertaking full-time medical studies at St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School, and setting aside only 45 minutes a day for training. But he had seen his time in the mile improve year after year, and was convinced that slow and steady training would enable him to break the record. Bannister’s opportunity came on May 6, 1954, in a meet at Oxford, with Bannister competing for the British Amateur Athletic Association. He had arranged for his friends Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher to set the pace for the first laps so that he completed the first three quarter-mile laps in less than three minutes. Finishing the last lap in less than a minute, Bannister broke the tape and collapsed as the announcer delivered his time to the cheering crowd: 3:59.4. The unbreakable record had been broken. At age 25, Roger Bannister had made history.

Within a month, the Australian runner John Landy had broken Bannister’s record, but Bannister had the satisfaction of besting Landy at that summer’s British Empire Games in Vancouver. In a race billed as “The Mile of the Century,” both runners beat the four-minute time, but Bannister came in first at 3:58.8 to Landy’s 3:59.6. Later that year, Roger Bannister was awarded the Silver Pears Trophy, bestowed annually for the outstanding British achievement in any field. He also secured the European title in the 1500-meter before retiring from competition. His autobiography, First Four Minutes, was published in 1955. It has since been reprinted as Four-Minute Mile.

June 1954: British athlete Roger Bannister, one month after breaking the four-minute mile, shakes hands with Prime Minister Winston Churchill outside Downing Street in London, as fellow runners Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway look on. Churchill is to present the team with cheques for the Save Our Churches campaign. (Getty)

He completed his medical studies, and for the next two decades combined a career in research with clinical practice as a neurologist. After recovering from a serious car accident, he withdrew from private practice to devote himself to research. He maintained an interest in athletics, serving as Chairman of the Sports Council of Great Britain from 1971 to 1974, and as President of the International Council for Sport and Physical Recreation from 1976 to 1983. Dr. Bannister was knighted in 1975.

English athlete Roger Bannister is cheered by his fellow medical students at St Mary's Hospital, Paddington, the day after he ran his record-breaking sub-four minute mile, London, 7th May 1954. (Photo by Douglas Miller/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
English athlete Roger Bannister is cheered by his fellow medical students at St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School in Paddington, the day after he ran his record-breaking sub-four-minute mile, London, 7th May 1954. (Getty Images)

Today, Sir Roger Bannister is Director of the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases in London and a trustee-delegate of St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School in Paddington. Since 1990 he has also been Chairman of the Editorial Board of the journal Clinical Autonomic Research and is the editor of Autonomic Failure, a textbook on clinical disorders of the autonomic nervous system.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 2000

“I knew I was very close. I did collapse at the end. If you don’t keep on running, keep your blood circulating… the muscles stop pumping the blood back, and you get dizzy. I did lose my sight for a bit because I was crowded in. Everybody rushed on to the track.”

In 1954, a young medical student made headlines around the world with one of the landmark events of 20th century sports history. At the time, it was thought to be impossible for a human being to run a mile in under four minutes. The world record of 4:01.3 had stood for nine years, and experts regarded this time as an insurmountable human limitation.

Roger Bannister thought otherwise. He had already won the British championship in the event, and he applied his scientific training and medical knowledge to smashing the four-minute barrier. On May 6, 1954, he set a new world record, running the mile in 3:59.4 while fighting a 15-mile-per-hour crosswind. His record was later broken by Australian John Landy, but in a subsequent rematch, with both athletes running the mile in under four minutes, Bannister was again triumphant.

Roger Bannister retired from racing shortly after his famous run and has since pursued a career in neurological medicine. Today, he is director of the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases in London. He was knighted by the Queen in 1975, but Sir Roger had long since won the world’s acclaim. Sports Illustrated rated Bannister’s breakthrough — alongside the scaling of Mount Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary — as the most significant athletic feat of the 20th century.

Watch full interview

(Sir Roger Bannister was first interviewed by the American Academy of Achievement on October 27, 2000 in London, England and again on June 7, 2002 in Dublin, Ireland. The following transcript draws on both interviews.)

Let’s talk about your historic race on May 6, 1954, when you broke the four-minute barrier. What went through your mind as you began the race? Did you feel “I can do this?”

Sir Roger Bannister: Having made the decision, I felt relatively calm, but of course, quite a lot of adrenaline. I had to try to ensure that the early pace was correct.  Brasher went into the lead.  I was a bit worried that he wasn’t going fast enough, but I had done nothing for five days.  I hadn’t trained.  I just rested.  So, I felt very full of running.  In the first lap I was following him and I said, “Faster, faster.”  You know, an order.  In fact, he was going absolutely the right pace. It was just that I was so full of running that I didn’t feel that I was running fast. He ran the first lap very correctly in .58.  He took us to the half mile in two minutes. Then Chataway took over and he passed the three-quarter mile in three minutes, exactly as planned.  Then I knew that we were then slowing down, inevitably, and I had to do the last lap in under 60 seconds and that was quite fast.  I overtook Chataway at the end of the last bend, overtook him, and then just had to run as fast as I could to the finish.

View the video footage of one of the most iconic moments in the history of sports, as the 25-year-old Roger Bannister breaks the four-minute mile on May 6, 1954 at Oxford.

Sir Roger Bannister: I knew I was very close.  But, you get very tired and there was a certain amount of pain and you slow up.  You think you are going faster, but your legs are so tired that you are in fact slowing.  I did collapse at the end. I think partly because if you don’t keep on running, keep your blood circulating, then you get a kind of failure.  The muscles stop pumping the blood back and you get dizzy. I did lose my sight for a bit because I was crowded in.  Everybody rushed on to the track. It was not a very well organized meeting.  It was a very informal meeting.  Then a couple of minutes later the announcement came, and was made by a friend of mine called Norris McWhirter, who later became the editor of the Guinness Book of Records, a person who was very punctilious in the management of facts and information.  He made the announcement:  “As a result of Event Four, the One Mile, was the winner R.G. Bannister of Exeter and Merton Colleges, in a time which, subject to ratification, is a track record, an English Native record, a United Kingdom record, a European record, in a time of three minutes…”  Then the whole of the track exploded and nobody heard the rest of the announcement.  So, that was it.

That number three was the important part. While you were running that race, did you feel you had it?

Sports Illustrated commemorated Bannister's achievement in their issue of December 27, 1999, more than four decades after his famous run.
Sports Illustrated commemorated Roger Bannister’s achievement in their issue of December 27, 1999, more than four decades after his record-setting mile run.

Sir Roger Bannister: Yes. It was a great moment to do something, and I raced supremely well. I felt I was as well fitted to do it as I had ever been, and as perhaps I might ever be. You know, I might have pulled a muscle a week before. I actually went climbing three weeks before, because I was feeling fed up with running. Chris Brasher was a climber, we went off quite crazily and went climbing in Wales. I could easily have sprained an ankle. But it nevertheless released some kind of energy that was getting jaded, so that I could come back and go on improving up to the event.

Let us build back up to the magic moment. Was excitement building towards that moment? What was the discourse about the mile in the time leading up to the point where you made your great achievement?

Sir Roger Bannister: The reason sport is attractive to many of the general public, not to some intellectuals, is that it’s filled with reversals.  What you think may happen doesn’t happen.  A champion is beaten, an unknown becomes a champion, and I had set my mind on winning the 1500-meter gold medal in Helsinki in 1952.  My ambition was always to do, say, what Lovelock had done, and win a gold medal.  And, it all came disastrously wrong when I came fourth instead of winning.  The reasons why I came fourth are unimportant.  I mean, it was a reorganization of the pattern of the races, and my very slender training let me down.  I did not have the capacity to recover quickly, but still it doesn’t matter.  Instead of retiring in order to devote myself to medicine, I decided to go on for another two years while I was still a student, working clinically in London, and I did that. The targets that would have justified this failure, as I saw it, were the Commonwealth Games, or Empire Games as they were then called. This was a race in Vancouver against John Landy or Oliver Reynolds. But Landy was the most famous.

Keys to success — Preparation

The target of the four-minute mile then came into view.  It was talked about in the ’30s, and the Swedes got very close, but it had just taken us after the war to gradually come down to a time closer, and in ’53, which was the year, if you remember, when Everest was climbed by a British Commonwealth team, I ran 4:03, and I felt the next year it should be possible. It was my last year anyway, and so I trained hard through the winter with two friends, Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher, Brasher from Cambridge, Chataway from Oxford, and they helped with the pace-making, and really made it possible because you could only break a time really by running evenly.  It’s a question of spreading the available energy, aerobic and anaerobic, evenly over four minutes.  If you run one part very much too fast, you pay a price.  If you run another part more slowly your overall time is slower.  So that was really the secret.

Chris Brasher led for two laps, Chris Chataway led for one lap and a bit more, and then I took over.

The 1954 British Empire Games, Roger Bannister pulls ahead of John Landy. (RALPH MORSE/TIMEPIX)
At the 1954 British Empire Games, Roger Bannister pulls ahead of John Landy. (RALPH MORSE/TIMEPIX)

There was a fair amount of doubt about whether any human being could do this. Was that in the air? Did it affect you one way or the other?

Sir Roger Bannister: Yes, it was in the air.

Keys to success — Vision

John Landy, my rival, ran 4:02 three or four times, and he used the phrase, “It’s like a wall.”   Now logically, I could not understand, as a physiologist, why a human being can run a mile in four minutes and two seconds, and four minutes and one second, and why somebody else won’t inevitably come along, train a little better, know that there’s a target to be beaten, and beat it.  So that was my mental approach to it. It was just fortunate for me that the pathway of record breaking, which continues in all aspects of athletics, had just reached this magical critical four minutes: four laps of one minute each, on a quarter-mile track. That was really the reason why it had conspired to become a possible barrier, physical or psychological.  It wasn’t, in my view, physical, but it did become to some extent psychological.  And it was really an example — I don’t know whether the word paradigm is correct — paradigm of human achievement in a purely athletic sense.  What limits are there to what the body can do?

The 1954 British Empire Games in Vancouver, Canada. Roger Bannister pulls ahead of John Landy in a race dubbed "the mile of the century." (Photo by Ralph Morse/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
The 1954 British Empire Games in Vancouver, Canada. Roger Bannister pulls ahead of John Landy in a race dubbed “The Mile of the Century.” (Photo by Ralph Morse/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

What was the background of this race that made such history, and broke the four-minute mile?

Sir Roger Bannister: Well, the world record had been stopped for eight years, so there hadn’t been any progress. That was why people said, “Well, maybe it can’t be done. Is it a psychological or physical barrier?” But John Landy had run four minutes and two seconds the previous year. So had I, and so had an American runner. Gunder Haegg, a Swede, held the record. The Swedes weren’t involved in the war and learned some techniques from the pre-war Germans about how hard you could train and they put it to good effect. The war had set back our progress in Britain because nothing happened for four or five years.

Is it true that you did hospital rounds that morning?

Sir Roger Bannister: I went in to my hospital in London, St. Mary’s, and I didn’t do rounds.  But, I was a clinical student.  But, what I did was I went into the physiological technician’s lab and I sharpened the spikes. Because those were sticky tracks made of electricity ash with oil in them.  Your spikes, which were really quite long then, would catch the material of the track and your shoe would get heavier.  I was simply filing them down and rubbing some graphite on the spikes, so that I thought I would run more effectively. I then got a train up to Oxford.  I then had lunch with some long-term friends and then spent the rest of the afternoon looking at the weather and going through.  It was so strange really to be able to withhold the decision.  You might think that you have to have it in your mind, be actually honed on doing it continuously.  But in my case that wasn’t true.

So on the day of the race, you were having lunch with friends and weren’t sure you were going to do it. You weren’t sure you were even going to enter the race?

Sir Roger Bannister: I would have entered the race because I couldn’t disappoint people. But I would have disappointed them, because I would not have made a record attempt. I did not want to fail and exhaust myself, because I was the kind of runner who trained so little that I couldn’t race again within another ten days if I had put all my hopes and energy into it. That was the problem.

The particular background was the race in May in which the Athletic Association competed against the university.  So, there was an event.  You cannot break world records unless it is an established event and you have three timekeepers and the whole thing is organized. The real problem was that May is a very early time in the year and the weather is usually bad. You cannot run a fast mile race if there is a strong wind because the wind, although it may be behind you part of the time, it makes your running uneven. The only way that you can achieve a four-minute mile is to run it as evenly-paced as possible, so that your energy expenditure is spread out, and you mix your aerobic and anaerobic energy supplies in an appropriate and efficient way. So the opportunity was there.  The question was, was the weather, which was very bad, and it had been raining, it was very windy, such that it was impossible to do it.  To try to do something when external circumstances make it impossible would: (a) have made me feel that it was a more difficult task; maybe there is a barrier about four minutes. My colleagues, Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher, who had agreed were running on my side in the race against the university, had agreed to set a reasonable pace.  Would I be able to get them to cooperate on some future occasion?  Or, might John Landy, who had then gone to Finland to be given the perfect opportunities in pacing, would he do it first? So, about 20 minutes before the race, the weather seemed to improve.  I said, “Let’s do it.”  So there we are.  That was the setting.

John Landy and Roger Bannister after competing in the 1954 Empire Games. (RALPH MORSE/TIMEPIX)
John Landy and Roger Bannister after competing in the 1954 Empire Games. (RALPH MORSE/TIMEPIX)

What was it you said when you saw the flag moving in the wind? “A man in England can’t wait for good weather.”

Sir Roger Bannister: That’s right.

Keys to success — Courage

When I decided that the weather (was right), I had to take the chance.  The real thought in my mind — and by then I did have a coach, Franz Stampfl, we met by chance in the train —  I hadn’t planned to do it.  He said, “If the weather is bad, what you have to remember is that (a), I think you can run it in 3:56,” which is what a coach would say, so I didn’t pay too much attention to that. The second thing he said is that if you have an opportunity, not a perfect opportunity, and you don’t take it, you may never have another chance. It was that thought, I think, which eventually led me to attempt it.