When Felix Baumgartner made his record-breaking fall from space in October 2012, there were some comments about it being our generation’s equivalent of Neil Armstrong’s first step on the Moon. Maybe every generation needs its own iconic and pioneering achievement to celebrate and share.
The athletics equivalent of the Moon landing is surely Roger Bannister’s sub-four minute mile in Oxford in 1954. Even today, when most of the world has gone metric and the mile record has fallen another 16 seconds since Bannister, the concept of a four-minute mile still has a magical aura – ask any runner who has broken it or barely missed it.
While it may be a rather arbitrary marker because of its roundness (after all, John Walker’s sub-3:50 mile in 1975 is uncelebrated these days, even though logically it’s the greater achievement), four laps of the track in under four minutes is still the hallmark of an elite male middle-distance runner.
(The women’s mile record is 4:12:56, set by Svetlana Masterkova in 1996. Are there any female athletes dreaming of the first women’s sub-four mile?)
One man who is happy to downplay the importance of the first sub-four mile is Bannister himself. “It still seems strange to me,” he writes in an epilogue to the 50th anniversary edition of his enthralling and beautifully-written autobiography, “that the intrinsically simple and unimportant act of placing one foot in front of the other as fast as possible for 1,760 yards was heralded as such an important achievement.”
If you’re a sub-four fan and suspect that this book may disappoint you, never fear. That famous mile is part of a wider narrative that begins with Wordsworth-style idyllic images of running on a beach as an innocent child and ends like ‘The Great Gatsby’ with the now-experienced Bannister contemplating the meaning of it all. From start to finish the writing is elegant and poetic, and Bannister’s self-awareness and insights are consistently engaging.
Bannister contends that the sub-four mile was a psychological barrier rather than a physiological one, and his autobiography presents a man ideally suited to breaking it – ambitious, imaginative, thoughtful and dedicated. His medical training gave him the scientific knowledge to defy convention and tradition, and his celebrity status also places him in the modern world.
And if you think Bannister’s story has no relevance for athletics today, then you’ll change your mind when you read of how the athletics and mainstream press hounded him for his 1952 Olympic ‘failure’ (enduring the special agony of finishing fourth), unorthodox training methods (Bannister put in less training miles than his peers) and myriad other trivialities blown out of proportion. Bannister was the first superstar of modern athletics, and it’s to his further credit that he didn’t crack under the pressure of living up to his pioneering achievement. (Compare the avuncular Bannister to the reclusive Neil Armstrong.)
Despite what the title would have you believe, Bannister’s record-breaking sub-four run isn’t the climax of his autobiography. The grand finale is his subsequent clash with John Landy of Australia, who had broken his record, at the 1954 Empire Games in Vancouver. Bannister had pipped Landy for the honour of the first sub-four mile, but Landy responded by breaking Bannister’s record soon after. The Empire Games mile final would be a showdown between the world’s two fastest milers, Landy the front-runner against Bannister the fast finisher, and it was as hyped and anticipated as Usain Bolt’s finals are today.
It would go down in history as the ‘Miracle Mile’, a race that lived up to and exceeded expectations – and Bannister’s gripping description captures all the excitement and drama.
After only 300 metres Landy tore off into an earlier lead than expected, giving Bannister no choice but to chase him down and expend his valuable sprinting energy. After two scorching laps the Australian had a steady advantage of over ten metres, but on the third lap Bannister gradually reeled in Landy and had almost closed the gap at the bell.
Now, just like when he broke four minutes, Bannister had to overcome the psychological barrier and think his way to victory. With two hundred metres to go and still a few strides behind the seemingly indefatigable Landy, Bannister was searching frantically for a plan:
“If Landy did not slacken soon I would be finished. As we entered the last bend I tried to convince myself that he was tiring. With each stride now I attempted to husband a little strength for the moment at the end of the bend when I had decided to pounce. I knew this would be the point where Landy would least expect me, and if I failed to overtake him the race would be his.
When the moment came my mind would galvanise my body to the greatest effort it had ever known. I knew I was tired. There might be no response, but it was my only chance.”
What happened next sealed the legendary status of this race. By pure coincidence, Bannister attacked outside Landy’s right at the exact moment that Landy looked back inside on his left – and so the Englishman blindsided him and stole the vital few metres for an improbable victory.
I have beside me the 1955 second edition of the book, which contains film frames capturing each step of the fateful moment (and another photo with Bannister’s wry caption: ‘Past him’) – the 2004 edition doesn’t have these images, unfortunately.
A statue near the site of the now-demolished stadium depicts the scene; Landy quipped that while Lot’s wife looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt, he looked back and was turned into a statue of bronze.
If you’ve ever felt the urge to run or paint or write but never understood why, ‘The First Four Minutes’ will give you the words to explain it. Not only is it the best sports book ever, but in its poetic and thoughtful way it’s as enjoyable an autobiography as the raucous ‘The Moon’s A Balloon’ by David Niven and the hilarious ‘Unreliable Memoirs’ by Clive James.
Yes, of course, you’ll want to watch Bannister’s pioneering sub-four mile, but you’ll find greater athletics thrills in his ‘Miracle Mile’ clash with Landy below. Note the camera position at one end of the track – for us today a strange location but, fortuitously, one with the best angle on the key moment of the race. Also, the post-race interviews are fascinating, especially as we discover that Bannister ran the race while suffering from a heavy cold:
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