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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 May, 2004, 06:28 GMT 07:28 UK
Bannister's magical moment
By Tom Fordyce

Fifty years ago, a 25-year-old medical student named Roger Bannister made sporting history.

Roger Bannister runs the first four-minute mile
Bannister crosses the line at Iffley Road to make history
In 1954, the idea that any man could run a mile in under four minutes seemed preposterous. It was also a notion that fascinated the world.

"The four-minute mile had a beauty about it, a symmetry," the late Norris McWhirter once said.

"If you said you were running 1760 yards in 240 seconds, people would have yawned."

Paavo Nurmi, the Flying Finn, was the first man to get anywhere near, running 4mins 10.4secs in 1923. Britain's Sidney Wooderson brought that down to 4:06.04, playing a part in inspiring the young Bannister to take up running.

"As a child, I always found it easier to run than walk," says Bannister. "When I watched Wooderson - that was the first time I saw the symmetry and perfection of miling. And it was something I could do."

Going up to Oxford as a 17-year-old, Bannister did not enjoy an auspicious start to his athletics career.

On his second day at Exeter College, he went for a run around the playing fields with a friend, only to be told by the groundsman that his pal was much better.

Olympic gold

Undeterred, he kept competing, changed his running style and began picking up wins and shaving seconds from his time.

By 1951 he was down to 4mins 7.8secs. The plan was simple - go to the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, win 1500m gold and then retire to concentrate on his medical career.

Instead, with Emil Zatopek winning three golds and showing what could be done with intensive, well-structured training, Bannister ran out of gas and could finish only fourth.

It was a watershed moment.

"That was the trigger for Roger to do something in athletics," says Chris Chataway, Bannister's friend and fellow runner.

"A week later, I got a letter from Roger asking if I would pace him on an attempt on the four-minute mile."

During first lap, I was so full of running that I thought we were going too slowly
Sir Roger Bannister

Bannister started working with a new coach, the Austrian Franz Stampfl, acutely aware that two other athletes - Australian John Landy, and the "Kansas Cowboy", Wes Santee - were also closing in on the magical four-minute mark.

Hearing that Landy was on his way to Europe to chase the record, Bannister decided to make an early attempt.

The first suitable occasion he could find was 6 May, during an Oxford University v Amateur Athletics Association meet at Iffley Road, Oxford.

One-off chance

To Bannister's great consternation, the day dawned wet, windy and cold.

"My greatest anxiety was that the wind would not drop," he says.

"[Pacemakers] Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher were getting impatient, and wanted to know if it was on or off.

"Franz told me that if I had the chance and didn't take it, I could regret it for the rest of my life."

Just after six o'clock in the evening, the wind suddenly fell ahead of the scheduled mile race.

Bannister made his fateful decision. "I said, 'yes - let's do it'."

Hicham El Guerrouj and Sir Roger Bannister
Current mile world record holder Hicham El Guerrouj meets Bannister at Iffley Road

"Roger had the adrenaline coursing," recalls Chataway. "Everything else was in place."

The crowd of 1,100 fell silent as the six athletes stepped onto the start line. The tension was such that Brasher false-started. Then, on the second gun, they were off.

"During first lap, I was so full of running that I thought we were going too slowly," remembers Bannister.

"I shouted at Chris, 'faster, faster' - but he said afterwards that he was going as fast as he possibly could."

Brasher led them through into the third lap and then gave up the lead to Chataway. Bannister hung on in second, waiting to make his move.

"I had to sense at what point Chris was starting to slow," he says.

"I wanted to leave it as late as possible, because it was an advantage to have him leading. So I decided to wait until the back straight."

The final assault

With 250 metres to go, Bannister kicked hard for home.

"I overtook decisively with a burst of speed, feeling as if I was in the finishing mode and would have to keep it going as long as I could.

"The only question on my mind was, could I make it without slowing down?"

McWhirter, standing by the finishing line, recalls Bannister's face, white and drawn, blurring through the tape as the exhausted athlete fell into Stampfl's arms.

"Harold Abrahams, the 1924 100m Olympic gold medallist, was the chief timekeeper," said McWhirter.

"He came across and gave me the piece of paper with the official time on it, and there it was - 3 minutes 59 seconds.

"I read the time to the crowd - but I can assure you that the 59.4 seconds was not heard. All they cared about was the three minutes."

Luck or legend?

Fifty years on, Bannister remains steadfastly modest about that famous day.

"I was a person in the right place at the right time," he says. "It was a stroke of luck whether it was Santee, Landy or me who got there first."

Six weeks later, Landy ran 3.57.9 at a meet in Turku, Finland, shattering Bannister's world record.

In subsequent years, the record would fall still further, right down to Hicham El Guerrouj's current mark of 3:43.13.

However low the mark may go, Bannister's achievements on that windy May day will never be forgotten.

Sir Roger Bannister
"The secret was to do the three-quarter mile in three minutes"

Bannister to relive mile
06 May 04  |  Athletics
Record Breakers' McWhirter dies
20 Apr 04  |  Entertainment

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