Obituaries

Roger Bannister, 88, first runner to break 4-minute mile

Roger Bannister broke through a mystical barrier when he crossed the finish line in 3:59.4 in Oxford, England, in 1954.
Associated Press/file
Roger Bannister broke through a mystical barrier when he crossed the finish line in 3:59.4 in Oxford, England, in 1954.

NEW YORK — On the morning of May 6, 1954, a Thursday, Roger Bannister, 25, a medical student in London, worked his usual shift at St. Mary’s Hospital and took an early afternoon train to Oxford. He had lunch with some old friends, then met a couple of his track teammates, Christopher Chataway and Chris Brasher. As members of an amateur all-star team, they were preparing to run against Oxford University.

About 1,200 people showed up at Oxford’s unprepossessing Iffley Road track to watch, and though the day was blustery and damp — inauspicious conditions for a record-setting effort — a record is what they saw. Paced by Chataway and Brasher and powered by an explosive kick, his signature, Dr. Bannister ran a mile in under four minutes — 3:59.4, to be exact — becoming the first man ever to do so, breaking through a mystical barrier and creating a seminal moment in sports history.

Dr. Bannister’s feat was trumpeted on front pages around the world. He had reached “one of man’s hitherto unattainable goals,” The New York Times declared. His name, like those of Babe Ruth, Bobby Jones, and Jesse Owens, became synonymous with singular athletic achievement.

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Then, astonishingly — at least from the vantage point of the 21st century — Dr. Bannister, at the height of his athletic career, retired from competitive running later that year, to concentrate on medicine.

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“Now that I am taking up a hospital appointment,” he said in an address to the English Sportswriters Association that December, “I shall have to give up international athletics. I shall not have sufficient time to put up a first-class performance. There would be little satisfaction for me in a second-rate performance, and it would be wrong to give one when representing my country.”

After a long career as a neurologist, both in research and clinical practice, Dr. Bannister, who was knighted in 1975, died on Saturday in Oxford, his family confirmed in a statement on Sunday. He was 88.

His record-setting feat would be surpassed many times. Runners in the next decades would be faster, stronger, better-equipped, better-trained, and able to devote much of their time to the pursuit while benefiting from advances in sports science. But their later success did not dim the significance of Dr. Bannister’s run.

“He was running on 28 training miles a week,” Sebastian Coe, who set the world record in the mile three times, once said. “He did it on limited scientific knowledge, with leather shoes in which the spikes alone probably weighed more than the tissue-thin shoes today, on tracks at which speedway riders would turn up their noses. So as far as I’m concerned, that was one of the great runs of all time.”

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Tall and lanky with a long, forceful stride and a blond head that usually bobbed above his competitors’ in a race, Dr. Bannister was a gentleman athlete with a philosophical turn of mind. He was a quiet, unassuming champion, a character of a type that has seemingly vanished in the modern era of sports celebrity. Sports Illustrated called him “among the most private of public men, inexhaustibly polite, cheerfully distant, open and complex.”

His 1955 memoir — called, of course, “The Four Minute Mile” — amounted to a portrait of the athlete as a young artist. In a typically analytic and introspective passage, he described the moment at which a runner decides to break from the pack and take the lead:

“The decision to ‘break away’ results from a mixture of confidence and lack of it. The ‘breaker’ is confident to the extent that he suddenly decides the speed has become slower than he can himself sustain to the finish. Hence he can accelerate suddenly and maintain his new speed to the tape. But he also lacks confidence, feeling that unless he makes a move now, everyone else will do so and he will be left standing.

“The spurt is extremely wasteful because it is achieved at the cost of relaxation,” he went on, “which should be maintained throughout the race. The athlete’s style and mood change completely when he accelerates. His mind suddenly starts driving an unwilling body which only obeys under the stimulus of the excitement. The earlier in the race this extra energy is thrown in, the greater the lead captured, but the less chance of holding it.”

The idea at the heart of this passage — that you must seize the right moment or risk its passing forever — was very much a factor in Dr. Bannister’s record-setting run. Milers had been flirting with four minutes for at least a decade. Swedish runner Arne Anderrson ran a 4:01.6 in 1944; the next year, his countryman Gunder Hägg sliced two-tenths of a second from the world record.

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It had gone no lower before Dr. Bannister toed the starting line at Iffley Road, but it was widely believed that the four-minute barrier was on the verge of falling, and that one of three men — Dr. Bannister, Australian John Landy, and American Wes Santee — would bring it down. (Landy became the second to do so; Santee never did.)

‘Those last few seconds seemed never-ending. The faint line of the finishing tape stood ahead as a haven of peace, after the struggle.’

— Roger Bannister, in his memoir 

The meet in Oxford was Dr. Bannister’s first in eight months, and he had been training seriously for six of them. As the year went on, he would face far stiffer competition, but with Brasher (later an Olympic steeplechase champion) and Chataway (later the world record holder at 5,000 meters) enlisted as his supporting cast, he chose May 6 and the familiar Iffley Road track, where he’d run as an Oxford man himself, as the time and place for his assault on the four-minute mark.

The unpromising weather nearly persuaded him to call off the attempt, run an ordinary race, and save the more intensive effort for a meet in London scheduled 10 days later. This was no small decision.

“Failure is as exciting to watch as success, provided the effort is absolutely genuine and complete,” he wrote in his memoir. “But the spectators fail to understand — and how can they know — the mental agony through which an athlete must pass before he can give his maximum effort. And how rarely, if he is built as I am, he can give it.”

The wind died down, however, shortly before the race was to begin, and standing at the starting line, Dr. Bannister made the decision: The attempt was on. With Brasher setting the early pace, Bannister ran the first quarter mile in 57.5 seconds and the first half mile in 1:58. Then Chataway took the lead, and after three quarters, the time was 3:00.7. Dr. Bannister passed him with 300 yards to go.

“Those last few seconds seemed never-ending,” Dr. Bannister wrote. “The faint line of the finishing tape stood ahead as a haven of peace, after the struggle. The arms of the world were waiting to receive me if only I reached the tape without slackening my speed. If I faltered, there would be no arms to hold me and the world would be a cold, forbidding place, because I had been so close. I leapt at the tape like a man taking his last spring to save himself from the chasm that threatens to engulf him.”

Roger Gilbert Bannister was born on March 23, 1929, in the London suburb of Harrow. His father, a civil servant, had been a runner, of sorts: He won his school mile, Dr. Bannister wrote in his memoir, “and promptly fainted afterwards — as so many runners did in those days.”

Young Roger ran, too, both for the thrill of it, he wrote, and out of fear, to steer clear of bullies and in response to air-raid sirens, which he heard as a boy in World War II during the Battle of Britain.

“I imagined bombs and machine guns raining on me if I didn’t go my fastest,” he wrote. “Was this a little of the feeling I have now when I shoot into the lead before the last bend and am afraid of a challenge down the finishing straight? To move into the lead means making an attack requiring fierceness and confidence, but fear must play some part in the last stage, when no relaxation is possible and all discretion is thrown to the winds.”

As it happened, the first week of May 1954 changed Dr. Bannister’s life in more ways than one. On the day before the race, he met Moyra Jacobsson, a painter and the daughter of Per Jacobsson, the Swedish economist who became managing director of the International Monetary Fund. They married the next year.

Dr. Bannister liked to point out that she didn’t really understand what this running business was all about.

“For a time,” he said, “my wife thought I had run four miles in one minute.”

Dr. Bannister leaves his wife; two sons, Clive and Thurstan; and two daughters, Erin and Charlotte.