On 6 May 1954, at Iffley Road sports ground in Oxford, Roger Bannister, supported by his friends Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway, ran a mile race in three minutes 59.4 seconds. If we leave aside the story of James Parrott, who is supposed to have raced a mile around the streets of Shoreditch in three minutes something on 9 May 1770, this was the first time a human being had cracked the four-minute mile barrier. Certainly, the first time it was fully ratified by an array of official stopwatches.
When I was a child in the late 1950s, my parents taught me about Bannister’s mile just as they taught me about the first climbing of Mount Everest. These were meant, I suppose, to be patriotic lessons in the physical prowess of Britain and the Commonwealth. I can still vividly conjure up in my mind the famous image of Bannister breaking through the finishing tape in triumph (though frankly I now think that he looks more in agony than in triumph).
But the whole occasion now feels strangely distant – part of a very different world in sporting, and other, senses. That’s partly because the four-minute mile is no longer a particularly rare achievement. In fact, Bannister’s record was broken only six weeks later, when the Australian runner John Landy cut the time to 3:58 seconds, and since then hundreds of men (and they are all men) have run the distance below the magic four minutes. The current world record – set in 1999 by the Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj – stands at just over 3:43 seconds.
And it’s partly because the mile race itself is now a bit of a white elephant. It’s still a popular distance for fun-runs and demonstration events, but it’s long been overtaken for serious athletes by the 1500 metres (the “metric mile” as the British used, rather patronisingly, to call it).
But then there’s also the whole ethos of the preparation for the race. Bannister’s own accounts of this are extremely engaging. He was, at the time, a final-year medical student in London, and his regular training consisted in running round the local park, either at lunchtime – or when he was bunking off his obstetrics lectures (it’s no coincidence, I suspect, that he became a neurologist rather than an obstetrician). For the few months before the big event, he practised at weekends too with Brasher and Chataway, and took advice from Brasher’s coach – often over baked beans on toast at a Lyons Corner House. As for his equipment, just the day before the race he was found sharpening his running spikes on a grindstone in the lab.
On the day itself he went to Oxford by train, had a look around the track, and then went to have lunch (of ham salad) with some friends and their children. It was only when he went back to the track for the late afternoon start that he decided that the wind had dropped enough to make it worth having a shot at breaking the four-minute barrier.
This is a whole world away from the regimes that modern athletes undergo – with their retinues of physiologists, psychiatrists and dieticians (I very much doubt that the likes of Jessica Ennis or Mo Farah often sit down for a plate of baked beans in our own equivalent of a Lyons Corner House, or that they would be allowed out for lunch with friends just before a race). And it is a world away from the scientific calculations – on wind-resistance, friction, and so forth – that determine the tactics of modern races. The film of the Iffley Road event shows Chris Brasher – who presumably wanted to see where he was running, in an age before contact lenses – wearing what look like old-fashioned National Health spectacles throughout. Just think of the wind resistance in that.
Where modern runners, in other words, have become something not far short of specially constructed machines, Bannister and his friends remained well-trained (but not over-trained) human bodies.
Or so it seems at first sight. But, beneath the surface, the picture’s more complicated. Even in Bannister’s charming description of his self-consciously amateurish success, we get glimpses of a more hard-headed professionalism. So-called “effortless superiority” is rarely as “effortless” as it pretends to be. It wasn’t all do-it-yourself preparation on the lab grindstone. He himself explains that he had some super-light running shoes specially made (4oz rather than 6oz per shoe – enough, he reckoned, to make all the difference between coming in under four minutes and not).
He was also scientifically interested in how running times could be improved. One of his first academic papers, published in July 1954, was about the effects on athletic performance of taking supplementary oxygen (using himself and Norris McWhirter – one of the founders of the Guinness Book of Records – among the experimental subjects). There is absolutely no suggestion that the four-minute race was oxygen-assisted, but Bannister had more of a stake in the hi-tech science of running than we might imagine.
There was also controversy at the time about the methods used to break the record. The mainstream press was ecstatic in its celebration of Bannister’s race, but specialist athletics magazines were anxious about the use of two fellow-runners as pacemakers. The tactics had been planned well in advance. Bannister achieved his time by keeping up first with Brasher who set the pace over laps one and two – and who then more or less dropped out and finished last.
He then kept close to Chataway for another lap or so before making his final break for the line. Wasn’t this, some critics worried, close to race-fixing? Two men had entered, whose aim had never been to win.