The Four-Minute Mile: Remembering Roger Bannister

Nobody thought it could be done, but on May 6, 1954, an Oxford medical student ran a mile in three minutes and fifty-nine seconds. Paul Kennedy asks Roger Bannister what it meant.
Britain's Roger Bannister hits the tape to break the four-minute mile in Oxford, England. May 6, 1954 (AP Photo/File)
Listen to the full episode53:27

Nobody thought it could be done, but on May 6, 1954, an Oxford medical student ran a mile in three minutes and fifty-nine seconds. Paul Kennedy asks Roger Bannister what it meant. **This episode originally aired in 2004. 

Remembering Roger Bannister 

When Roger Bannister was at the height of his fame, he decided to write a book. 

After running the world's first ever sub-four-minute mile, on May 6th, 1954, in Oxford, England, Bannister's name — in block capitals — was seen on the front pages of newspapers around the world. People couldn't believe that it was possible. Then, only a few months later, in Vancouver, during what many consider to be the most exciting race of all time, Roger Bannister waited until he was perilously close to the finish line before passing John Landy. The event was captured CBC Television, and became the first sports coverage from the brand new broadcaster. Both runners finished in under four minutes, and the race instantly became known as the "Miracle Mile". There's even a statue in Empire Stadium.

An exhausted Roger Bannister was greeted by England team manager George Truelove, left, and a policeman after winning the famous "Miracle Mile" race at the 1954 British Empire Games in Vancouver. ((Fox Photos/Getty Images))

At the time, Bannister was also just finishing medical school. He wanted to be a doctor, which is ironically why he wrote the book. It's called The First Four Minutes, and he declared it would be his final word on running. World fame meant that everybody wanted to ask him about his amazing achievement. He worried that nobody would ever take him seriously as a doctor, so he stuck to his guns. Roger Bannister died, on Sunday, ending a distinguished career in neurology (he eventually wrote several textbooks, in addition to his running memoir), and in academia, where he was Master of Pembroke College, in Oxford.

The interview around which this documentary is based was recorded Oxford, in April, 2004. Sir Roger had kept his word, and consistently refused to talk about 'the race' for almost fifty years. A small circle of influential runners convinced him to break his silence for IDEAS. The moment I most remember never made it into into the radio documentary. I handed him an analogue stopwatch, and asked him to press the start button while describing his memories of the race. To my surprise, he closed his eyes. After he pressed the button, he gave me a perfectly time-coded reenactment of his four-minutes of fame. At the end, he pressed the button again, and opened his eyes.

Exactly four — or maybe just a little bit under. Photographic memory, fifty years later.

– Paul Kennedy
 

Web Extra | Watch Vancouver's Four Minute "Miracle Mile" Race 
The world's fastest men face off against each other during the 1954 Miracle Mile race in Vancouver. 6:45

Guests in this episode:

  • John Bryant, former deputy editor of the London Times, and the founding editor of Runner's World; author of 3:59.4 --The Quest to Break the 4 Minute Mile.
  • Bruce Kidd, runner, Olympian, and former director of the School of Physical and Health Education at the University of Toronto.
  • Roger Robinson, runner, world record holder at numerous distances; author of Running in Literature, among other books.
  • Roger Bannister, runner, neurologist, long-time master of Pembroke College, Oxford; author of The First Four Minutes.

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