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Associated Press
Bannister breaking the four-minute mile.

Happy Birthday, Roger Bannister, First Runner to Break the Four-Minute Mile

March 23, 2011
by findingDulcinea Staff
In 1954, British medical student Roger Bannister became the first man to break the four-minute mile barrier, earning him international admiration and Sports Illustrated's first Sportsman of the Year award. When asked how he achieved his record-breaking feat, he replied, “It’s the ability to take more out of yourself than you've got.”

Roger Bannister’s Early Days

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Roger Bannister was born March 23, 1929, in Harrow, England, to working-class parents. Bannister excelled in the classroom and aspired to attend college and study medicine.

He earned an academic scholarship to Oxford University, where he became a nationally recognized runner in the mile and 1500 meters. Though he likely could have qualified for the 1948 London Olympics, he chose instead to focus on his medical training and studies.

Bannister’s Notable Accomplishments

Bannister had hoped to win a gold medal in the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki. However, he tired toward the end of the 1500 meters and finished fourth to great disappointment and denigration from the British press.

The BBC called it a “watershed moment”; Bannister, who planned to retire from running before the next Olympics, became determined to break the four-minute barrier and attain the fame that eluded him in Helsinki. “I thought: Well, I can't leave on this sour note, feeling failure, disappointment, letting people down—letting the country down,” Bannister recalled in a 2004 interview.

Bannister was a self-taught runner who used his medical knowledge to closely monitor his pulse rate, oxygen intake and diet. In November 1951, with his personal best at 4:02, he hired Austrian trainer Franz Stampf, who introduced Bannister to new training methods and taught him to better pace himself.

On May 6, 1954, at the Oxford v. British A.A.A. race, Bannister was prepared to break the four-minute barrier. He nearly postponed the barrier-breaking attempt on that rainy, windy day, but decided to go ahead. According to Bannister’s plan, one teammate set a fast early pace, while a second teammate raced to the lead in the second half of the race.

“Some 300 yards from the finish. Bannister began pouring it on,” wrote Time, “lengthening his stride for his famed finishing kick, his head rolled back, his neck painfully arched. He tore the tape and collapsed unconscious into the arms of Trainer Stampfl.”
The track announcer, Norris McWhirter, announced the time, which began with “three minutes.” Time wrote, “At that point, the 1,500 track fans in the stands broke into such an uproar that the rest of the announcement was lost: ‘Three minutes, fifty-nine and four-tenths seconds.’”

Bannister’s record stood for less than a month, beaten by Australian runner John Landy. Bannister beat Landy in that summer’s British Empire Games, running a 3:58.8 mile. He would go on to win the European championships in the 1500 meters and be named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year in 1954, the first year the honor was given.

Bannister was about the last of his breed—the athlete on the side,” wrote Sports Illustrated’s Frank Deford in 2004. “Just as inventions are no longer made in garages, so human beings don't break records in their spare time anymore. … But somehow …  it seemed right that the final, great challenge fell to one young man, who did it all by himself, the same as his forefathers. In a way, Roger Bannister was the last hero in sport.”

The Rest of the Story

Bannister went on to become a highly regarded neurologist in England; he published a textbook on the autonomic nervous system, and established a medical research society. He was knighted in 1975 and later became chairman of the British Sports Council, aiding London’s successful bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Sir Roger conducted a pair of extensive interviews with the Academy of Achievement in 2000 and 2002, covering most of the events of his life.
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