May 6

This Day in History

General Interest

May 6, 1954:

First four-minute mile

In Oxford, England, 25-year-old medical student Roger Bannister cracks track and field's most notorious barrier: the four-minute mile. Bannister, who was running for the Amateur Athletic Association against his alma mater, Oxford University, won the mile race with a time of 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds.

For years, so many athletes had tried and failed to run a mile in less than four minutes that people made it out to be a physical impossibility. The world record for a mile was 4 minutes and 1.3 seconds, set by Gunder Hagg of Sweden in 1945. Despite, or perhaps because of, the psychological mystique surrounding the four-minute barrier, several runners in the early 1950s dedicated themselves to being the first to cross into the three-minute zone.

Roger Bannister, born in Harrow, England, in 1929, was a top mile-runner while a student at the University of Oxford and at St. Mary's Hospital Medical School in London. In 1951 and 1953, he won British championships in the mile run. As he prepared himself for his first competitive race of the 1954 season, Bannister researched the mechanics of running and trained using new scientific methods he developed. On May 6, 1954, he came to the Iffley Road track in Oxford for the annual match between the Amateur Athletic Association and Oxford University. Conditions were far from ideal; it had been windy and raining. A considerable crosswind was blowing across the track as the mile race was set to begin.

At 6 p.m., the starting gun was fired. In a carefully planned race, Bannister was aided by Chris Brasher, a former Cambridge runner who acted as a pacemaker. For the first half-mile, Brasher led the field, with Bannister close behind, and then another runner took up the lead and reached the three-quarter-mile mark in 3 minutes 0.4 seconds, with Bannister at 3 minutes 0.7 seconds. Bannister took the lead with about 350 yards to go and passed an unofficial timekeeper at the 1,500-meter mark in 3 minutes 43 seconds, thus equaling the world's record for that distance. Thereafter, Bannister threw in all his reserves and broke the tape in 3 minutes 59.4 seconds. As soon as the first part of his score was announced--"three minutes..."--the crowd erupted in pandemonium.

Bannister went on to win British and Empire championships in the mile run, and the European title in the 1,500-meter event in 1954. At the end of the year, Bannister retired from athletic competition to pursue his medical career full time and in 1955 recounted his experiences in the book The Four Minute Mile. He later earned a medical degree from Oxford and became a neurologist. In 1975, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.

His world record in the mile did not stand long, and the record continued to be lowered with increasingly controlled climatic and surface conditions, more accurate timing devices, and improvements in training and running techniques. A "sub-four" is still a notable time, but top international runners now routinely accomplish the feat. Because a mile is not a metric measurement, it is not a regular track event nor featured in the Olympics. It continues, however, to be run by many top runners as a glamour event.

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