Year
1954
Month Day
May 06

Roger Bannister runs 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. He died in March 2018, at age 88. 

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.

Tags
terms:
Sports

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us! HISTORY reviews and updates its content regularly to ensure it is complete and accurate.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Ohio kidnap victims rescued after years in captivity

On May 6, 2013, three women are rescued from a Cleveland, Ohio, house where they had been imprisoned for many years by their abductor, 52-year-old Ariel Castro, an unemployed bus driver.The women—Michelle Knight, Amada Berry and Gina DeJesus—went missing separately between 2002 ...read more

The Hindenburg disaster

The airship Hindenburg, the largest dirigible ever built and the pride of Nazi Germany, bursts into flames upon touching its mooring mast in Lakehurst, New Jersey, killing 36 passengers and crewmembers, on May 6, 1937.  Frenchman Henri Giffard constructed the first successful ...read more

English Channel tunnel opens

In a ceremony presided over by England’s Queen Elizabeth II and French President Francois Mitterrand, a rail tunnel under the English Channel was officially opened, connecting Britain and the European mainland for the first time since the Ice Age. The Channel Tunnel, or ...read more

FDR creates the Works Progress Administration (WPA)

On May 6, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs an executive order creating the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA was just one of many Great Depression relief programs created under the auspices of the Emergency Relief Appropriations Act, which Roosevelt had ...read more

John Steinbeck wins a Pulitzer for “The Grapes of Wrath”

On May 6, 1940, John Steinbeck is awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Grapes of Wrath. The book traces the fictional Joad family of Oklahoma as they lose their family farm and move to California in search of a better life. They encounter only more difficulties and a ...read more

Final episode of "Friends" airs on NBC

At 9:00 p.m. Eastern and Pacific times on May 6, 2004, that familiar theme song (“I’ll Be There For You” by the Rembrandts) announces the beginning of the end, as an estimated 51.1 million people tune in for the final original episode of NBC’s long-running comedy series Friends. ...read more

The theft of “Duchess of Devonshire” painting stirs interest

On May 6, 1876, Thomas Gainsborough’s painting, Duchess of Devonshire, causes a stir when it goes up for auction at Christie's in London. It sells to a London art dealer, William Agnew, for $51,540, the highest price ever paid for a painting at auction. Two days later, Agnew ...read more

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev reviews Cold War in speech at Westminster College

In an event steeped in symbolism, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev reviews the Cold War in a speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri—the site of Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech 46 years before. Gorbachev mixed praise for the end of the Cold War with some ...read more

Harry Gant is oldest NASCAR winner—again

On May 6, 1991, 51-year-old race car driver Harry Gant racks up his 12th National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) Winston Cup career victory in the Winston 500 in Talladega, Alabama. In doing so, Gant bettered his own record as the oldest man ever to win a NASCAR ...read more

All American forces in the Philippines surrender unconditionally

On May 6, 1942, U.S. Lieutenant General Jonathan Wainwright surrenders all U.S. troops in the Philippines to the Japanese. The island of Corregidor remained the last Allied stronghold in the Philippines after the Japanese victory at Bataan (from which General Wainwright had ...read more