Matt Piltch '12 Goes 1-on-1 with Sir Roger Bannister, first man to run sub 4-minute mile

Iconic photo from Getty Images of Bannister breaking 4 minutes
Iconic photo from Getty Images of Bannister breaking 4 minutes

Editor’s Note: Senior Matt Piltch concluded his junior year in the Williams-Oxford Program with a sit down interview with Sir Roger Bannister, the first man to run a sub 4-minute mile. Bannister had participated in the 1987 convocation at Williams titled "Athletics and the Academy" and he was gracious to welcome Matt Piltch to his home for an interview AFTER Matt read his book -- The Four Minute Mile, 50th Anniversary Edition.

OXFORD, ENGLAND -- In the modern day it seems hard to believe that people once thought it would be impossible to run a mile in under four minutes. Today’s record is 3:43.13, set in 1999 by Hicham El Guerroj of Morocco, and it is likely that the record will be broken.

The advent of synthetic tracks, increased specialization, improvements in training methods, the presence of performance enhancing drugs, and the professionalization of athletics have all created an environment wherein track-and-field records are constantly under attack.

Yet when comparing today’s world to that of the 1950s, when amateurs were the norm in athletics, it is remarkable that anyone was able to break the four-minute barrier. But that was exactly what Great Britain’s Sir Roger Bannister did on May 6, 1954. Bannister beat out rivals John Landy of Australia and Wes Santee of the United States in a race against history and pereceived human limitations.

Sir Roger Bannister outside his home
in Oxford, England/photo by
Matt Piltch

“The goal of an athlete,” Bannister said, “should be to get the best out of himself.” It would be hard to argue that Bannister did not do so when he broke the broke the record as a medical student at Oxford University.

Bannister’s climb to the record mile was a remarkable one. He started to run while in preparatory school, and he began to run seriously after earning a medical scholarship for Oxford in 1946, at age 17. He was fast enough to be offered a place on Britain’s 1948 Olympic team, but he decided not to compete, feeling that it would be better for him to focus on his training and work as a student.

He continued his career as an amateur runner, and although he trained relatively lightly and did not have a coach, in 1951 he managed to win the British Amateur Athletic Association (AAA) title in a time of 4:07.8. The victory meant that he was the fastest runner at that time in the United Kingdom, and he entered the 1952 Olympics as one of the top contenders for the 1500m gold.

However, when Bannister arrived at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, he learned he would have to run the 1500m three times in three days. Having only planned for two races, he fell short, finishing fourth. “I had not trained hard enough to be able to run three successive races on three successive days,” he said. “That needed a toughness, which had not resulted from my training.”

That failure spurred him forward, and he decided to make changes in his approach. “I realized I had to put up the severity of my training, though by today’s standards it was really quite light,” said Sir Roger with a smile. “I [also] quite quickly realized that I needed companions for training and would need companions if I were to break the four-minute mile. Brits Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway both had Franz Stampfl as their coach in a formal, normal coaching relationship.

“[Stampfl] impressed me as a highly intelligent person who was able to inspire people who wanted to become runners,” Bannister continued. “We used to meet once a week at the Duke of York’s barracks in Chelsea, and that was where I would run with Brasher and Chataway, usually using an interval form of training.”

During a race in 1953, Bannister ran the mile in 4:03.6, lowering the British record. However, other runners were making significant progress at breaking the four-minute mark as well, notably in the U.S. and Australia. Both Santee and Landy had moved their times below 4:03 by the end of 1953; Landy continued his efforts into 1954, running several other races in Australia under 4:03.

Bannister had significant competition to be the first man to break the mark, and he knew full well that Landy was leaving for Helsinki to train for another attempt at the barrier. “I wanted to take the first opportunity to run before John Landy had got himself settled into Finland, where they were laying on everything with perfect tracks and perfect peacemaking, or alternatively Wes Santee in America, where the season was beginning,” Bannister said. And that opportunity came on a rainy day at Oxford in a meet between Oxford University and the British AAA.

“I was unhappy about the wind and the wet and the rain – there were some pools on the track and the wind was strong,” said Bannister. “Franz [Stampfl] thought I could do 3:56 without any problem in perfect conditions – but if you have a headwind going down one straight and it is not compensated for by being behind you on the other straight, it interferes with even pace running, [which is] the secret of record breaking.”

Even with the weather acting as an obstacle, Bannister finally decided he had to take this opportunity if he wanted to beat Landy and Santee to the mark. With Chataway and Brasher pacing him, he competed in the race. The rest, as they say, is history: Bannister finished in 3:59.4, making him the first man to break the four-minute mark.

To do so, Bannister said, had required equal parts physical and mental ability. “It’s a physical barrier in terms of having to train to be able to run at the correct speed and having built up the stamina to do so,” he said. “When it comes to the day itself is really a mental challenge. The runner who wins or breaks the record is the one who can push himself nearest to an absolute exhaustion, and that is a mental quality.”

Bannister raced for three more months, including a head-to-head showdown with Landy in Vancouver BC that he also won, before retiring from athletics and focusing on his livelihood as a neurologist. Bannister's career spanned 39 years, and he held a number of other positions along the way, including the chairmanships of the British Sports Council (’71-’74) and the International Council of Sport Science and Physical Education (’76-’83). 

Since his retirement from racing Bannister has still managed to have a large impact on sports. “I realized that performance enhancing drugs were going to be very serious,” he said. “[As head of the Sports Council], I was responsible for devising a test for anabolic steroids.”

That test was implemented once it was developed, though the testers faced then many of the same problems we face today. “We could not detect [steroids] in somebody who had taken them through the winter and had stopped a month or two before the games,” said Bannister. “Random testing was the critical advance. But the trouble with random testing was that the international authorities had to introduce it and were slow about [doing so].”

Random testing is prevalent today, particularly in track and field, a fact that satisfies Bannister. “I do believe now the random testing is working,” he said. “Athletes know that if they are caught, their career is over.”

Other aspects of sport have changed since Bannister raced. For one, Bannister – or some other man – likely would have broken the four-minute barrier far earlier had tracks been made of modern, synthetic materials rather than the rolled ash that Bannister ran on in 1954. Said Bannister, “[1980 and ’84 Olympic gold medallist] Sebastian Coe ran on both, and he said that the new track added a second a lap. So I could have run in it in 3:56.”

More significantly, the very nature of athletic competition has changed. “Athletics has become professional,” said Bannister. “In the 1940s we were still amateurs, and there were very strict rules about what you could and couldn’t do … What has happened is that the presence or absence of a top athlete can mean the difference between 20 thousand people watching events and can mean the difference between it being compelling on television, so television companies will pay fees, [which drive] the sport.”

“[Another] difference is that athletes today feel they have to spend so many hours a day training that they cannot do anything else,” Bannister added. “When you see the levels we reached when we were fitting in training for three quarters of an hour or an hour at some point in the day, you perhaps wonder a bit.”

Bannister was knighted in 1975, more for his contributions as chairman of the Sports Council than for his record-breaking moment in 1954. Strikingly, he has said many times that his most important contributions to the world were in medicine. He serves in many ways as the epitome of the amateur, student-athlete, breaking records one day, while in school and working to improve the lives of others the next. Given that the majority of college athletes do not pursue their sports professionally, it is difficult to find a person better suited to speak to the importance of athletics on college campuses today.

“I think while at university, everyone should have the chance to see how much he can excel at some athletic event,” he said. “I think it is an important point of developing character to be in sport … Sport and being a part of sport is part of a full and satisfying life.”

Links to additional stories  about Sir Roger Bannister: 

May 1954 Story from Time

Biography from the Academy of Achievement

March 2009 Story from The Telegraph

July 2011 Story from Sports Illustrated