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Roger Bannister

British athlete Roger Bannister was the first person to run a mile in less than four minutes - inspiring future generations of athletes to pursue their dreams.Roger Bannister

His record-breaking achievement occurred on 6th May 1954 and was even more astounding due to the fact he wasn't a full-time athlete. He was training to be a junior doctor when he ran the mile in 3 minutes 59.4 seconds, amazing the world of athletics, who felt it couldn't be done.

His record was confirmed at the track by announcer Norris McWhirter, co-founder of the Guinness Book of Records, whose voice was drowned out by the excited cheers of the crowd as he confirmed Bannister was the first person to break the four-minute barrier.

 

Early life

Bannister achieved the milestone without the modern benefits of sports nutrition and dedicated full-time training to be an athlete. Born on 23rd March 1929, he attended the City of Bath Boys' School, before completing his education at the University of Oxford's medical school and St Mary's Hospital Medical School in London.

While pursuing his ambition to become a doctor, Bannister had started running at the relatively late age of 17, inspired by Sydney Wooderson. The English runner, nicknamed the "Mighty Atom", had set the world mile record of 4 minutes 6.4 seconds at Motspur Park in London on 28th August 1937.

Bannister ran on a track for the first time, wearing running spikes, at Oxford in 1946. His training schedule was extremely light - three half-hour training sessions per week - yet he showed promise at running the mile from the onset. In 1947, he ran a mile in 4 minutes 24.6 seconds.

 

Athletics career

Bannister was shortlisted as a possible Olympic team member to take part in the 1948 games, but he declined, as he felt he wasn't ready to compete at such a high level. However, by the time the 1952 Olympics took place in Helsinki, he had already made his mark on the athletics circuit.

Running at White City in 1949, his speed over the mile had improved greatly and his time was down to 4 minutes 14.2 seconds. He began training harder after coming third in the 800 metres at the 1950 European Championships, as he felt he should have done better.

His new training regime under coach Franz Stampfl - the famous Austrian coach who pioneered interval training - was more serious, including interval training and fell running.

 

Olympics

Competing in the 1952 Olympics, Bannister reached the final of the 1500 metres on 26th July, when the race was one of the most dramatic in the history of the games. The final few metres decided who would finish in the medals and it was won by Josy Barthel of Luxembourg, with a new Olympic record of 3 minutes 45.28 seconds.

Bannister finished fourth and was disappointed to be out of the medals, despite setting a new British record of 3 minutes 46.3 seconds. In fact, he spent the next two months deciding on the future of his track career and whether he should give up training.

He had always viewed running as something to do in his spare time, when the demands of his medical studies at Oxford University permitted. However, he decided to carry on and set himself a new goal of breaking the four-minute mile barrier.

 

Four-minute mile

Bannister had attempted to break the four-minute barrier on 2nd May 1953 at Oxford. He ran it in 4 minutes 3.6 seconds, breaking Wooderson's 1945 world record, but still failing to run the distance in under four minutes.

At the Surrey Schools' athletic meeting of 27th June in the same year, he finished the mile in 4 minutes 2 seconds, again falling short of his goal. By this time, other runners such as John Landy of Australia and Wes Santee of America were also trying to break the four-minute barrier.

Bannister realised he would have to make his next attempt soon, before someone beat him to it. Finally, on 6th May 1954, at a race meeting between Oxford and the British AAA at Oxford's Iffley Road Track, he realised his dream, running the mile in 3 minutes 59.4 seconds.

Prior to the race, he had spent much of his day working at a London hospital, where he had found time to sharpen his racing spikes and rub granite on them. He took the train from Paddington to Oxford prior to the race, which began at 6pm.

There were seven athletes competing in the mile race, in which Bannister went on to achieve a record that many people involved in athletics believed was impossible, earning him a place in the history books.

 

Commonwealth Games

In 1954, Bannister competed in the Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, Canada, winning the gold medal in the one-mile race. He also won the gold medal in the 1500 metres at the 1954 European Championships in Bern, Switzerland.

At the peak of his running career in late 1954, Bannister decided to retire. He wished to concentrate on his work as a doctor and went on to enjoy a distinguished career in neurology. In 1955, he received a CBE for services to amateur athletics.

The next four decades he spent practicing neurology and he published more than 80 medical papers on the topic. Very well respected in his field, he was also Master of Pembroke College, Oxford, from 1985 to 1993.

 

Accolades

Bannister was made an Honorary Freeman of the London Borough of Harrow on 4th May 2004. He was also given the Freedom of the City of Oxford in the same year.

Sadly, Bannister was diagnosed as having Parkinson's disease in 2011 and he died in Oxford on 3rd March 2018 at the age of 88. He has left a great legacy for aspiring athletes, for whom he was a great role model.

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