The mile – 1760 yards, 1609.344 metres in metric – is athletic’s blue ribbon event.
At a meet between British AAA and Oxford University on the 6th of May 1954, at Oxford’s Iffley Road Track, Roger Bannister became immortalised.
Once thought impossible, the four minute mile barrier was broken for the first time. When the ground announcer, Norris McWhirter (who would co-publish and co-edit The Guinness Book of Records) declared “the time was three…” the roar of the 3000 spectators drowned out the details of Bannister’s feat… 3 mins 59.4 seconds.
The early months of 1954 were an intense period of attempts on the sub-four minute mile record, with two athletes getting close. American Wes Santee recorded a 4.02.4 and Australia’s John Landy a 4.02.0 .
Bannister’s record only lasted a short while. His great rival Landy ran 3.57.9 in Finland 46 days later. However, at the 1954 British and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, both men lined up in what was called ‘The Miracle Mile’. After leading for most of the race, Landy was overtaken on the final bend by Bannister, who went on to win the gold in a time of 3.58.8.
The mythical four minute mark has been lowered by almost 17 seconds over the last 50 years. New Zealand’s John Walker was the first man to run 100 sub-four minute miles, finishing with 135 at the end of his career. American Steve Scott broke the four-minute barrier 136 times.
The current world record, held by Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj, running a time of 3.43.13 in Rome in 1999.
In the late 1990’s I interviewed Lord Jeffrey Archer at his London penthouse. He showed me the actual official stopwatch that was used to time Bannister’s historical feat. In 2011 he donated the watch for a charity auction fetching £97,250 for the Oxford University Athletics Club.
After his retirement in 1955, Sir Roger became a distinguished neurologist and Master of Pembroke College, Oxford, where I sent my caricature, which he kindly signed in 1991.