Many had come close to it, but were eventually thwarted as if held back by powers unseen and demonic.
They all were, until one drizzly afternoon of May 6, 1954 at the Iffley track in Oxford, Englishman Roger Bannister, a medical student, became the first man ever to shatter the 4-minute mile barrier.
Watched by 3,000 spectators, the 23-year old 6-foot-1, 130-pound soon-to-be Dr. Bannister conquered the rain-soaked circuit fanned by a 15-minute per hour wind to more than make up for his failure to had England a medal in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.
The four-minute mile didn’t seem doable until the early 1930s when Jules Ladoumegue of France did 4:09.2 and Jack Lovelock of New Zealand 4:07.6. Then 1934, Glenn Cunningham, a magnificent runner from Kansas ran a 4:06.8. Britain’s Sydney Wooderson did even better at 4:06.4 in early 1940s.
The great Swedish Arne Anderson and Gunder “The Wonder” Hagg alternated in lowering the record virtually every year until in 1945, Hagg nearly got the record with an even faster 4:01.4. Serving notice that, indeed, the 4-minute mile would become a reality.
Hagg’s mark stood unsurpassed for nine years and many more attempts were made, but only up to 4:0.4 by Australia’s John Landy and another miler from Kansas, Wes Santee. Bannister himself, in March of ‘54, had done a speedy 4:02 flat.
On the morning of that day of May 6, Bannister expressed reluctance to run on account of intermittent rains that carried a 15-mph crosswind. His trainer Franz Stampfl assured him though that the time was ripe to do so and that, on the contrary, the foul weather might help him instead.
The plan was for Bannister’s teammates in the British Amateur Athletic Association, Chris Basher and Chris Chataway would take turns in pacing him with the former leading him off the first half mile and the latter taking over the rest of the way for as long as he could hold.
As if on cue, the skies cleared five minutes before fire off time and Basher took advantage by pulling Bannister to a fast 57.5 quarter-mile. Bannister reached the halfway mark in 1:52.2 on pace for a breakthrough. Chataway then took turn as rabbit and held on until Bannister was able to put on his finishing kick 300 yards to go to an epochal, record-smashing feat.
With his head rolled back and his face contorted in pain, the new athletic hero broke through the tape and collapsed in exhaustion as pandemonium broke out interrupted by the broken official announcement: “A time, which is a new meeting and track record, which, subject to ratification, will be a new English native, a British national, a British all-comers, European, British Empire and world’s record. The time was three ….” The rest was lost amid pandemonium. Bannister had done it! He had run the mile in 3:59,4.
Bannister’s heroics, likewise, paved the way for the previously frustrated competitors everywhere. Six week later, for instance, Landy ran 3:58 flat in Turku, Finland and in August, Landy and Banister himself, took the distance in the “Mile of the Century” classic at the British Empire Game in Vancouver, BC, with Bannister winning in 3:58.8.
Bannister raced for one more event then retired to concentrate on his medical career. His niche in sport history forever assured.