The First Four Minutes

The First Four Minutes

by Roger Bannister
On 6 May 1954 Roger Bannister became the first man to run a mile in under four minutes, establishing himself as one of the most famous sportsmen in history. Bannister has written a substantial new introduction of this 50th anniversary edition of The First Four Minutes, reflecting on his experiences in 1954, his life ever since then and the evolution of mile running


On 6 May 1954 Roger Bannister became the first man to run a mile in under four minutes, establishing himself as one of the most famous sportsmen in history. Bannister has written a substantial new introduction of this 50th anniversary edition of The First Four Minutes, reflecting on his experiences in 1954, his life ever since then and the evolution of mile running over the last five decades. The First Four Minutes, first published in 1955, covers not only the great race but also those preceding it (including the 1952 Helsinki Olympics) and the ones that followed, where Bannister triumphantly proved that his record time was more than just a one-off. He retired from competition in 1955 and went on to pursue a distinguised career as a neurologist. He was Chairman of the first executive Sports Council from 1971 to 1974. During his years in office the organisation developed the Sport for All programme and the first effective drugs test for anabolic steroids, a test still used today. He was Master of Pembroke College, Oxford for eight years and still lives in the city. He is chairman of the St Mary's Hospital Medical School Development Trust.

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The First Four Minutes

50th Anniversary Edition

By Roger Bannister

The History Press

Copyright © 2011 Roger Bannister
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-7222-5


European Games

Berne 1954

'And thick and fast they came at last And more and more and more.'

Through the Looking Glass

The political ferment in Europe seemed to have transferred itself to the Berne Stadium. The 29 August was a sweltering cloudless day, and 30,000 people sat cheering, chanting and waving flags. Switzerland, as in politics, was neutral in the struggle. Her few competitors were forgotten in the confused impact of blond Scandinavians, swarthy Southerners, burly iron men from the East, and pale Englishmen from the West. At times it seemed as though the strong winds of encouragement and hope from compatriots blew in from each corner of the stadium, creating a whirlwind in the centre that blew the competitors faster and faster round the track.

It was the last day of the European Championships of 1954. These quadrennial games are the most important event in world athletics during the four years between the Olympic Games. The winners gain the awards most coveted of all, ranking only below the Olympic titles. I was competing in the next furious struggle, the 1,500 metres. I knew what to expect – a well-meaning mêlée of arms and legs. It was the sort of race in which anything could happen. I felt it was a spectacle more than a fair athletic competition; but that is the way sportsmen on the continent seem to like their running – a contact sport, too intimate for my liking. It was in just such a race, the Olympic final of 1952 at Helsinki, that I had come fourth and been dubbed 'a failure'. This was attributed by many newspapers at the time to my unsuitable training methods – a criticism to which my only answer was silence until the next big race gave me the chance to prove my ideas were right.

This was my second chance. But this time there had been only one day of heats (eliminating races) instead of two, as in the Olympics, and there had been two days' interval before the final. Despite a series of outstanding performances by the British team, many of whom had excelled themselves, Britain was still without a gold medal in the men's events. Little Hungary – someone reminded us – had already won three. In the words of the Olympic dictum we were 'fighting well' but not 'conquering'. How many worlds between a gold medal and second place!

I could not see myself in the winning place. But as at Helsinki mine was the unenviable position of being expected to win.

In some ways, the heat on the previous Thursday was as great an ordeal as the final. The thought suddenly came – how awful to be knocked out and left to watch the final from the stands! And the little things that can go wrong! I was warming up on the uneven grass near the track, like a racehorse in the paddock, under the curious eyes of those who could not afford to buy tickets or who were only interested as autograph hunters. I suddenly noticed that my best pair of spikes had split along the side – trivial perhaps, but most unsettling. I had to wear another pair with spikes which were too long, increasing the danger of tripping up. I was not mentally prepared for the heat, and as a result took fright at the last minute when I found myself surrounded by aggressive-looking athletes from other countries. The one next to me had been involved on a previous occasion in a skirmish with a British athlete, first on the track and then off it. He still carried a fierce look in his eye. I smiled sweetly at him as if to say, 'You and I are good friends', very much the sickly smile that Charlie Chaplin reserved in his early films for policemen and heavyweight champions. This time there was no skirmish, but I caught his elbow at the first bend.

I ran extremely badly, like a startled rabbit, darting up and down amongst the runners in an unnecessarily agitated way. Looking back now it seems a nightmare, but I qualified for the final in third position, in the relatively easy time of 3 minutes 51.8 seconds.

In the two days following the heat I had been preparing myself for the final. I went away for long walks, seeking the mental calm I needed. By Sunday when the final came I had built myself up to withstand any setback. I no longer wanted to be wrapped in cotton wool. If my spikes had split now I should have run in bare feet. If I were knocked over I should not feel martyred, but would draw new impetus from my anger.

With military precision we walked out on the track in the order of our starting position, like prisoners in Indian file. Each one of us perhaps was listening for the calls from his countrymen that told him he was not alone. At this time in particular it was a great encouragement that Ian Boyd, one of the younger members of the British team, had reached the final and was running with me. I very much admired his outward calm, which concealed great strength and tenacity, and gave me the companionship I needed.

There were only eleven lining up for the start. The twelfth man, Langenus of Belgium, had not recovered from a foot injury received while running in my heat. My great disappointment was that one runner was not there – Jose Barthel, reigning Olympic champion – who had not qualified to represent his country. I had been looking forward to getting my revenge for Helsinki. Revenge is really too strong a word because Barthel was a great Olympic champion, and I was happy that he won so deservedly. But nothing is cancelled out in running – I wanted a complete victory, and it would not be complete if he were not running.

To come now to some of the others. Iharos of Hungary was favourite on the basis of times, but was otherwise an unknown quantity. He had helped Hungary on two occasions to capture the 4×1,500-metres relay world record. A few weeks before the games he had in a single race defeated the Norwegian Boysen, broken Gunder Haegg's world record for 1,500 metres, and run the fastest lap recorded in a race of that speed. Of him there were rumours of sleepless nights and great anxiety. He looked thin, angular, and excitable like a thoroughbred.

All the others had done sufficient racing for me to have some idea of their capabilities. Gunnar Nielsen (Denmark) was by far the best 'fighter' in the field, and had reached fourth place in the Olympic 800 metres at Helsinki in 1952. In 1954 he had on three occasions run over two seconds faster than my best time for 800 metres. Nielsen was tall and sandy-haired, a natural runner, well versed in the jostle of continental running. He and Audun Boysen, a good friend of his from Norway, had decided to run in different races, Boysen having chosen the 800 metres. This had disappointed me, because Boysen would certainly have set a pace which might well have resulted in a new world record in our race. Instead, the race might become a procession because no one would take the lead.

Next there was Werner Lueg, a Berlin schoolmaster, who had equalled the world record for the 1,500 metres a few weeks before Helsinki, and thereby become Olympic favourite. He was a clever tactician and very confident. He was liberal in good advice to other competitors – telling me, as we sat waiting on a bench in the centre of the track, not to put on my spikes too soon. Then there was Stanislav Jungwirth, the cheerful Czech, who had beaten me soundly over 880 yards at Whitsun, after my strange 'goodwill' visit to New York. He was a powerful runner but inclined to be inconsistent.

Finally came Denis Johansson, the chain-smoking Finn, who had tremendous natural ability but might have sapped some of this by too much running in America. There were five other runners, any one of whom might come through to win, after the giants had battled each other to a standstill. In the light of what happened later, I recall now a letter written home before the race in which I singled out Nielsen as the runner I feared most.

We lined up behind the starting post – eleven anxious athletes, a colourful sight in our national vests, if one had time for such thoughts. 'Auf die platze' – 'Get to your marks'; 'Fertig' – 'Set'. We crouched forward expectantly – the gun fired. One runner was too eager and anticipated it. As always I was a little slower off the mark than the rest. I could not help smiling; it seemed so unnecessary to beat the gun in a race that would last for 33/4 minutes. We crouched again – this time we were off.

The starting line is curved, so that each runner shall cover approximately the same distance. We all accelerated in line, inevitably converging – the outside men moving inwards to get good positions, the inside men forced to run straight. I was a little behind the main line, and 15 yards from the start they all crashed into each other. Mugosa of Jugoslavia fell, and only by jumping over him did I avoid transfixing his hand with my spiked running shoe. I might just as easily have been the one to fall. The leaders tore round the first bend in a bunch, three abreast. I was last. No one wanted to lead, yet no one was content to be last – except me.

Soon the leading runner slowed down, worried at being unable to see what was happening behind him. The runner at his shoulder, hustled by a discontented rearguard, was forced into the lead himself. The race was slowing down. The half-mile was 4 seconds below four-minute-mile standard. I rested in eighth position from the jostling elbow work to glance up at the enormous clock at the end of the stadium, with its ruthless second-hand recording our progress round the track. I knew it was dangerous to look up, because for a moment I was unguarded against the man outside me who was cutting in, the man behind who was pushing me, and the man in front whom I might well trip over. None of this jostling is deliberate, of course; it is just that eleven men are running at the top speed within their compass, and no difference between them will show until the last 300 yards of the race.

Each runner worries the others. The anxiety of being pressed and jostled increases; soon it will become too much for someone and he will make an effort to break away from the field. It is this controlled tension about to break down that gives miling its great excitement for the spectators. The early cheering of the crowd was now stilled, and the expectant hush had a positive quality that linked every spectator with the runners on the track. It was certain to be one of the favourites who would try to break away first. Which was it to be – Jungwirth, Lueg, Iharos, Nielsen or myself?

The decision to 'break away' results from a mixture of confidence and lack of it. The 'breaker' is confident to the extent that he suddenly decides the speed has become slower than he can himself sustain to the finish. Hence he can accelerate suddenly and maintain his new speed to the tape. But he also lacks confidence, feeling that unless he makes a move now, everyone else will do so and he will be left standing. The spurt is extremely wasteful because it is achieved at the cost of relaxation, which should be maintained throughout the race. The athlete's style and mood change completely when he accelerates. His mind suddenly starts driving an unwilling body which only obeys under the stimulus of the excitement. The earlier in the race this extra energy is thrown in, the greater the lead captured, but the less the chance of holding it. The surprise of being first to break away is worth an immediate advantage of 20 yards when there remains one further lap to complete (with a high danger of being overtaken before the finish), an advantage of 10 yards if halfway round the last lap, or of 5 yards in the final straight. The 'break' is like suddenly exposing your hand in a game of cards. You show how much reserve you have left by the speed at which you try to open up a gap, and by the point at which you start to do so.

If Landy had been in the race he would have been the first to break – or he would have led all the way. I knew Denmark's Gunnar Nielsen was bound to leave his finish as late as possible. Since he was easily the fastest half-miler in the field it would suit him best to make the race into a dawdle, ending with a fast finish, in which his speed would tell. I guessed that Jungwirth the Czech, very nervous and not so sure of his finish, would 'break' first. The German Lueg, with the knowledge that he had shot his bolt too soon in the Olympic final, might be the second man to try to break away. Iharos from Hungary was still an unknown quantity. I could not see him when I looked around the field at the bell, which is rung when the runners have only one more lap to go. I moved out into the second lane so that I could manoeuvre more easily and avoid the danger of being boxed in.

The background noise from the crowd began to rise again. I moved up to Jungwirth's shoulder. He was eager to shoot off and only waiting for a stimulus. The mere presence of another runner outside him was sufficient. The crowd roared as he gained a lead of a yard or so, but the rest of us were soon up to him again. I kept at his shoulder as we rounded the next bend and entered the long back straight before the finish.

I had decided that the place where I could make the most of my finishing burst was 220 yards from the tape, and so I wanted to hold Lueg and the others back until this point – just before the last bend. If I started sprinting earlier, Iharos or an outsider might catch me on the finishing post as I tired. If I started later, Nielsen might outsprint me. I kept at Jungwirth's shoulder, forcing him to keep up a good pace if he was to retain the lead. I felt in command until suddenly I sensed someone closing up on my own shoulder and about to move past me. It was Nielsen, as I learnt later.

We were nearly at the last bend now. I waited anxiously for two or three more strides, almost sandwiched between Jungwirth and Nielsen. If I allowed anyone to overtake me now I should have to satisfy myself with third position until the finishing straight. Alternatively, if I overtook the second runner, the first would be able to make me run wide round the bend and waste precious energy in covering extra distance. The longer I could hold off those behind me the better, because Jungwirth's speed was a good stride for me, and all the time I was building up a reserve of energy preparatory to sprinting. But so were the others.

We reached the bend. Jungwirth, I hoped, imagined himself securely in the lead until the home straight. As the bend began I struck past him with all my power, feeling like an engine with the supercharger full on. I gained valuable yards before Nielsen realised what had happened. I later discovered he came up to me at the beginning of the straight, but I drew away to win by 5 yards. This was probably not more than the distance I gained through the surprise of the sudden acceleration. Never did my finishing burst serve me so well. There was no longer any need to call on emotion to produce this ability to take an overdraft on my energy. There had been times in other races when I felt real fear as I tore down the finishing straight as if my life depended on it – such were the temper and distortion of values produced by my excitement during a race.

This time it was different – I was calm. Just as I had not spent the previous night bathed in sweat, racing the distance a dozen times in my imagination, so it was in the race itself. My mind remained quite cool and detached. It merely switched over the lever, and well-worn channels carried to my body the extra energy that my mind unleashed. As I came down the finishing straight I was moving with all the speed I could possibly have mustered even if I had been running for my life (25 seconds for the last 220 yards). I remember coolly looking up at the clock and thinking: 'What a pity! No world record today – the final time will be about 3.44 – if only Boysen had been with us!' The race was run in 3 minutes 43.8 seconds, a championship record and 1.4 seconds (10 yards) faster than the 1952 Olympic final, a race of the same jostling kind.

The crowd had their spectacle. But I feel strongly that there should be a maximum of eight, not twelve, runners in a race of this kind. This would give the competitors the best possible chance of running instead of scrambling. The spectators would still have their thrill, and for those who are stopwatch minded the time would be faster. The final placings were:

Min. Sec.

1. R.G. Bannister     3
2. G. Nielsen (Denmark)     3
3. S. Jungwirth (Czechoslovakia) 3 45.4
4. I. Eriksson (Sweden)     3
5. W. Lueg (Germany)     3
6. S. Iharos (Hungary)     3
7. D. Johansson (Finland)     3
8. G. Dohrow (Germany)     3
9. I.H. Boyd (Great Britain)     3
10. J. Kakko (Finland)     3

Mugosa (Jugoslavia) fell, and abandoned the race.


Excerpted from The First Four Minutes by Roger Bannister. Copyright © 2011 Roger Bannister. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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