The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Less, actually: 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds. What's the difference? Fifty years ago today, at the Iffley Road track in Oxford, that point-six of a second was enough to make Roger Bannister the first person to break the legendary four-minute mile running barrier. You can watch BBC footage of Bannister running the miracle mile here.

Two things stand out to me Bannister's achievement: One, that it wouldn't have happened if not for an Olympic-sized disappointment:
Bannister was the favorite at 1,500 meters entering the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland. His goal was to win gold and retire to pursue his medical career.

Instead, he finished fourth -- thrown off when Olympic officials inserted an extra round of heats, forcing him run three straight days.

The failure prompted him to shelve retirement and pursue the record, which was being chased by many, including Wes Santee of the United States and John Landy of Australia.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Bannister recalled: "I thought, 'Well, I can't leave on this sour note, feeling failure, disappointment, letting people down -- letting the country down.'

"I thought, 'I can just go on somehow, combining medicine with my running until '54 -- two years.' "
The other thing I find remarkable is that, about as soon as the barrier was broken, it's been broken again and again. Bannister's record stood for only a month before Australian John Landy beat it with a time of 3 minutes and 57.9 seconds, and that was followed in close succession by several runners running sub-4 minute miles. How did a formerly formidable benchmark, which no one had been able to reach for decades, suddenly become so breakable? Did Bannister conquer more than a physical barrier fifty years ago--did he dispel a palpable aura, as well?

(It's notable that the spate of 4-minute recordbreakers in the '50s prompted suspicions of doping--showing that such concerns are hardly a sign of the current times.)
Bannister figures more than 2,000 runners have broken four minutes since he did it. American Steve Scott did it 137 times, and New Zealand's John Walker 128.

The current record is 3:43.13 by Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco. Set in 1999, the mark has stood longer than most -- partially because the distance has given way to the metric -- 1,500 meters.
1,500 meters is just shy of a mile; 1609 meters is a full mile. Better to think of the record in terms of laps: Four laps in under four minutes. A nice symmetry.

As for the ever-after, Bannister has put the moment into a proper perspective.