Sir Roger Bannister: 1929-2018

Everyone at England Athletics are very sorry to hear the news of Sir Roger Bannister’s passing. He was a legend of our sport and a deserved member of our England Athletics Hall of Fame. We pass on our sincere condolences to Sir Roger’s family and friends.

Sir Roger Bannister was an inductee into the very first England Athletics Hall of Fame in 2008. His nomination was as follows:

Club: Achilles
Major medals: Gold – 1954 Commonwealth Mile; 1954 European 1500m; Bronze – 1950 European 800m
World records: Mile – 3:59.4 in 1954 (3:43.0 1500m en route); 4 x Mile Relay – 16:41.0 in 1953

Roger Bannister’s feat in running the first ever sub-4 minute mile at Iffley Road Track, Oxford, in May 1954 is for many people the most historic moment in sport. Running for the AAAs Bannister defied the windy conditions to beat not only 4 minutes with his time of 3:59.4 but also beat his rival John Landy to the target that each had been striving for. The two later came head-to-head in the Empire Games that year in what became known as the Miracle Mile. Bannister, this time wearing the England vest, triumphed over Landy, who had since lowered the record, to win in 3:58.8 to 3:59.6 the first time two men broke the 4 minute mile in the same race.

Our souvenir Hall of Fame booklet 2008 covered his achievements in more detail:

As the world’s first sub-four minute miler, Roger Bannister is arguably the most celebrated name in British athletics history … and in a way his success can be traced back to one of his world mile record holder predecessors, Sydney Wooderson. Bannister was 16 when taken by his father to the White City in 1945 and the sight of Wooderson battling against Sweden’s Arne Andersson made a deep impression on him. “Seeing Wooderson’s run that day inspired me”, he reflected.

Although his first attempt at the mile, as a 17 year-old Oxford University freshman, took him all of 4:53 he quickly revealed his potential at the distance and in 1949 he ran 4:11.1, the world’s fastest by a 20 year-old at that time. Dropping down in distance, he finished a close third at 800m in the 1950 European Championships. Almost god-like in action, the lanky, long-striding medical student revived dreams of the first sub-four minute mile when in 1952 he covered three quarters of a mile in what was then considered the phenomenal time of 2:52.9. That time trial was just before the Helsinki Olympics but the introduction of a semi-final round in the Games ruined his careful 1500m preparations for a well separated heat and final and he finished fourth in a UK record time of 3:46.0, just 0.8 sec behind the winner.

In one sense, that defeat led to Bannister’s eventual iconic status. Had he won he would probably have retired, but in order to compensate for his own personal disappointment he decided to extend his running career for another two years. Although reluctant to admit it publicly, he was intrigued by the very real possibility of becoming the first man to break four minutes. In 1953 he broke Wooderson’s British record with 4:03.6 and followed up with an illegally paced 4:02.0.

It all came together at Oxford on 6 May 1954 when, assisted by his training companions Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway, he passed 440yds in 57.5, 880yds in 1:58.2 and three-quarters of a mile in 3:00.5. Needing a 59.4 last lap for eternal glory, he clocked 58.9 to break the tape in 3:59.4, taking two seconds from the world record which had stood since 1945. On the way he unofficially equalled the world 1500m record of 3:43.0.

That mile record survived less than two months as Australia’s John Landy ran 3:57.9 but in what was justifiably dubbed the ‘mile of the century’, at the Commonwealth Games in Vancouver; Bannister the kicker prevailed against Landy the front runner in 3:58.8 (3:42.2 at 1500m), setting British records at both distances. Three weeks later, in his final race, he virtually toyed with a talented field to sprint away with the European 1500m title. He went on to have an illustrious career as a neurologist and was knighted in 1975 for services to medicine.