After a disappointing finish in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, in which he set a British record in the 1500 meters but placed fourth and did not win a medal, Roger Bannister returned to his native England with a single goal in mind—the four-minute mile. But this book is not about records and not about racing the clock. It’s a book about competition. Reading the story from Bannister’s perspective is refreshing. He focuses more on the talented athletes he ran against than the particular records he set or gut-wrenching workouts he endured while balancing his training against the demands of medical school. (In 1963, Bannister earned his medical degree from Oxford and became a neurologist.)
The four-minute mile, the ‘Dream Mile’ to some, a seemingly insurmountable barrier fell on cool and windy day—May 6, 1954. With 3,000 people in attendance and the race broadcast live on BBC Radio, expectations were high. “The four-minute mile had become rather like an Everest,” Bannister writes in The Four-Minute Mile (1955). He was paced by friends and fellow Olympians Chataway and Brasher, whom he credits for their aid in the historic attempt. But just 46 days later on June 21, Bannister’s new record was broken by his rival, the Australian John Landy, setting up an epic showdown on August 7 at the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver. There, the only two men at the time to have broken the four-minute barrier faced off for the first time in a head-to-head foot race with Bannister inching past Landy in the last lap and solidifying Bannister’s legacy.
“Records are the bare bones of athletics, like numbers to a mathematician,” Bannister writes. “Unless given a human touch they have no life, no appeal. Statisticians may juggle with them, some perhaps finding in their concentration on record figures a vicarious fulfillment of their own ambition. Like odds quoted on horses, times may tell you something of a man’s chance of winning, but they can tell you nothing of his style or his length of stride, nor can a javelin thrower’s distances tell you of his grace of throw. They can give you no conception of the joy there is in watching a champion athlete’s supreme integration of movement, his genius at harnessing efficiently power that is partly inborn and partly ingrained by years of training. It is this human touch which makes the difference between the lasting excitement of men running and the temporary thrill of speedway or motor racing.”
In 1975 Bannister was knighted.