Continuing a series featuring AW content from years gone by, here is our original report of Bannister’s historic feat

Edition: May 15, 1954

Four-minute mile beaten at last!

May 6, 1954

So the Everest of athletics has been scaled, the sound barrier of running has been penetrated. Roger Gilbert Bannister, 25-year-old medical student, may never find the panacea for all ills the human flesh is heir to, but he has found the philosopher’s stone of sport.

The long sustained attack on the four-minute mile has ended; not in Australia, where John Landy has probably failed for lack of opposition; not in Finland, home of Paavo Nurmi; not in Sweden, where Lannart Strand, Gunder Hågg and Arne Andersson so nearly succeeded; nor in the USA, where Mal Whitfield has threatened and Wes Santee almost won through, but in England, cradle of modern athletics.

In 1947, Bannister, a possible for the 1948 Olympic Games, begged to be excused by reason of his age and athletic immaturity – a wise and level-headed decision for one so young. At Helsinki he carried the hopes of a nation and was defeated; but in his mind he carried a dream, a dream which he dissected and analysed after the manner of research, which is his absorbing interest.

The annual meeting between teams representing the Amateur Athletics Association and Oxford University Athletics Club, which began at five o’clock in the afternoon of Thursday, May 6, 1954, on the historic ground at Iffley Road, Oxford, was not remarkable in its beginnings. It was cold, and the wind blew hard – England was in fact being buffeted by gales. Rags of storm cloud hastened across a grey sky with only occasional glimpses of blue, and the usual well-ordered crowd applauded with staid handclaps the shot-putting and pole vaulting with which the meeting began.

Event succeeded event until six o’clock, when the runners marshalled before the starter for the one mile race. It was noticeable that for fully a quarter of an hour the wind had fallen to almost nothing. In the distance a flag topping a square tower hung desultorily flapping, when only a short time before it had striven frantically to tear itself from its moorings.

For the University, GF Dole and TN Miller of University College and AD Gordon of Magdalen; for the AAA, RG Bannister, CJ Chataway and CW Brasher all of Achilles Club, all internationals, and WT Hulatt of Alfreton, Northern Counties champion.

And they’re off

The starter, Ray Barkway of Achilles Club, an international hurdler in a new role. A false start, another line-up, and this time the runners were away, Brasher tearing into the lead at once with the field at his heels.

Almost at once the keen observer saw something unusual and purposeful about these three. Remembrances came of fast time trials at Paddington Track by Bannister, of a recent three-minute three-quarter mile in a training spin by Bannister and Chataway, of fast quarter-mile pace running by Brasher at Tooting Bec Track – murderous successions of quarter-miles religiously anchored to the second hand of a watch.

As the race unfolded, planning became clear. These three had discussed the possibility of a four-minute mile in concert – the race had been planned in detail. Bannister and Chataway settled in behind Brasher with undisturbed rhythm. The speed was so obvious that event the serenity of the Iffley Road spectators was ruffled, as a breeze lightly disturbs the surface of a woodland pond.

As the runners approached the end of the first lap, Brasher still driving determinedly, a loudspeaker began to count the seconds – “fifty-four, fifty-five, fifty-six, fifty-seven”; Brasher was gone and the ruffle became an excited tremor. Round the second lap the close procession of the three leaders continued. Chataway blowing hard two or three times as if to clear his training lungs for more air.

The race took on the appearance of relentless purpose. Brasher approached the end of the second lap and the apparent grim serenity of the runners contrasted with the sudden tumultuous heaving among the mass of spectators. The loud speaker began again – “fifty-six, fifty-seven, fifty-eight” and Brasher was gone again, Bannister and Chataway, the one smooth and flowing, the other sharp and staccato, close on his heels, moving with confident power.

Anticipation builds

The crowd of officials around the finish moved closer. The excited murmur of the crowd rose. Brasher pressed on round the first bend but halfway down the backstraight, on his third and vital lap, was seen to falter suddenly, his limbs refusing to respond further to the insistent will.

Purposefully Chataway swept past the failing Brasher, while Bannister momentarily paused to follow, then he strode into Chataway’s wake, while the gallant Brasher struggled painfully on, determined as ever.

Chataway’s fast moving feet beat a steady, unfailing rhythm, and on his shoulder still moved Bannister, longer striding but with strong unfaltering cadence.

The dignity of Iffley Road was beginning to break; the murmur had become a roar, and as Chataway neared the post again the loud speaker began its steady count – “fifty-eight, fifty-nine, sixty”; the two runners had gone before the voice could continue.

Now scarcely a watcher was seated. The shattering pace went on and on, round the first bend of the final lap, but just before the pole marking the beginning of the last furlong even the grim-faced Chataway began to slacken.

Final drive to athletics immortality

An avalanche of humanity began to pour from the stands as Bannister was seen to draw out and begin the last, long pull to the tape; a slight lengthening of stride, his arms driving harder to maintain the almost majestic cadence of his action – his fluent power fave no hint of fatigue. Chataway for the first time seemed to show interest, his eyes following the disappearing Bannister with eager hope until he vanished into the milling crowd around the finish.

Not a soul doubted that four minutes had been beaten – the thought in all the minds was only by how much? Not three yards beyond the tape with a suddenness which belied the strength of the finishing stride a split second before, Bannister’s legs crumbled under him, his head fell forward, and his arms sagged like a puppet’s as two willing officials took his weight.

On the grass in the centre outside the heaving mass, Brasher and Chataway jogged with happy faces, filling their bursting lungs, awaiting the inevitable announcement. Within two minutes Bannister came to life, and the announcer’s voice, amplified above the spontaneous cheering which had broken out, came clearly: “Three minutes fifty-nine point four seconds” – the rest, for the moment, conveyed nothing.

Suddenly Bannister was jogging away on the grass, flanked by his two team-mates, their arms round his waist, while the two proud mothers of the two former Oxford men gazed happily on, unnoticed in the milling hundreds of people still gathered on the sacred cinders.

Chataway’s great self-sacrifice brought him a personal best time of 4min 7.2sec. Brasher clearly felt himself fully rewarded.

Report by George Pallett MBE, a British long jump international who died in Australia in 1996 aged 88.

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