OXFORD, ENGLAND – Sixty years later, Roger Bannister is busy reliving the four minutes that still endure as a transcendent moment in sports history.
It was on a wet, blustery spring day — May 6, 1954 — that the lanky English medical student became the first runner to break the fabled 4-minute barrier in the mile, a feat that many had thought was humanly impossible.
Helped by two pace makers, the 25-year-old Bannister completed four laps around a cinder track in Oxford in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds, a milestone that captured the world’s fascination and still resonates today.
“It was a target,” Bannister, now 85 and fighting Parkinson’s disease, said in an interview at his Oxford home, a short distance from the Iffley Road track where he made his name. “University athletes had been trying for years and it just didn’t seem to be capable of being broken. There was this magic about four symmetrical laps of one minute each.
“It was just something which caught the public’s imagination. I think it still remains something that is of interest and intrigue.”
Bannister’s record lasted just 46 days, and he considers his victory over Australian rival John Landy a few months later as his greatest running exploit.
Yet, as Tuesday’s 60th anniversary attests, Bannister’s 3:59.4 remains part of track and field lore, a symbol of boundary-busting endurance that stands the test of time.
It’s only a slice of Bannister’s life story. He retired from running at the end of 1954 and went on to pursue a long career in neurology that he considers more significant than anything he accomplished on the track.
“Medicine without a doubt,” Bannister said when asked about his proudest achievement. “I wouldn’t claim to have made any great discoveries, but at any rate I satisfactorily inched forward in our knowledge of a particular aspect of medicine. I’m far more content with that than I am about any of the running I did earlier.”
The man knighted Sir Roger in 1975 is slowing down as the years pass. He’s coping with the effects of Parkinson’s, a neurological condition that falls under his medical specialty.
“I know quite a bit about it, which is both helpful and unhelpful,” Bannister said, sitting in his living room lined with photos and mementoes of his running and medical career. “But I’m 85 and something has to happen.”
Bannister’s right ankle was shattered in a car accident in 1975, and he already had been unable to run since then. Now, he walks with crutches inside his home and uses a wheelchair outdoors.
Hundreds of athletes have run the mile in less than 4 minutes since Bannister did it, and the world record has been broken 18 times since then. The current mark of 3:43.13 was set by Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj in 1999.