Britain was still reeling from World War II in the early 1950s. Then came the coronation of a new queen, the conquest of Mt. Everest and, in May 1954, the breaking of the four-minute mile by Roger Bannister.
Bannister and his epic run helped rally the nation. His record, along with the 1966 World Cup victory, ranks among the U.K.’s greatest sports triumphs. While he never won an Olympic medal, Bannister, 83, will carry the torch today in Oxford and he is one of the favorites to light the cauldron when the London games open July 27.
The U.K. is already awash in patriotism and nostalgia following the June observance of Queen Elizabeth II’s 60-year reign. Bannister represents an idealized vision of Britain’s past, when athletes were driven by the pursuit of excellence and the nation could join together in celebration, said Max Jones, a historian at the University of Manchester.
“Bannister is in that tradition of English understated sportsmen,” Jones said. “We find these stories tremendously appealing. In this commercial world, there is a yearning for people willing to do things not just for money.”
Bannister’s record run was “a reassuring story of national greatness” in the postwar era when the U.K. was worried about its place in the world, Jones said.
An Oxford University graduate, Bannister was a medical student and “one of the last pure amateurs,” said Neal Bascomb, whose 2004 book “The Perfect Mile” documented Bannister’s duel with Australian rival John Landy at the 1954 British Empire & Commonwealth Games.
Bannister was self-coached and trained during his lunch breaks. He said he even had to give back some of his trophies, to avoid violating the rules of amateurism. He quit at 25, in his prime, in order to become a medical resident.
“Athletes often don’t know the right moment to stop,” Bannister said in an interview at his home in Oxford, two miles from the track where he broke the record. “Inevitably there comes a point where they start to deteriorate and it seems unwise ever to risk reaching that point.”
Bannister’s reputation was further burnished by his career following his retirement as a runner. He became a neurologist, served as chairman of the U.K. Sports Council and became master of Pembroke College at Oxford. He was knighted in 1975.
“Roger is an icon in British life,” said Andrew Hamilton, the vice chancellor of Oxford. “Roger Bannister represents the epitome of the scholar athlete. As a young man he hit the very highest levels of athletic achievement, but then went on to a glittering career as a neurologist and as a public servant.”
The contrast between Bannister and contemporary athletes is stark, said Jake Oldershaw, who co-wrote a play about the race that was performed at Oxford’s track.
Today’s Olympians are professional athletes in many sports. This year’s entrants will include basketball players such as LeBron James, who makes about $53 million a year in salary and endorsements, according to Forbes magazine.
Bannister “quite obviously loved what he did and loved running, pure and simple,” Oldershaw said. “You may find it with many athletes today, but the entire merry-go-round of professional sports can really hamper the elan they feel.”
Even altered by professionalism and marred by drug scandals, the Olympic ideal is still noble and worth preserving, Bannister said.
“I know all about the things that are wrong,” he said. “I still, despite everything, think there’s something worthwhile about the Olympics.”
Born in 1929 in Harrow, outside London, Bannister spent some of his childhood in Bath, where the family moved to flee the German bombardment that began in 1940.
Bannister’s father was the youngest of 11 children and grew up eager to escape the poverty of Lancashire. He took an exam to become a civil servant at age 15, cutting short his education, Bannister said. His parents stressed the importance of education and Bannister entered Oxford at 17.
He said he chose running partly because it gave him the freedom to pursue his studies.
“I had chosen a sport in which I was my own master,” he said. “If I had chosen hockey or rugby or rowing, I would have been at the mercy of the team. Running was the only sporting career that gave a chance of reaching world level and it not being destructive of the rest of my life.”
Bannister passed up a chance to compete in the 1948 Olympics in London, judging himself not yet ready. He aimed for the 1,500 meters in the 1952 games in Helsinki, saying his plan was to win the gold and then quit running.
Instead, he finished fourth, undone by a scheduling change that added an extra round of heats.
That race is memorialized in a multimedia sculpture by artist Mel Brimfield that the U.K. government commissioned for the 2012 Olympics.
After Helsinki, Bannister decided to delay his retirement and focused on breaking the four-minute mile and winning the Empire Games and European championships in 1954.
“I felt so confident, despite not having won in Helsinki, that my sort of training would go on improving, that the four-minute mile then fell within my compass,” he said. “I postponed everything for two years but I wouldn’t have postponed it any longer.”
In December 1952, Landy ran 4:02, announcing his intention to break the record. Throughout 1953, Bannister, Landy and Wes Santee of the U.S. tried and failed to break the record as the quest garnered global media attention.
Bannister chose to make his first try of 1954 at a May 6 meet at Oxford. The day was cold and blustery and he had to be talked into running. He said he was motivated by the fact that Landy would soon be making his own attempt.
Part of the fascination with the four-minute mile is the elegance of the problem, said Oldershaw, the playwright.
“It presents a kind a symmetrical, mathematical conundrum, four laps of a track, a minute of every lap, and you’re there,” he said. “It all coincided with being this numerical equation.”
With two training partners acting as pacesetters, Bannister ran the first quarter-mile lap in 57.5 seconds and the half mile in 1:58. He slowed in the third lap before pouring it on to run the last lap in 59 seconds and collapsing at the finish in 3:59.4.
The mark was front-page news around the world. The New York Times devoted nine separate stories to the feat, which it called “one of man’s hitherto unattainable goals.”
Bannister held the world record for 46 days before it fell to Landy. The two faced off that summer at the Empire Games in Vancouver, British Columbia, with Bannister edging his rival. Both finished in less than four minutes. Later that month, Bannister won the 1,500 in the European Championships and retired, turning to his medical career.
He said he never looked back, nor regretted not taking part in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne.
“I was transferring the intensity I had in my athletic career to medicine,” he said.
Bannister was Sports Illustrated’s first Sportsman of the Year, wrote a book and became a correspondent for the Sunday Times, covering track and field for the newspaper.
Since Bannister’s historic run, 13 other runners have held the world record in the mile and more than 1,100 men have broken four minutes. The current holder, Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco, ran 3:43.13 in 1999.
U.K. bookmaker William Hill Plc gave 3-to-1 odds that Bannister will light the Olympic cauldron, trailing only Steve Redgrave, a rower who won five Olympic gold medals.
At Oxford, Bannister remains a celebrity, and his name and image are used to raise money for the university.
“He is part of sporting royalty,” said Andrew Thomas, head of fundraising for sports at Oxford. “We would be really foolish not to trade on that.”