Sir Roger Bannister and the 4 laps

In the Olympic year of 2004 there has been many memorable athletic moments. The names El Guerrouji, Bekele, Kipchoge, and Sihine continually appear and they are the pioneers of world athletics continually extending the barriers of human performance. Fifty years ago an intelligent and thoughtful young man Roger Bannister ran himself into immortality by being the first ever person to run four laps consecutively under sixty seconds, a sub four minute mile. Nowadays breaking four minutes for the mile is commonplace for the world's elite on the World and European circuit. However, for British athletes it is still regarded as a major feat and a very credible accomplishment. Even with advances in technology and sports science in Britain last year only five athletes managed to run a sub 4-minute mile. For the achievement of Roger Bannister all those years ago on a cinder track in adverse weather conditions certainly puts everything into perspective.

Over the course of the past year the Irish Milers Club has celebrated the success of two of Irelands famous sons John Treacy, Eamonn Coghlan through onstage interviews. On the last such occasion at the Citywest Hotel Sir Roger Bannister was the esteemed guest. With an audience of over 400 Sir Roger Bannister (R.B) was lively and engaging throughout with young and old culminating with time for much treasured photos and autographs.

It was fitting that the first over 40 to eclipse the sub 4-minute barrier was 'King of the Boards' himself Eamonn Coghlan was there to formally introduce R.B to the receptive audience. A few days prior to the evening R.B was the guest at the Irish Schools athletics' Championships at Santry where James Nolan fitted the bill perfectly with a sub 4-minute performance in the elite mile. The taxi driver in Dublin who collected R.B instantly knew who he was but exaggerated his athletic prowess by stating "you did the 4 miles in one minute"- welcome to the craic in Ireland!

After the pleasantries of the welcome address, video footage of the race Frank Greally conducted the much-awaited interview with the man synonymous all over the world with the sub four-minute mile.
Over the course of the hour interview it was apparent that R.B was not a prodigy blessed with an incredible talent for running. It wasn't until he was around the age of 17 that he actually took it seriously. When very young at a beach he had a surreal experience that even today cannot thoroughly explain in that he loved the sensation of movement and being free. His arrival at Oxford University combined with a fresh serious mentality was the impetus that was needed. Although one of the revered seeds of learning the University was also steeped in athletic tradition and achievement. The first mile race that R.B. ran was at the famous Iffley road track and aided by an training article he read by Sydney Wooderson he managed to finish second in 4min 53 sec. Afterwards Mr. Duncan a former secretary of the British Olympic Association remarked that he would knock 20 seconds off that time he had not been bouncing like a kangaroo! The reason for this was that it was the first time that he had worn spikes and they were making him over stride in kangaroo like bounces!

Things progressed somewhat after that without any startling results. The spring of 1947 was R.B first chance to represent Oxford on the track. The occasion was a trial race to select the third string for the team. The venue was the inspiring White City stadium even though there was only a handful of diehard spectators present. R.B. managed to win with consummate ease in 4 min 30.8 sec and from that moment on realised that he could develop this newly found talent. An immense immersion of anything athletic followed with a clear direction to nurture and further his athletic ability. With reflection the times spent at Oxford were relaxed, enjoyable and fulfilling.

Athletes regardless of ability all share the same common preoccupation of being interested in someone elses training, their times, ideas and suggestions. The methological practices of medicine naturally had some influence on his training. Often training on grass which reduced the chances of injury and when serious was training 5 or 6 times a week. What a contrast to the twice a day rigors of today's elite performers! Even when compared with the other British athletes of the day the intensity was still deemed relatively light. As he was focusing on the 1500m R.B reasoned that long slow distance didn't have a part to play, specificity was the key. Be specific in your training, for your event. Training was handled in much the same way as his profession, with precision. Franz Stampfl of Austria who coached R.B, Chataway and Brasher was an early advocate of interval training and consequently there was a lot of pyramid and grass work. Time was limited due to his medical studies and so quality was paramount in everything that he did. Sports Science today plays an influential role with psychologists aiding performances through mind techniques. All those years ago R.B was equally adept about tuning the mind towards training and performance. He realised that internal feelings were fundamental to performance in that if you perceived that you were tired the next day following training that you had over done it but not necessarily so. The mind must be trained just like the body. R.B's acuteness towards training was never more evident in a time trial at Motspur Park 10 days before the 1954 Helsinki Olympics. With each lap faster than the previous one- 58.5, 57.5 and 56.9 the ¾ mile was completed in 2min. 52.9 sec! This was nearly four seconds faster than the unofficial world record of 2 min. 56.6 sec. set by Arne Andersson.

With training going as planned the 1954 Olympics beckoned four years after declining to compete in the 1948 Olympics after considering himself too young for such an occasion. The Olympics culminated with R.B finishing 4th behind Barthel of Luxembourg and breaking the Olympic record in the process. However things could have been a little different. Due to the number of competitors there had to be heats, semi-final and a final. With the specific training R.B had logged there was nothing in hand for another race; these circumstances would undoubtedly favour the athlete who had incorporated volume into their training. After the games there was the natural press reaction criticising his training methods and there was the natural emotion of being very angry and upset.

After a while things settled down and the focus was next on the eclipsing of the magical 4-minute barrier. The Australian John Landy had recorded 4.02 and he generated the drive, the 4-minute target came into view. Naturally with a two way scenario there are two camps, the possible and the not possible. After recording 4.02 Landy had influenced many people by saying that it was insurmountable, it was clear that he was beginning to lose heart. Now was the critical stage of the interview as the focus was on the day that changed the distance forever and the life of R.B.
With Landy able to rekindle some mental hope R.B realised that the pressure was really on for a record attempt so bravely a date and location was established, 6th May 1954 at Iffley Road Oxford. On the day the weather was a major problem as the forecast was not too favourable and actually on arrival at the track it was almost gale force. The crucial psychological factor was present on the journey down on the train as Franz Stampfl said that he was capable of 3.56 and certainly the training showed all the indicators of this. The weather changed from being an 80:20 possibility in favour of not succeeding to 50:50. Although there was still an air of expectancy R.B. had the confidence that he was now at his peak physically and psychologically and he knew exactly what he had to do. A job had to be done and that's the attitude he adopted in light of the fact that this was his first race in 8 months so the burden of pressure was enormous. With the assistance of the very capable pacemakers in Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher R.B. seized the moment of opportunity and prevailed against pressure, the barrier and least not the wind to hear what no one had heard before. "Result of one mile…..time, 3 minutes......" he had now gone to a place that no man had ventured. Although the images of Chris Brasher, Chris Chataway and R.B. battling against history have been witnessed on television many times over it is an inspiring moment to hear the account from the man himself. Goodness knows how many times he has had to relive it but still he recalls it with such clarity and vibrancy. From one running race his life was instantly changed forever.

Regardless of the sport there has always been intense rivalries, Coe and Ovett, Hearns and Leonard, Borg and McEnroe and at the 1954 Empire Games it was only ever going to be Landy and Bannister. Landy had recently eclipsed the 4-minute barrier breaking the record in the process with 3 min. 58 sec. The week leading to the Games R.B felt a sense of destiny after the disappointment at the Olympics and he believed that all would be ok if Landy led. This confidence emanated from the fact the in the AAA shortly beforehand he finished with a 52.4 last quarter and it was believed that Landy did not have a strong finish. The plan was to let Landy have a lead and then gradually tow him in, which actually worked. With R.B catching Landy at the bell the two were twenty yards ahead of the rest of the field. The 1500m mark was passed in 1/10 sec. outside Landy's world record for that distance. As they both entered the straight through anxiety Landy quickly glanced inwards to see the position of R.B and at that precise moment the monumental move was made. A win by five yards in 3 min. 58.8 was another sub four-minute mile with the last lap being one of the most thrilling and intense moments of his life. In a field of eight runners Northern Ireland had representation in Victor Milligan finishing a distinguished 4th in 4 min. 5 sec, 0.4 behind the bronze medal.

With a lifetimes involvement in athletics it was interesting to hear of R.B's favourite athletes. He regarded New Zealand's Jack Lovelock and Great Britain's Sydney Wooderson both former world record holders for the mile as being excellent. He also regarded Herb Elliott as being a natural talent. Off course the British 'Holy Trinity' of Coe, Ovett and Cram were mentioned were success was propelled by their intense rivalry. R.B mentioned that the training of Steve Ovett was not too indifferent to that of his own, quality was the main similarity but in Ovetts case the volume was much greater. He also admired Ovett for his elegance and strong physique. For Sebastian Coe victorious in two consecutive Olympic Games over 1500m is something unique and his relentless pursuit of excellence was driven by his severe training regime. There was praise reserved too for Ronnie Delaney who in covering the last 300m in 38.63 clenched the Olympic 1500m title in 1956. Of the modern crop of elite milers R.B. holds El Guerrouji in very high esteem and my goodness rightly so.
R.B. retired shortly after the glory of the Empire Games returning as he always said he would to make an invaluable life long contribution to medicine.
Up until 2004 there have been 39 four-minute milers in Ireland with 12 of these from Northern Ireland. Five of these athletes represented Annadale Striders with Paul Lawther the first to join the elite club at Crystal Palace in 1976. Frank Greally enquired as to where there any other sub 4-minute milers in the audience and Paul had the rare distinction as being the only other (apart from Eamonn). A short dialogue between R.B and Paul ensued ending with a respectfully acknowledging applause from the audience. Steve Martin, Davy Wilson, Gary Lough and Brian Treacy have all followed, who will be next to make the milestone and in the process be part of an incredible history?

by Keith McClure

To watch a video of the full race - Click Here