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Roger Bannister’s Dream Mile turns 50

On May 6, 1954, the Englishman set one of the most prominent world records

2004-05-06

‘Be proud to be an Englishman’ was one of the papers’ headlines

When on that infamous May 6, 1954, Norris McWhirter announced the results on Iffley Road in Oxford, the spectators only heard the first digit: 3. “I am certain that not a single person was able to understand the 59.4 seconds. The crowd just wanted to hear the three,“ said McWhirter in an interview on BBC. More than 1,000 spectators turned the small stadium that is part of Oxford University into a madhouse. They had become witnesses to one of the most noteworthy and prominent track world records of all time—the dream mile. The Englishman Roger Bannister was the first one to run the exactly 1,609.3 metre long distance under four minutes: a time of 3:59,4 minutes was stopped.

People involved in athletics had been talking about the dream mile for almost 20 years—it was just a question when and who the first person would be. “The four-minute-mile had something special, something magical about it. It was its symmetry,“ declared Norris McWhirter, who, by the way, is also one of the founders of the Guinness Book of World Records. One mile is a little bit more than four rounds on the track. The four minutes fits it perfectly. Norris McWhirter is no longer around to experience today’s (Thursday) 50-year anniversary of the dream mile. He died recently of a heart attack while playing tennis.

Another important companion of Roger Bannister passed away a little over a year ago: Chris Brasher. The later Olympic gold medallist in the 3000m (1956) and founder of the London Marathon was the first pace maker on that notorious 6th of May. Despite the windy and rainy weather, the then 25-year-old Roger Bannister had his mind set on trying to set the world record. He was running out of time. The Australian, John Landy, especially appeared to be capable of breaking the four-minute-mark. The tension before the race was so great that Brasher first caused a false start. After the second attempt, he led his friend Bannister exactly according to plan to the 1000m mark. Then Chris Chataway took over the leader role for another 350 metres before Bannister stormed off to his dream time.

The athletics author Heinz Vogel wrote in his volume “Record Breakers in Track and Field“: After year-long discussions for, against, and about the ’dream mile’, it hit like a bomb all over the world. The headlines in the leading London papers read ‘An English victory over the world,’ or ‘Be proud to be an Englishman’. At a meeting of the honourable Oxford Union Society, a motion was made to interrupt the meeting for 3:59.4 minutes to honour Bannister’s record. The famous Swede, Gunder Hägg, who himself was a great mile runner in the period from 1942 and 1946 and holder of the world record up to that May 6, 1954 (4:01.3 minutes) said: “I was convinced that this intelligent Brit would be the first to run a time under four minutes.” At the time, Roger Bannister was studying medicine at Oxford and later worked as a neurologist.

”Back then, the dream time was practically waiting to be run. I was at the right place at the right time and capable of doing it,” Roger Bannister told the news agency AP. “My race became a symbol for taking on a challenge. I like to look at this world record as a metaphor not only for sport, but for life and all of its challenges.”

In honour of the anniversary, a sport fest is being celebrated today on Iffley Road in Oxford. Roger Bannister, now a spectator, will be the centre of attention. At 6 p.m., at exactly the same time as 50 years ago, the starting gun will send off the international field on a mile race. Today, the four minutes will not pose a hurdle in Oxford.


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