Sir Roger Bannister, First Athlete to Break 4-Minute Mile, Dies at 88
On the morning of May 6, 1954, a Thursday, Roger Bannister, 25, a medical student in London, worked his
usual shift at St. Mary’s Hospital and took an early afternoon train to Oxford. He had lunch with some old
friends, then met a couple of his track teammates, Christopher Chataway and Chris Brasher. As members
of an amateur all-star team, they were preparing to run against Oxford University.
About 1,200 people showed up at Oxford’s unprepossessing Iffley Road track to watch, and though the day
was blustery and damp — inauspicious conditions for a record-setting effort — a record is what they saw.
Paced by Chataway and Brasher and powered by an explosive kick, his signature, Bannister ran a mile in
under four minutes — 3:59.4, to be exact — becoming the first man ever to do so, breaking through a
mystical barrier and creating a seminal moment in sports history.
Bannister’s feat was trumpeted on front pages around the world. He had reached “one of man’s hitherto
unattainable goals,” The New York Times declared. His name, like those of Babe Ruth, Bobby Jones and
Jesse Owens, became synonymous with singular athletic achievement.
Then, astonishingly — at least from the vantage point of the 21st century — Bannister, at the height of
his athletic career, retired from competitive running later that year, to concentrate on medicine.
“Now that I am taking up a hospital appointment,” he said in an address to the English Sportswriters
Association that December, “I shall have to give up international athletics. I shall not have sufficient
time to put up a first-class performance. There would be little satisfaction for me in a second-rate
performance, and it would be wrong to give one when representing my country.”
His record-setting feat would be surpassed many times. Runners in the next decades would be faster,
stronger, better-equipped, better-trained and able to devote much of their time to the pursuit while
benefiting from advances in sports science. But their later success did not dim the significance of
Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile on May 6, 1954