Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Roger Bannister, Legendary Runner #2

Runner #2 will come as a shock to many but I will hopefully be able to dispatch most of the doubters. Roger Bannister will go down in history as the first man to break the four minute mile on May 6th, 1954 on the Iffley Road Track in Oxford. More than 50 years have past since Bannister's breakthrough, but the four minute mile is still quite an accomplishment for most distance runners.

The race to the first sub four minute mile started with Englishman Walter George. On August 23rd, 1886, in front of 30,000 spectators, George defeated William Cummings in a match race, setting a new world record of 4:12 3/4, which would stand for almost 30 years. Since, at the time, George was considered a professional, his record is not listed in the IAAF's mile world record list.

It wasn't until Paavo Nurmi ran 4:10.4 that George's record was officially surpassed. The record would go through an array of runners which included Jules Ladoumegue (4:09.2), Jack Lovelock (4:07.6), Glenn Cunningham (4:06.7) and Sydney Wooderson (4:06.4). The great Swedish duo of Arne Anndersson and Gundar Haegg lowered the record six more times with Haegg's time of 4:01.3 on July 17, 1945 being the last mark to set the stage for Bannister.

The book, The Perfect Mile (check out link below), depicts three men, Australia's John Landy, American Wes Santee and the young British doctor to be (Bannister) chasing history, to be the first under the magical mark. At the time, it was deemed physiologically damaging to any athlete that attempted to reach the goal. Many men had tried and failed as the goal became not just physiological but psychological as well.

Bannister stumbled along the way as he finished 4th in the 1952 Olympics 1500m. final(pictured to the right, courtesy of http://www.achievement.org). Being a medical student, Bannister had a minimum amount of time to train and to his dismay, they added a semifinal heat. With the added effort of an extra race, Bannister finished lower than predicted by the British press. Bannister's original plan was to win the 1500m. gold medal in 1952 and retire to concentrate on his medical career.

After much thought, Bannister decided to chase a new goal, a sub 4 minute mile. Coached by Franz Stampfl, Bannister picked up his training and set forth with his plan. Bannister has credited Haegg's training ideas as well as a more structured training plan for his improved running. With the news that Landy was on his way to Europe to make a record attempt, Bannister, at the urging of his coach, changed the timetable to break the record. In a meet between British AAA and Oxford University (picture of the start is pictured to the left courtesy of http://faculty.rmwc.edu/tmichalik), Bannister was paced by teammates Chris Chataway and Chris Basher during the first three laps before he took over with 300 yards to go. He strained forward, driving hard the rest of the way, until he collapsed in the arms of fans past the finish line.

With the crowd anxiously awaiting the time, the announcer brilliantly stated the following "Ladies and gentlemen, here is the result of event 9, the one-mile: 1st, No. 41, R.G. Bannister, Amateur Athletic Association and formerly of Exeter and Merton Colleges, Oxford, with a time which is a new meeting and track record, and which - subject to ratification - will be a new English Native, British National, All-Comers, European, British Empire, and World Record. The time was 3..." The crowd cheered, drowning the rest of the announcement.

Bannister's place in history will always be secure. What he should also be remembered for is the scientific way he approached his record attempt. The use of rabbits, to the dismay of many, changed the way our sport is today. No world record attempt in this day is done without the use of rabbits. To his credit, when asked if breaking the 4 minute mile was his biggest achievement, Bannister replied "“No, I rather saw the subsequent forty years of practicing as a neurologist and some of the new procedures I introduced as being more significant.”

Photo courtesy of http://www.theage.com.au

To read more about Sir Roger Bannister (Knighted in 1975), you can check out his autobiography (still in print after 50 years) as well as The Perfect Mile. Both are a fantastic reads.

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