Roger Bannister died last week, on March 3, in Oxford, England. “He banked his treasure in the hearts of his friends,” said a statement from his family.
It’s one of those names most of those born in this century would not recognize. Britain’s Roger Bannister was the first person to run a mile in four minutes. It happened on May 6, 1954 at the Iffley Road Track of the University of Oxford. The anticipation was incredible. There were many who believed that it was not possible for a human to do it. When the announcer read his time – three minutes, 59.4 seconds – to the crowd, the word “three” was the only part that was heard. The roar blanked out the rest. And the news circled the globe.
“It was a target,” Bannister later said. “University athletes had been trying for years and it just didn’t seem to be capable of being broken. There was a magic about four symmetrical laps of one minute each. It was just something that caught the public’s imagination.”
It was not a happy era. The cold war was in full throat, criminal convictions in Britain for homosexuality prompted the creation of a government study commission, the Irish Republican Army renewed its activities, and there were repeated air crashes in Britain.
Bannister’s achievement came at a good time.
A similar achievement came on July 23, 1989. Overnight news declared Laurent Fignon the winner of the Tour de France on the assumption that in the 15.5 miles still to run from Versailles to Paris, no human could close the 50-second gap between Mignon and second placer Greg LeMond of Washoe Valley, Nevada. “But LeMond will be content finishing second considering that he was almost dead 27 months ago when he was shot in a hunting accident,” wrote Salvatore Zanca of Associated Press.
LeMond would have to gain two seconds per kilometer on Fignon, He astonished television viewers around the world by finishing eight seconds ahead after biking the trial at an average 34 miles per hour, his second Tour win.
Such feats find their way into our pop culture. In an episode of “Lou Grant,” editor Grant told a young reporter about a later race Bannister ran against John Landy, another four-minute miler, at the Empire Games in Vancouver.
“What a match,” the editor said. “Got to be the best kind of competition. You both run full out and you both finish under four minutes.” When the reporter asked who won, Grant could not remember. But that wasn’t the point, he said: “It was a wonderful race.”
I looked it up. Bannister hit 3:58.8. Landy was just 0.8 behind him.
Bannister became an expert on the autonomic nervous system, writing and editing several books on the topic.
Dennis Myers is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.