His 1955 memoir — called, of course, “The Four Minute Mile” — amounted to a portrait of the athlete as a young artist. In a typically analytic and introspective passage, he described the moment at which a runner decides to break from the pack and take the lead:
“The decision to ‘break away’ results from a mixture of confidence and lack of it. The ‘breaker’ is confident to the extent that he suddenly decides the speed has become slower than he can himself sustain to the finish. Hence he can accelerate suddenly and maintain his new speed to the tape. But he also lacks confidence, feeling that unless he makes a move now, everyone else will do so and he will be left standing.”
Roger Gilbert Bannister was born on March 23, 1929, in the London suburb of Harrow. His father, a civil servant, had been a runner, of sorts; he won his school mile, Bannister wrote in his memoir, “and promptly fainted afterwards — as so many runners did in those days.” Young Roger ran, too, both for the thrill of it, he wrote, and out of fear, to steer clear of bullies and in response to air-raid sirens.
“I imagined bombs and machine guns raining on me if I didn’t go my fastest,” he wrote. “Was this a little of the feeling I have now when I shoot into the lead before the last bend and am afraid of a challenge down the finishing straight? To move into the lead means making an attack requiring fierceness and confidence, but fear must play some part in the last stage, when no relaxation is possible and all discretion is thrown to the winds.”
After his family had been evacuated to the city of Bath, he earned acceptance at school by winning cross-country races. When he returned to London, however, his school there prized sports like rowing and rugby above running, and his racing career stalled until he entered Oxford University, where, at 17, he was introduced to spiked shoes and ran his first mile in 4:53.
By 1952, he was among England’s leading hopes for a gold medal at the Helsinki Olympic Games, but at the last minute, because of the large number of entrants, officials added a semifinal between the qualifying heat and the finals of the 1,500-meter competition. The extra race threw off the timing of Bannister’s regimen of exertion and recovery, and left him depleted. He finished fourth. The sting and shame of the defeat motivated the rest of his running career.
In 1954, Bannister met Moyra Jacobsson, a painter and the daughter of Per Jacobsson, the Swedish economist who became managing director of the International Monetary Fund. They married the next year. As Bannister liked to point out, she didn’t really understand what this running business was all about.
“For a time,” he said, “my wife thought I had run four miles in one minute.”
She survives him, as do two sons, Clive and Thurstan; and two daughters, Erin and Charlotte.
As enduring as it has been in the history of sport, Bannister’s record was, in fact, a fleeting one. On June 21, 1954, just weeks after his breakthrough, John Landy lowered the world record to 3:58 and set the stage for an epic encounter between the two men at the Empire Games in Vancouver, British Columbia.
On Aug. 7, before 35,000 spectators, in a race that quickly came to be known as both the “Mile of the Century” and the “Miracle Mile,” Landy took an early lead but was chased down on the final lap by Bannister. Both men broke four minutes, with Bannister’s winning time, 3:58.8, being his personal best.
Landy said afterward, “When I looked ’round in the final back straight and he was still with me, I knew it was curtains.”
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