Roger Bannister: The fastest and finest - by a mile

It's 50 years since Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four-minute mile. The romance of his achievement will live on forever

On a damp, windy English May evening, an Oxford University medical student ran his way into history. His name was Roger Bannister and his achievement remains greater than an Olympic gold medal. Greater than anything else in sport, because the mile is magic, the defining test of speed, stamina and tactics. Despite the poor conditions, Bannister, by nature a nervous competitor, decided to make an attempt on a record that had attracted, exasperated and eluded many great runners: the four-minute mile.

By the time Bannister made his effort, on Thursday, May 6th, 1954, that target had become more of a barrier, an obstacle that had withstood the assault of by now mythic figures such as Paavo Nurmi, Jack Lovelock, Sydney Wooderson, Gunder Haegg and Arne Andersson. Even now, 50 years after Bannister's historic run on a soggy cinder track, his singular achievement retains a romance and allure all its own. It is the sporting equivalent of the first steps on the moon.

In our age, sport has become tainted by drug use, professionalism, tabloid scandals, petulant superstars and commercialism. Yet Dr Roger Gilbert Bannister, now 75 - neurologist, visionary, pioneering athlete, former master of Pembroke College, in Oxford, and dynamic former chairman of the British Sports Council, who spearheaded drug-testing in sport - is a symbol of the purity and heroic code that once governed major sports, particularly that most classic of all, athletics. Devised by the ancient Greeks, track and field has withstood corruption and upheaval to endure as the premier Olympic sport.

Bannister's world record has since been bettered 18 times by 13 athletes, including four other English men, among them the great Sebastian Coe, who was to set three world mile records. More than 2,000 runners from all over the world have recorded sub-four-minute miles. The current world figures, set by the Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj in 1999, represent an improvement of some 16 seconds in the intervening 45 years. Bannister held his world record for only 46 days, before losing it to the tenacious Australian John Landy.

But none of this matters, not even El Guerrouj's 3:43.13, because Bannister was the first to break the seductive four minutes, recording 3:59.4. His legend is secure. Half a century has elapsed since he hurled himself at a finishing tape of white string. How athletics has changed. There was no electronic beam, no grand prix razzmatazz, no flowers, no money, no sponsor's name. The race was timed manually by men wearing heavy overcoats and rain macs. A handful of spectators watched as Bannister and his pace-makers, Chris Chattaway of Oxford and Chris Brasher of Cambridge, also students, braved the gusty wind.

Light years removed from a packed stadium and an international field, that Thursday evening meeting was fairly minor: Oxford University versus the British Amateur Athletic Association (AAA) on the college track. Post-war Britain still coping with rationing and poor diets. Bannister, Chattaway and Brasher were competing for the AAA's selection.

Hours earlier, back in London, Bannister had arrived, as usual, at St Mary's Hospital, in west London, where he was a student doctor. At about 11 a.m. he went to the hospital laboratory to sharpen his spikes on a grindstone. The running shoes in those days had long, sharp spikes in the soles, long since replaced by blunter needle or brush spikes.

Still morning, but his stomach was probably already churning with nerves at the thought of the record attempt. More than sharpening his spikes, he probably wanted to be alone to ponder, possibly fret, about that evening's race. On cue, the usual someone with an opinion walked into the lab, noticed his running shoes and the grindstone and remarked to Bannister,: "You don't really think that's going to make any difference, do you?" It probably didn't, but athletes acquire pre-race routines. He decided to set off for Oxford on an early train, alone, intending to think. Many things set Bannister apart. He never had a coach. His training sessions, always on grass, seldom exceeded 30 minutes a day. Not because he was cavalier or casual but because, as a medical student, he didn't have time. He didn't race very often and was unsuited to heats, semi-final and finals; two races was enough.

Relaxation, which he needed, mentally and physically, was provided by hillwalking and mountain-climbing. Running was a hobby, not a blood quest. He was as intrigued by the science of athletics, by its mechanics, the potential of the human body, as much as he was by competition. For him, the brain held the key Nor had he been an outstanding schoolboy athlete. He was more of a youth looking for a sport and was initially a reluctant cross-country runner who came to enjoy the mud, the cold and the sheer thrill of running cross-country. The same harrier, or cross-country tradition, that would later produce the likes of Coe also shaped Bannister. Unlike most top athletes, his entire career was contained within his university years.

Aged 17, in October 1946, Bannister ran his first mile in 4:50. By March, he had improved to 4:30. Half a dozen major races and two years later, in June 1949, he was down to 4:11 when running in the US for an Oxford-Cambridge team against Cornell and Princeton. December 1950 saw him in New Zealand, winning the mile in 4:09.9 in the Centennial Games. A few months later, in April 1951, he took the Benjamin Franklin Mile in Philadelphia in 4:08.3 before a crowd of 40,000 spectators. At this point, he was three years away from, but also three years closer to, his goal. In between would come the disappointment of his fourth place in the 1952 Olympic 1,500 metres final in Helsinki, defeated probably by having to run a semi-final.

Other things also set him apart. Although he had been selected at 18 - by then, he was president of Oxford University Athletic Club - to compete for Britain in the 1948 Olympics, Bannister declined the opportunity, feeling he was not yet ready for Olympic competition. Even at that early age, it was obvious Bannister was different, very deliberate, an intellectual who listened to his body rather than fought it.

When I interviewed him in Oxford 10 years ago, on the eve of the 40th anniversary of his sub-four-minute mile, he was far from nostalgic. Here is a man who does not live in the past. Still rangy, long faced, he had the polite impatience of the very clever, very busy and very English. His no-nonsense but enthusiastic manner is very similar to that of another great Englishman, David Attenborough. Athletics has remained a life-long passion; he has given much to his sport and believes a 3:30.00 mile is possible.

The appeal of the mile for him lies, he told me, in "the beauty, the symmetry, the logic of it. The excitement is sustained, the way in which tactics decide it". Although he retired from competition after winning the European 1500 metres on August 29th, 1954, in 3:43.8, he continued running until he was 45, when a car accident damaged his ankle.

Great rivalries produce great champions such as Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram - or, in an earlier era, the Swedes Haegg and Andersson. For Bannister, John Landy was that special rival. The Australian was very different. He trained twice a day, was openly obsessive and raced from the front to wear down his rivals. As early as December 1952, Landy, who had been eliminated in his Olympic 1500-metres heat, behind Bannister, who went on to fourth in the final, had made public his pursuit of the sub-four-minute mile by posting 4:02.10.

About six weeks after Bannister's run, on June 21st, Landy bettered the record. When the pair met later that summer in the Empire Games mile final in Vancouver, Landy raced off, determined to run the finish out of Bannister. A huge gap opened, but the Englishman clawed back. Coming off the final bend Landy glanced overhis shoulder, and for Bannister "this tiny act of his held great significance and gave me confidence. In two strides I was past him". Bannister won by five yards, in 3:58.8.

Two photographs of 50 years ago provide the world with its images of Bannister the athlete. One (above) shows him, head and arms thrown back, eyes closed and mouth open, at the finish line. The other, taken immediately after, catches him in a state of collapse. He was quite a good-looking fellow, was six feet one and a half inches tall and about 11 stone and had a strong physique and a good stride. He could flow, had a finishing burst and often ran 800 metres (then 880 yards) and 400 metres (440 yards) for speed.

In his articulate, well-observed and informative memoir, The First Four Minutes, published in 1955 and now reissued, Bannister describes the final lap of his Oxford run. "Chataway led round the next bend and then I pounced past him at the beginning of the back straight, 300 yards from the finish. I had a moment of mixed joy and anguish, when my mind took over. It raced well ahead of my body and drew my body compellingly forward. I felt that the moment of a lifetime had come." It had.

Sport creates immortals; between Roger Bannister and Hicham El Guerrouji stand peers such as Landy, Derek Ibbotson, Herb Elliott, Peter Snell, Michel Jazy, Jim Ryun, Filbert Bayi, John Walker, Coe, Ovett, Cram and Nouredine Morceli. Who was the greatest? Impossible to say, but Bannister was the first.

Eileen Battersby

Eileen Battersby

The late Eileen Battersby was the former literary correspondent of The Irish Times