Skip to main content
9th Jul, 2024, Alastair Aitken

The late, Mel Watman, to my mind the ‘Greatest’ athletics writer and previous. Editor of the old Athletics Weekly, that was not a monthly, said regarding the mile as an event. “No other athletic event has captured the public imagination to quite the same degree as the mile. Even men & women who could not tell a discus from a javelin are aware of the worth of a mile covered in 4 minutes to run 4 laps—developed a mystical quality over the years and even now, when the four-minute barrier has been broken hundreds of times the magic persists.” I feel BMC members would go along with that! 

Sometime before the special date in 1954, when the barrier was broken officially, for the first time Gunder Haegg & Arne Anderson from Sweden, who were disqualified in 1945 for professionalism got close to 4 minutes for the mile. Haegg’s fastest was 4:01.4 at Malmo on the 1st of July 1945 & Arne Anderson ran 4:01.6 on the 18th of July 1944. It appeared to me they were capable of a paced time below the magic 4 minutes.  

Sheffield miler, Ken Wood, four times the Emsley Carr winner, said he had run under 4 minutes on April 7th, 1954, but there were no official timekeepers present. (He eventually ran a sub-4 behind Derek Ibbotson when Derek broke the World mile record in 1957 with a time of 3:57.2).  

            It all came down to Sir Roger Bannister, the Oxford University medical student and future Neurosurgeon, to run in the right conditions, at Iffley road Oxford, on the 6th of May 1954.                                          Two ideal pacemakers Chris Brasher and Chris Chattaway, helped his quest to be the first person to break the 4-minute barrier. The laps were 57.5; 60.7; 62.3 and 58.9 and his total time was 3 minutes 59.4. seconds. He finished, having spent all his energies, falling into the arms of his coach, Franz Stampfl. Stampfl also, coached Brian Hewson, who, on the 28th of May 1955, in the British Games at the White City was 3rd in the mile in 3:59.8, the same time as Chris Chataway  who was 2nd but, behind one of the ‘quality’ Hungarians, Laszlo Tabori (coached by Mihaly Iglot)} who won in 3:59.0. . 

In those days, with the exception of fantastic heavy trainers, Emil Zatopek and Gordon Pirie (The latter beat top American miler at the time Wes Santee in the Whitec City, in the first ever Emsley Carr mile in 1953) -British middle & Long distance athletes in particular, did not train like they do these days.                           Chris Chataway, who also went on, to pace John Landsy in his attempt to be the next World mile record holder in 3:58.0 at Turku, on the 21st of June 1954.  Chris Chataway made some interesting observations, when I talked to him in the city, one lunch time “One liked to give the impression of effortless superiority that was rather fashionable at the time. I did smoke but one did not realize then how bad smoking was for you. I did not smoke all that many cigars., and If I had trained much more, I would have done better.’ The lon g season started when I paced Roger Bannister in his first 4-minute mile and by October I did my best 5000m (13:51.6 WR ahead of Kuts). Now I know the mistake I made. If I had known better, I would have done more training. I suppose one was frightened of getting stale. I am sure the mistake I made was not to train enough, and the fact that I did so badly in the Olympic of 1956” 

        Regarding Roger Bannister. I remember, that, it was in my first term, at Langley school in Norfolk.  

I was just 14 years old and, of course, had a passion for athletics even then but, when I was told Bannister had just run under four minutes by a senior, I thought, he was pulling my leg as, I was astonished at the fact at the time! 

 What sort of training did Bannister do apparently, according to George Smith Author of ‘All out for the Mile’  “Roger Banister never adopted seven days a week training routine. Two years of his athletic life, his average weekly training schedule comprised only of three sessions, each of an hour followed by not more than one race a fortnight” Besides the first sub-4minute mile Bannister, won the Empire Games mile in 3:58.8 from John Landy of Australia who ran 3:59.6. Roger Bannister also won the European 1500 in 1954 in 3:43.88 from Gunner Nielson of Denmark 3:44.4 and Stanislav Jungwirth Czechoslovakia 3:45.4 which showed Doctor Roger Bannister was also a fine competitor.  

 That concludes the first attempts at breaking 4-minute mile barrier or those that got close, before it.  

                      However, perhaps the most outstanding feature of sub-4-minute milers was John Walker of New Zealand, who won the 1976 Olympic 1500m in Montreal. He ran `129 sub 4-minute miles between 1973 & 1991. He was the first miler to break 3:50 for the mile. doing 3:49.4 on August 12th, 1975, in Gothenburg. He beat Filbert Bayi’s World record time off 3:51.0 that Bayi had achieved in May that year. Roger Bannister told me on the phone, around that time Bayii ran 3:51.0, “if Jim Ryun of the USA, who set the World record of 3:51.1 in 1967, had he run against Bayi, they would have done a time of around 3:46!”  However, the ‘Supreme competitor’ was Australian, Herb Elliott, who never lost a 1500/One mile race and. set World mile figures of 3:54.5 back in 1958. He would always rise to the occasion. He won the 1500 gold in the 1960 Rome Olympics, from Michel Jazy of France. The latter,  

 went on to run a World record of 3:53.6 in June 1956.  The One person I did not mention, who won 3 gold medals at the Olympics overall, was, Peter Snell of New Zealand.  Snell ran two-mile World records of 3:54.4 & 3:54.01 in 1962 & 1964, respectively. 

Here are the most recent World record holders over a mile Seb Coe 3:49.0 in 1979; Steve Ovett 3:48.8 in 1980; Seb Coe 3:48.53 in 1981; Steve Ovett 3:48.40 1981; Seb Coe 3:47.33 1981;                                  

Steve Cram 3:46.32 in 1985; 3:44.39 Noureddine Morceli 1993 and the latest to date 3:43.13 Hicham El Guerrouj 1999. The Norwegian Tokyo. Olympic 5000m winner Jacob Ingerbrigtsen, got close to El Guerrouj’s time with 3:43.73 on the 8th of September 2023, in the Prefontaine Classic in Oregon.