Athletics: Day that turned out fine for Bannister: Tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of the four-minute mile. Mike Rowbottom tells the story of a historic race

Click to follow
THE DATE of 6 May, 1954, forever laden with historic athletic achievement, might have remained ordinary. Forty years on from Roger - now Sir Roger - Bannister's enormous achievement of breaking four minutes for the mile, we see the event as inevitable. But the day itself was one of fluctuating doubt and hope for him as he considered whether to make his supreme effort in the rain and wind.

He knew his great Australian rival, John Landy, who had reached 4min 03sec five times, was preparing in Finland for a further attempt to break through the 'wall' of four minutes. The Thursday afternoon match between the AAA and

Oxford University, where his AAA team-mates, Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway, were ready to pace him, was the first, and he felt, best opportunity to beat Landy to it.

In mid-morning, Bannister sharpened his spikes on a grindstone in the laboratory at St Mary's Hospital, where he was studying medicine. He recalled that a passer- by said: 'You don't think that's going to make any difference, do you?' Bannister certainly did. The spikes, made specially for him under the guidance of a climber and fell-walker, Eustace Thomas of Manchester, needed to be sharp. 'If they had collected a lot of sticky ash it might have made a difference of two or three yards,' he said.

Bannister decided to travel up to Oxford alone, early, to collect his thoughts. When he opened the carriage door, there was his coach, Franz Stampfl. 'It was a piece of good fortune,' Bannister says. 'It enabled me to think through the problem of what the odds were on getting under four minutes on what was a bad day in terms of weather.

'I knew that I could leave it until half an hour before the start before saying yes or no. Franz told me I could easily do 3:56 in good weather, so the record was possible even in the wind. He said: 'If you forego this chance, would you ever forgive yourself?' It was a very powerful argument. I have always believed you have to take your chances in life.'

Bannister was met at the station by an old friend from Oxford, Charles Wenden, and walked around the track with him - 'the wind was almost galeforce' - before driving to Wenden's house for lunch with his young family. The domestic routine calmed and distracted him.

Later, he called in on Chataway, who stretched out on a window-seat as the sun began to shine. 'Chris smiled and said, just as I knew he would, 'The day could be a lot worse, couldn't it?' '

As the small crowd waited to see whether the attempt would be on, Bannister stood inside the changing- room trying to judge whether the weather was getting worse and - by his own admission - irritating his two friends. 'I was watching the flag of St George on the Iffley Road church and I saw that it was not standing out.'

The decision was made, by Bannister alone. He set out towards his destiny. There was a false start, which made him feel anxious that the precious lull was being wasted. Photographs taken at the quarter- mile mark show the St George's flag standing out once again in front of a dark sky - but by then Bannister was running effortlessly. 'My legs seemed to meet no resistance at all.'

He shouted to Brasher, who led through the first lap in a sensible 57.5sec, to go faster. 'At one and a half laps I was still worrying about the pace. A voice shouting 'relax' penetrated to me above the noise of the crowd. I learned afterwards that it was Stampfl's'

The half-mile passed in 1:58, and round the next bend, Chataway took over from Brasher. Three-quarters of a mile was reached in 3:00.7. A 59- second last lap was required. The

effort for Bannister was still 'barely perceptible' as he moved past Chataway 300 yards from the finish.

'I felt that the moment of a lifetime had come,' he wrote in his book, The First Four Minutes. 'The world seemed to stand still, or did not exist. The only reality was the next 200 yards of track under my feet. The tape meant finality - extinction perhaps. I felt at that moment it was my chance to do one thing supremely well.'

The work Bannister had done under Stampfl's direction, building up his leg muscles, allowed him to sustain his finishing drive as never before. With five yards to go, he felt the tape was receding.

'The faint line of the finish tape stood ahead as a haven of peace after the struggle . . . I leapt at the tape like a man taking his last spring to save himself from the chasm that threatens to engulf him.'

And Norris McWhirter looked at his stopwatch and made that announcement, which was overwhelmed by acclaim which has continued to this day. 'Result of the one mile: time, three minutes . . .'

(Photograph omitted)