Sir Roger Bannister, the first person to run the sub-four minute mile, talks to Rob Bonnet on the same track in Oxford where he broke the record in 1954.
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Now on BBC News,
it's time for Extra Time.
Welcome. Following the recent death
of Sir Roger Bannister, we thought
you might like to seek for a second
time a special interview he gave the
programme in May 2000 and four. It
was recorder on the 50th anniversary
of the day when he became the first
man to run a sub four-minute mile.
We met on the same track in Oxford
where this historic achievement took
place. Welcome to the special
edition of extra time.
1954. High winds, cold.
need a bit more rain. It really is
Absolutely. It is
England, early May. Equinoctial
upsets in weather. A really stupid
time to try to break a record. But
there we are. John Landy was on the
way to Finland.
This was your great
The American confidence, he
was called the Kansas cowboy, and he
said, I'm going to do it.
him to it, and you beat John Landy.
Before we talk specifically about
that day here, 50 years ago, but the
four-minute mile into a context for
me. It was described by Landy is a
concrete wall, something that was
impossible to do.
Like a cement
wall. He had done 4.2 on six
occasions. Only 15 yards. We just
didn't seem to be able to get
through that. He was talking about
it being a physical barrier, but I
couldn't see that. Four minutes two,
under the conditions, it pace
judgement, you can break four
minutes. It was a psychological
But it was a barrier that
galvanised not only the British
public, but athletics fans around
They had been talking
about it for almost 100 years. Pas
voters did for point ten. Everything
was moving in that direction. It was
clear that somebody was going to do
it. Well, the Swedes did four
minutes 1.4. They were not involved
in the war. 1953... 1943.
flip-flopped six times.
They had the
crucial ingredient to break records,
which was several of them, all of
It was the era
of trying to recognise achievement.
That the point.
I think so. Britain
wasn't dead of the country, and I
did try to do it in 1953. I thought
that would be rather nice. The pace
judgement was not fast enough. The
three quarters was 3.05, and you
cannot do the last lap. It all had
to wait then until everything was
ready for May 19 54.
And it came to
it in a sense of a very
disappointing Olympics in 1952.
is why I did it, why I went on. I
had, my innocence, planned to win
the Olympic gold medal in Helsinki,
1500 metres, and my medical studies
were getting more and more demanding
and so I had planned to retire at
the end of story. I did so badly,
everyone was so disappointed, the
press said, you should have done
this and that, if only you had
listened to us, you would have won
it. The chances of winning an
Olympic title are always against
you. John Landy didn't win in
Melbourne, Ron Delany came through.
I suppose that is why spot -- sport
So you hatched a
Yes, we had run together for
years and the secret was to do the
three quarters mile within three
minutes flat, and training to be a
steeplechaser, he didn't have the
speed to go further than half a mile
and the first lap, I got a bit
impatient and I shouted, faster,
We're going to fast already?
I want to hear about the plans...
The plan was very simple. It
couldn't have been simpler. Chris
Brasher would run a mile and
Kristian away with takeover and he
would go on as long as he could and
then I would take over.
It is all
about pacing. As far as the
preparation was concerned, on the
day, when you look at how
professional athletes themselves
ready now for major championships,
with all due respect, your
preparations were pretty...
went to the medical school. I didn't
feel like doing much work -- Ltd. A
sharpened up my spikes. We ran on
very loose -- primitive. I think
they think the cinders were about...
Iran about four seconds slobber.
Rubbed a little graphite on the
spikes. So they would come in and
out neatly without collecting cinder
This is your medical school
in London, wasn't it?
Yes. And then
got a train, and as it happened,
when I was going, the coach to Crisp
ratio and then to Chris chat away
and then I joined the trio, and...
You bumped into him on the train?
Yes. I said, I reckoned at that time
it wasn't worth attempting, as even
if I'd exhorted myself in the
impossible weather and done or .1,
everyone would be disappointed and,
oh, he has failed.
Are you saying
this was the one and only
It was the first
opportunity that year, and John
Landy had just arrived in Finland.
He had finished the Australian
summer, our winter, and the Finns
had said, you know, they knew he was
looking at the door, and they said
come to Finland, they give you the
pasting you need, and there were
perfect tracks and the Finns were
also absolutely obsessed almost with
running, so it had to be done very
quickly, and that was why one would
normally think of trying to break a
record on a windy, wet, cold English
So you're right at Oxford
station with your coach, then you
went and had lunch with a friend...
The people I have stayed with when I
was earlier studying here, I had
left Oxford, and I had lunch with
the children and just tried to allow
my mind... The waiting is one of the
worst parts of athletics.
anticipation, fear. And you value
will never go through this again.
You say absolutely it isn't worth
this agony. And then the thought
was, well, will I get another
chance? Will Landy do it first?
Would you forgive yourself if you
missed this possible opportunity?
And eventually, I reckon about half
an hour before I was looking at a
flag on that church steeple, which
the flat was broken, but it will be
here on the sixth. I used that as a
And what was telling
It was telling me about half an
hour before, that things were
beginning to slacken and get a bit
less windy. So I thought, well,
let's do it. I hope the wind stays
down, you know, a gentle five
minutes, and then Chris Brasher did
a false start, which was a waste of
You must have been serious
Well, he is not usual to make
false starts in the mile. So then
Brasher leads off... He leads off
and I think he's going to slowly
because I suppose I have had a rest
for several days from running, and
so I shout, faster, faster, and he
takes no notice whatsoever. He said,
well, I thought I was probably doing
it at the right speed, and he said,
I couldn't go any faster anyway. So
he does a good first lap, 58, you
run the first 15 yards faster, you
sprint until you get a good
The Times were called out.
Everybody could hear the time. The
new settled down to what is a
four-minute mile pace, as closely as
you can, 60 seconds, and they did
the next lap in 60 seconds, so it
was a 1.5 8/2 mile.
You knew you
were on course at that time.
absolutely on course. He felt we
were slowing and I think, I said,
you know, whatever I did say to him,
Chris, come up, Chris chat away. And
then he took over. It is inevitable
that the third lap slows, you know,
it just happens in pretty well all
races. And Chris took me through the
three quarters mile in three minutes
point five. So we had slowed at the
last lap was, the third lap was 62,
and so I had to do the last lap in
59 and I was really trying to decide
what moment to overtake him. Because
it was a help, while he was the head
and gave the right speed, and if I
had overtaken him on the next two
last bend, I would have had to have
run wide and that would have been a
bit of total extra distance and I
didn't want to run more than 1760
yards. So I waited until he was
really just coming into the straight
and I could overtake him without
running any extra distance.
I had to... The last 100 yards or
The whole of the last corner,
bend, and the finishing straight, I
just didn't know whether my legs
were getting slower, although my
brain was telling them to very much
We are about ten yards
or so now from the line.
We are near
the line now.
As you reach this
point, what were you feeling is that
moment? You are about to...
feelings were that I was so close,
that I couldn't really believe I'd
failed, other stopwatches held the
answer and I had to wait, I couldn't
move everyone around, and your blood
pressure falls because of blood
vessels are rolled violated and
collapsed. I think about the time I
was recovering, I heard them making
the great announcement, which he
said he had rehearsed in the bath
the night before.
You know what it
was. Well, it was that he started
with three minutes, and that nobody
else heard anything...
there... It was and that he started
with three minutes, it was the
preamble, you know, everybody was
waiting, and he said the result is
number 41... Banister of Exeter and
Merton College in a time which,
subject to ratification, will be
track record, English record,
English native record, British
allcomers record, European record,
world record and then three.
was it. In the immediate aftermath.
The sense of achievement, your
parents were here as well, won't
I didn't ask them. They were
brought without my knowledge. No, I
suppose that we went off to London,
the BBC's sportsnight had just been
started and so I was on that, and we
went off and had dinner, friends,
partners, and we thought, well, we
might as well wait and see what the
newspaper said. So we went into a
nightclub until about two will clock
in the morning and we thought, well,
it does seem to be causing quite a
You had some cabaret in
the nightclub, is that right?
don't think I did. They said I sung
something, but it is inconceivable,
We left using time on
your hands on a nightclub on the
You have claimed
that, but I could not possibly
You certainly celebrated
the achievement. You had about two
hours sleep as I understand it that
night. The following day, busy
again, in London, at Oxford, back to
London, and the press by now were...
The three of us did have a bit of
time together and we climbed Harrow
Hill, not much of a hill, and we
look doubt that evening over London,
because he could see the lights, and
I remember a conversation with them,
they may not remember it, but what
should we do now? And of course, we
won't just thinking about athletics.
Which of course, was coming to an
end in one way or another, the
others went on longer, but what you
do? And for me, it was
I would go on and
do medicine. Let me take you forward
six weeks to mid June and Finland,
and Tokyo and -- Landi breaks
Are new here would do it, it was
questionable whether we get it here
before he did because we had shown
that he was physically capable,
probably stronger I was and he just
needed to have a decent pace in the
early part of the race.
it really, took it down the. -- took
Yes, that is 12 or
Yes, that is 12 or
Yes, that is 12 or
Yes, that is 12 or
whatever. As far as that was
whatever. As far as that was
concerned, your contacts with Landy
were not especially frequent, but he
sent congratulations after your
record and he sent him.
wonder whether there might not have
been some kind of professional
I was much more friendly
with him and actually got to know
him after the race in Vancouver. I
think before you race against a
major opponent, jealousy is not the
word, it's just you are a bit
circumspect. You are supposed to be
racing against them. They are, in a
metaphorical sense, the enemy. But
afterwards it didn't matter at all
and we have kept in touch, we see
one another every year and he is now
Governor of Victoria and on his way
to England now.
You have mentioned
Vancouver, why do we go there now?
This was another six weeks, it was
the Empire games and you arrived
some two weeks before the final and
you met Landy as soon as you arrived
and it then didn't see him again
until the race.
No, we were not
seeking each other out but we really
happened to coincide in our
training. I did most of my training
away from the track, he did those of
his on the track.
Well no, I ran on grass because by
then I could work as hard as I would
on the track and it was so much
easier and less strain on the
muscles, so I didn't regard track
running. This was clearly a big
deal. It was more important than the
Formula 1 and this is the race I was
And not just because it
was the centrepiece of the Empire
games but in the end because
athletics is about eating and not
Yes, and if Landy
had beaten me, I don't think the
four minute mile would have
mattered, he would have been the
Talk us through that.
It was a
very hot day, quite different from
the day in May. Conditions were good
and Landy ran off immediately.
And I thought he is too
fast, he will either break the world
record by five seconds or he will
slow down, in which case I will have
the advantage of. I decided that as
the early part of the race was so
fast, instead of starting a sprint
at 200 or something, I had to leave
it late and that was the moment when
I put the first in the.
That was the
strength of your game, a strong
finish. As you crossed the line, I
ask you in a sense to recapture the
moment, this was bigger than the
That was the first
time that two people had done at. I
would say the feeling was really,
relief. It could have gone badly and
in a sense it rather made up for
failure in Helsinki and I only got
one more race to go before retiring
and that race was the European race
and I think by then I was feeling
fairly confident that I could handle
that one. Release, you know, career
over and as I said in the diary as I
Let me conclude by
asking you a personal question. What
is your philosophy of running?
it in the new edition of the book
which I put 50 years ago, which I
didn't expect to return to.
Saying that they were something
about my description of my early
life which sort of rather inspire
them try to do things. The way I had
put it, I reflected on rereading
this book, that however ordinary
each of us may seem, we are all in
somewhere special and can do that
somewhere special and can do that
are extraordinary,. And when the
broad sweep of life is viewed,
sport, instinctive and physical,
illustrates a universal truth that
most of us find effort and struggled
deeply satisfying, harnessing and
almost primaeval instinct to fight
and to survive. I think that is what
I would say, but I don't believe
that running was really more than a
metaphor for other struggles and
everybody is trying to balloon to
the Atlantic and died 400 feet,
everybody has a was wanted to do
this and it is fine if you don't
risk your life doing it and you
don't risk other people 's lives
trying to, when you haven't done it.
You have talked and written also
that the freedom that running gives
Yes. Freedom of choice. When I
was chairman of the sports Council I
believed that every person, nearly
everybody, had some kind of
psychological link which made them
attuned to a certain activity, seem
more solitary, climbing mountains,
playing cricket. This range should
be explored by the young because at
the age of 13, 14, you don't know
what you are going to be best at.
Your body shape can change. I
believe that if they trying --a
choice of activities were wide
enough, you find something
irresistible and get involved at
about five years later he probably
achieve quite a lot of success and
you find you have grown up, you have
learned a lot. That is what I would
like to give as a message.
very much for joining us on this
addition of Extra Time.
In 2004 Extra Time's Rob Bonnet spoke to the late Sir Roger Bannister on the same track in Oxford where he first broke the sub-four minute mile record. On May the 6th 1954 25-year old Roger Bannister set out to break what had seemed an impenetrable barrier in athletics - to run the mile in less than four minutes. For decades, the prevailing thought in the sports community was that the feat was impossible and, even if it were accomplished, it would so overtax the body that death would result. Bannister proved them wrong crossing the finish line in three minutes 59.4 seconds.