The Miracle Mile at Vancouver

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In a crowd, neither man would have been singled out as an athlete. Yet on May 6, 1954, British medical student Roger Bannister made history by becoming the first person to break the coveted four-minute mile at 3:59.4. The following mouth, Australian John Landy set a new world’s record at 3:58.0. Seven weeks later, Bannister would have a chance to reclaim the record against seven other runners at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver.

Scores of news photographers and 32,000 fans filled the newly constructed 2-million dollar Empire Stadium to witness the “Duel of the Four-Minute Men”. Many photos were taken of Bannister and Landy on the track but only one, that of Mark Kauffman (Sports Illustrated) entered the annals of history. Bannister was lagging the entire time but he was known for his last-minute kick. Kauffman captured this split second as Bannister shot into the lead, tearing right into the camera.

Bannister won with 3:58.8 and Landy also broke the four-minute mile at 3:59.6. Kauffman’s picture appeared in the led story of Volume 1, Number 1 of the new magazine, Sports Illustrated, August 16, 1954. Another Kauffman photo of Bannister at Vancouver race appeared, this time on the cover, in Sports Illustrated when the magazine named Bannister ‘the Sportsman of the Year’.

Four Minute Mile

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Numerous people out-performing Roger Bannister and setting more spectacular records didn’t prevent the Forbes Magazine to call Bannister’s breaking the four-minute mile the greatest athletic achievement.

Bannister was a top mile-runner and won two British championships already but on May 6, 1954, as he crossed the finish line of Oxford’s Iffley Road track in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds, Roger G. Bannister entered the history books at the first person recorded to run a sub-four-minute mile. Running for the Amateur Athletic Association against his alma mater, Oxford, 25-year old medical student Bannister could hardly see straight as he competed his run under unfavorable conditions. It had been windy and raining; wind was blowing across the track as the mile race began.

By 1954, it was expected that the four-minute mile would be broken before the year was out. So, as soon as the first part of his score was announced–“three minutes…”–the crowd erupted in pandemonium. Central Press’ Norman Potter captured the moment. At the end of the year, Bannister would retire from athletic competition to pursue his medical career and in 1955 recounted his experiences in the book The Four Minute Mile. He later earned a medical degree from Oxford and became a neurologist. In 1975, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.

His world record in the mile did not stand long. John Landy, who had come within three seconds of the four-minute mark six times previously–would break Bannister’s record with a 3 minute 58 second finish only six weeks later. ‘Four minute mile’ itself became an obsolete term–routinely accomplished by top international runners nowadays and the coming of the metric-system based races rendered it one for the history books.