Roger Shakeshaft (Lincoln, 1953) shares unique memories of watching the four-minute mile record being set at the Iffley Road Track in 1954.

Roger Bannister collapsing after breaking the 4 minute mile record, at the Iffley Road Sports Track, 1954  
Sir Roger Bannister collapsing after breaking the four-minute mile record at the Iffley Road Sports Track

by Roger Shakeshaft

World records in track and field events have provoked varying levels of interest with the general public over the past century or so. Some have an arithmetic drive like running 100 yards, or later 100 metres in under 10 seconds, but nothing has equalled the challenge of running a mile in under four minutes. The explanation is relatively simple. Until the 1960s most tracks in the UK and the Empire/Commonwealth (and parts of the US) were measured in Imperial units. The length was 440 yards and the majority of races were conducted in fractions or multiples of this unit. The Blue Riband was always the mile – four circuits – 1760 yards. In the decade before the war the world record stood at a few seconds over 4 minutes. In fact a Swede, Gunter Haegg ran a mile in 4min 1.2 sec in 1945 (Sweden, of course, not burdened with the pressures of total war). It was clear that a 4-minute mile was a feasible target, and what’s more, easily understandable – four circuits at 60 seconds each!

It is a comment on the debilitating legacy of the war that it was not until the early 1950s that the 4-minute mile was back on the agenda. The race began in earnest after the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki. There were three men with this trophy in their sights: Wes Santee from the US, John Landy an Australian and Roger Bannister, a post-graduate Oxford medical student. No one was better qualified for the task than Bannister. He was a competent middle distance runner all his adult life; he ran longer distances to build up his stamina, he also competed in half miles and the occasional three-quarter mile to improve his speed. He came fourth in the 1500 metres in the Helsinki Olympics. His medical background helped him in understanding the mechanics of the human body in relation to distance running and he had as his coach Franz Stampfl, whose reputation at the time was second to none.


Bannister crossing the line at Iffley, having run at approximately 15 miles per hour to finish in under four minutes

In the 1953 season (and the following months of 1954 in the Southern Hemisphere) the mile was run in 4min 3sec, or less, eight times. The expectation amongst athletics fans was at fever pitch. The first fixture of the 1954 season was the traditional meeting between Oxford University Athletic Club (OUAC) and the Amateur Athletic Association (AAA) at the Iffley Road Athletic Ground on the 6th of May.

It was common knowledge that a serious attempt would be made to break the 4-minute barrier at that meeting. There were three prerequisites that had to be met first, however. It had to be a bone fide race. There had to be a detailed plan in the running schedule. The weather had to be favourable. The last item is in the lap of the gods; the second item was within the competence of the team of runners, but the first item gave cause for jitters amongst the athletics establishment. We must look back to the previous June for an explanation. The Surrey schools were holding their annual athletics meeting at Motspur Park. Friends of Bannister persuaded the organisers, at short notice, to include a special ‘Invitation Mile Race’ in the programme. Bannister’s collaborators were Don MacMillan, an Australian miler and Chris Brasher, an old friend. MacMillan led for two and a half laps, while Brasher jogged round until Bannister was about to lap him! At this stage Brasher broke into a sprint and paced Bannister for another lap before dropping out. Bannister was in top form and recorded a time of 4 min 2sec – the world’s third fastest ever. This would qualify for a British record. But the British Athletics Board, not unexpectedly, would not ratify it. They quoted the secrecy, the inappropriate inclusion of an ‘Invitation Race’ and the unorthodox behaviour of Chris Brasher. In retrospect it was a great relief that the four-minute barrier was not broken! 

RogerThere could be no repeat of the funny business if Bannister was to stand a chance. The AAA presented a strong team of four runners – Roger Bannister, Chris Chataway, Chris Brasher and W. Hulatt. The reason for the inclusion of Hulatt is not clear. Rumour had it that the team was too heavily Oxbridge/Public School and an input of ‘Northern Grit’ would give the event more authenticity – oh dear! Now look at the Oxford team. Dole, Gordon and Miller were strong competitors for the University. Due to an unfortunate lapse in communication, Nigel Miller (a contemporary of mine at Shrewsbury) was not informed beforehand of his inclusion in the team. He, like many others turns up at the gate, pays his sixpence for a programme and is aghast at seeing his name down for the mile. A frantic scrabble ensues for spare kit and spikes – to no avail and his name is officially scratched from the list. This affects the ratio of competitors for the mile; four for the AAA, two for OUAC. Considering the sensitivity, after the Motspur Park debacle, in retrospect, Oxford should have abstracted a runner entered for the two miles race, later in the evening, to make up the number for this prestigious race.

The weather was going to be a problem. It was a cold May evening and an examination of images from that gathering reveals raincoats, scarves and peaked caps. But more than that, it was windy. This did not put off 1,000 or 2,000 spectators (whichever version is to be believed – I go for the former) who flocked to the Iffley Road track late that afternoon. Nor so the bulk of the London dailies’ press; they decided that conditions would make a record attempt almost impossible and most of them hopped into their cars before the start of the meeting, and retreated to the capital. All that was left were Associated Press photographer Dennis Evans, local photographers from The Oxford Mail and Cherwell and a young apprentice photographer Norman Potter for the Central Press Agency. This is why there is scant variety in the images preserved from that day. We must, though, be grateful to the team from the BBC who set up the rostrum camera in the centre of the track. It would have been too much trouble to dismantle the equipment, whatever the weather. As a result, a precious archive was created. 

The plan for the race was simple. Brasher would pace Bannister for the first two laps at an even 60 seconds each. Chataway would take over the pacing for the third lap to about three minutes and then Bannister was on his own. This only left the weather – particularly the wind. Crucial to a decision was the flag of St George (symbolic for such an English occasion) flying from the tower of the parish church across the road. While the flag was horizontal the plan was off – when it drooped the plan was on! There are varying versions as to when the actual decision was made; it is sufficient to note that at the start the flag was completely limp.

 I now enter subjective mode. Brian and I paid our sixpence (2.5p) at the gate in return for the precious programme. I must repeat that the attempt at the mile record was widely advertised and everyone present that evening was hyped up with eager anticipation. We elected to sit on a raised knoll above the last bend. From here we were able to view the drama beneath us as it unfolded.

BannisterOn the dot of six the starter gun went off – a false start – back again – don’t panic – time to re-set the stopwatches. The tension all over the ground was palpable. Bang! And they’re off. To great relief, everything went to plan. The lap times were broadcast and Brasher kept to the 60 seconds schedule. Chataway slips into the lead for the third lap and maintains the even pace. When the time at three-quarters of a mile was announced at a smidgen over three minutes, there was a collective experience of euphoria from those present; in a split second the arithmetic of ‘three plus one equals four’ kicks in and the crowd erupted with frenzied cheering. Chataway exceeded himself by pushing another 150 yards before moving out to allow Bannister to take on the ultimate challenge. Not cheering though was Franz Stampfl. He was crouched below me, stopwatch in hand, at the 1500 metres mark (120 yards short of the mile), to register the metric time (3 min 43.0 sec – a world best). He had the European Games later in the year in his sights. Bannister’s massive stride did not falter until he bust the tape. Chataway comes a creditable second and Hulatt collects the third scoring point. The two Oxford men follow. There is no mention on my programme of Brasher. It is to be hoped, to this day, that he crossed the line somehow even if he had to push his way through a crowd of judges, timekeepers and well-wishers – there were no marshals in those days to ‘keep the fans off the pitch’.

There was an agonising, but understandable, wait before the result was announced. This task was assigned to Norris McWhirter. Where did he come from? A glance at the programme reveals that he was running anchor in the last event of the day – the 4 x 110 yards Relay. He and his brother Ross had launched, earlier that year, what was to be the best-selling Guinness Book of Records. He was not going to pass up on this opportunity to be involved in, potentially, the ‘Record of the Century’.

For those of us who remember that evening, the content of his announcement is indelibly printed in our minds. “Event 9. One Mile. First; R.G. Bannister (AAA) with a time which is a Ground Record, a British Record, a British All-Comer’s Record, a European Record, a British Empire Record and a World Record of three...” here another bit of basic arithmetic kicks in of ‘four minus one is three’ and nothing more is heard from the worthy Mr McWhirter as he is drowned out with cheering brought on by more collective euphoria. I know it was only six-tenths of a second under four minutes, but on so slender a margin hung so much rapture for those fortunate to be at Iffley Road that day.

On such an illustrious day of athletics, it is only right to mention other notable achievements. At about ten to six, a Ground, British National and Empire Record was set by Mark Pharaoh of the AAA in the Discus of 163 feet, but his triumph was to be overshadowed by an event 15 minutes down the line. In the Javelin, a Ground Record was set by Wilfred Kretzschmar for the University of 214 feet. Although they fielded a strong team, not all the events were won by the AAA. Ian Boyd took the half mile in 1 m 54.7 s. Derek Johnson, a man of enormous stamina, ran the 220 yards to win in 22.4 sec and half an hour later returned a time of 48.0 sec for the quarter mile which was a Ground Record and only a tenth of a second outside the British National Record. Johnson was to achieve fame in the 1956 Olympic Games at Melbourne by being pipped at the post for a Silver Medal in the 800 metres. The whole fixture covered just over two hours. It is difficult to imagine a more action-packed session for Athletics fans. And tremendous value for money! The only expenditure was the sixpence (equivalent to about £1 in 2015 terms) in exchange for a programme. There was no snack bar or equivalent at which to spend any more cash! 


Bannister celebrating his record sixty years later at Exeter College

Bannister’s World Record was soon to be challenged. His rival, John Landy flew from Australia for Europe’s summer season. The venue was at Turku in Finland in June. In the true spirit of amateur sportsmanship, Chris Chataway agreed to run in the same race as a pacemaker. It was, one assumes, run on a metric track necessitating a starting line 9.5 metres behind the metric one. This, to my mind, takes some of the gloss from a quarter mile circuit, but the runners must go to the track, not the other way round. By all accounts the race was straightforward. Chataway did what was expected from him, and Landy, who was in top form, crossed the line at 3 min 58 sec, knocking 1.6 seconds off Bannister’s Oxford time. In a way, no one was really surprised; Bannister sent his congratulations, the flood gate had been opened and, at the time of writing, over 2,000 sub 4-minute miles have been run.

This was to be Bannister’s last season as a competitive runner. Two international events shaped the end of his career. In early August the Empire Games (as they were still called) in Vancouver, Canada, followed by the European Games in Berne, Switzerland. 

The one-mile race in Vancouver set Bannister against Landy for the first, and only, time. In reality, it was a two man race with each man seeking to prove dominance. The race was simple to describe. Landy, a natural front-runner in competition, led for the greater part; at the last bend of the fourth lap, two questions are to be asked. For Landy; ’how far behind is Bannister?’ For Bannister; ‘when do I strike past Landy?’ Landy turns his head to the left hoping to find his opponent at a distance, but his answer is ‘too close.’ For Bannister, sensing indecision in this gesture, his answer is ‘now.’ Bannister surges past him and creates a two stride lead which he maintains to the tape. His time is just short of Landy’s World Record. But a record was established in that this was the first time two men had run under four minutes!

The Berne race offered a totally different context and eleven runners, each a potential winner. Bannister vividly describes every moment of the 1500 metres final in his book – jostling, elbows, pushing – it was more like the Grand National! In fact one competitor fell and had to drop out. The tactics were: don’t get boxed in, make sure you are well placed to move on to a better place from which to strike for home at the precise moment. Bannister’s planning and tactics were perfect. He won by a couple of metres, but in a time slower than Stampfl clocked at Oxford. 

 If the Berne race was the Grand National, then the Oxford race was like a team of Tour de France cyclists, cosseting and pacing their leader, to release him for the line near the end. 

Bannister had completed his Annus Mirabilis and moved on into an illustrious career in Medicine and Academia. Winston

Sir Roger Bannister in his annus mirabilis, 1954, meeting Sir Winston Churchill 

In retrospect the Oxford mile record symbolised the passing of an age in all types of amateur sports – raincoats, trilbies, cloth caps, scarves and the chief timekeeper with a pipe in his mouth! It was a halcyon period, particularly in amateur athletics, but also other sports, unfettered by aggressive competition, doping scandals, celebrity for the sake of celebrity or the obscene wealth that comes with  professional sport.

Dedicated to the memory of Brian Southam (d. 2010) who was with me that evening in May 1954. 

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By Bill Robbins

One slight but significant amendment to McWhirter's announcement of the result: "........with a time which, subject to ratification, is a.............."

By Melville Guest

An excellent article! Good to see such a fine picture of Sir Roger at Exeter on 6 May 2014 where he enjoyed a celebratory lunch. Worth adding that he showed exemplary stamina that same evening by coming to Vincent's Club where he and others, including Chataway, had repaired to celebrate the evening of his great feat. Last year he was there to witness the presentation by the Vice-Chancellor of the first Vincent's scholarships and bursaries to a small number of outstanding scholar athletes.

By Irene Bainbridg...

Thank you for this excellent article. It brought back a memory of my first term, cycling at great pace back to college, down the Iffley Road , with resounding cheering in my ears. It was not long before I learned the reason for it !

By Christopher Armitage

I can vouch for the accuracy in Roger Shakeshaft's essay "I Watched the Four-minute Mile" because I too was there, taking time out from cramming for Schools. My account is on page 139 in HALL: Memoirs of St Edmund Hall Graduates, published by Farrand Press in 1989. I end by describing McWhirter's dramatically drawn-out announcement of the time " ' in three minutes' --the remaining numbers were lost in the tremendous cheer from the few hundred present when the four-minute barrier had finally been broken, and by an Oxford man on an Oxford track."

By Vivian Grisogono

A very welcome article, thank you.
You mention Derek Johnson, also a Lincoln man. As you rightly say, he had a very successful athletic career - sadly curtailed by TB while he was on medical practice. When the new sports stand was built in Iffley Road, many years ago, the one picture of Derek in action was removed. He was very hurt to think there was no commemoration of him at his alma mater. I wonder if the omission has been made good in the intervening years? Vivian Grisogono (St.Hugh's, 1968-72)

By John Browning

I always enjoy seeing photos of the event because many show the Iffley Road annexe of Queen's (now known as the Cardno Building), my first Oxford residence in 1968. There was little else to recommend this place.

By John Boyce

In 1954, when I was on active service in Suez, my parents paid probably their only visit to the Iffley Road track. Their purpose was of course to watch the attempt on the 4-minute mile. I later heard from them that they had been there and they sent me a press photo (Oxford Mail) showing them both near the finishing line.