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Roger Bannister - the myths and truths behind the story

We have all heard about the legendary tale of how Roger Bannister achieved the impossible – a 4-minute mile. 

“Doctors” claimed that man would die in such an attempt because our lungs and heart simply couldn’t take the exertion (there was never any clear records of which doctor actually said this, but even if one did, it certainly didn’t represent the medical community).  

And it is only because Bannister broke this record that inspired many others to break free of their limits they had imposed on themselves. His belief made the impossible possible.   

 

But this is not the story I would like to share, because most of it simply isn't true:

  • There was nothing particularly special about the 4-minute mile record; by many indicators, a 4-min mile was not only possible, but would likely have been broken much earlier

  • Roger Bannister had great belief and determination, but so did many others

  • Further records after Bannister were inevitable

  • But for a bit of luck, Bannister’s name would have never been known


You might also wonder, why does this matter? Truth or not, the story of Bannister has inspired many. So what gives? I think an accurate account of history is much more inspiring and meaningful.

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Examining the Mile World Record

Let’s start with the record itself. Before Roger Bannister, the world record for the mile stood at 4 minutes, 1.4 seconds, set by the Swede Gunder Hagg in 1945. The year is important here, we will return to this a bit later. In the 3 preceding years, Hagg and his fellow countryman, Arne Andersson, rewrote the record 5 times. Between the 2, they reduced the WR by a total of 5 seconds.

If you just considered this little bit of history, wouldn't it be strange to believe the story that the 4-min barrier was “impossible?”.

  • The existing WR was very close to the 4-min mark, just 0.6% off.

  • Additionally, history demonstrated that big improvements were possible and indeed happened regularly. The WR had been repeatedly rewritten. How did going 0.6% faster become such an incredible feat?

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Additionally, there is a race which is incredibly similar to the mile - the 1500m, just 109m shorter in length. It has a similar story.

From 1941, Hagg and Andersson rewrote the record 4 times, again reducing it by almost 5 seconds, from 3 min 47.8 secs to 3 min 43 secs flat. If we extrapolate the 1500m an additional 109m at the same 3 min 43 sec pace, the runner would be sub 4-mins for the mile with a small buffer.

This greatly undermines the claim that a sub 4-min mile is impossible. All indicators suggests that it was eminently within the realm of limits. If someone’s lungs didn’t burst running a 3 min 43 secs 1500m, and a 4 min 1.4 secs mile, it seems ridiculous to think it would burst running a 4-min mile.

Comparing the mile to other middle-distance races

Next, if we examined the World Records of all the middle-distance races in the same time period, we will notice an interesting trend.

We have touched on the 1500m. In 1947 and 1952 respectively, another Swede Lennart Strand, and German Werner Lueg matched the WR of 3 mins 43s. In 1954 (in fact just a few after the mile record) when Wes Standee of USA set a new WR of 3 mins 42.8 secs. In the next 2 years, the record would be broken a further 8 times.

There's the 800m. Rudolf Harbig of Germany set the WR in 1939, running 1 min 46.6s. If the 9-year gap for the mile seemed long, it was 16 years before the WR for the 800m was broken, in 1955 by Belgian Roger Moens.

Next, the 5000m. A familiar name and a familiar story. That same Swede Gunder Hagg held the WR in 1942, running 13 mins 58.2s. Again, this was broken in the mid-1950s, in 1954 by the Czech Emil Zatopek. The record would be broken a further 7 times in the next 2 years.

What about the 10000m? The Finn, Viljo Heino held the WR in 1944. And, well, you guessed it. Similar story. In 1949, a few years after WW2 ended, Zatopek broke the WR. Throughout the 50s, the WR would be broken another 7 times.

There is a discernible pattern here. WRs were mostly set by Scandinavians just before or during World War 2, because unlike most other regions, Scandinavia was relatively unscathed by war.

 

Then, there was a recovery period of a few years after the war for people to get back into sports. By the turn of the 1950s, we see a slew of WRs broken across all running events.

Surely it wasn’t Bannister who inspired all of these runners all these different races? In fact, it probably wasn’t even Bannister who inspired the subsequent breaking of the WR for the mile. Just like every other middle distance race, it was an inevitability that the world record for the mile would be broken.

The gap of about 10 years for new world records between the 40s and 50s had more to do with the overarching context then. Most athletes simply could not train or were lost during the war. No one had time or money or peace for athletics in the 1940s. But after WW2, people could return to sports again. Sports science also improved which pulled up timings across the board. 

 

Was Bannister the only one who believed what others thought to be impossible?
 

It is also blatantly false that Bannister was the only person who really believed that he could achieve the eminently possible “impossible” – breaking the 4-min mile.

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Gunder Hagg (front) and Arne Andersson (back)

Remember our favourite Swede Gunder Hagg, who held WRs in the 1500m, the mile, the 3000m and the 5000m by 1945? Hagg was just 1.4 secs away from the 4-min mile. And together with Arne Andersson, they had reduced the world record by 5 seconds in the span of 3 years. Every indication pointed to Hagg and Andersson being able to lower the mile world record further, probably below the 4 minute mark.


But fresh off breaking the world record in 1946, at the age of 27 (arguably before he even reached his prime) Hagg was forced into retirement.

Why was he forced to retire? Here we have a second contextual consideration. In the 1940s and 1950s, it was customary that athletes were amateurs, i.e. they were not paid for their athletic pursuits. Instead, athletes often had some other job, and in their free time out of their free will, took part in athletics events.

Hagg, together with Andersson and Henry Jonsson (another very successful runner) were barred from future competition because it was found out that they received payments to run. If they had not been forced to retire, given their record in early 1940s, there was a good chance one of the 3 (especially Hagg or Andersson) would have broken the 4-minute mile, and we would have never heard of Roger Bannister.

Bannister's rivals - John Landy and Wes Santee

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It’s also important to note that in the crucial period between 1952 and 1954 (when the 4-min mile was eventually set) – Bannister had serious competition. In Dec 1952, the Australian John Landy (who would break Bannister’s world record for the mile soon after) set a new personal best of 4mins 2.1 secs, 9 seconds faster than he had ever run. 1 month later, he was under 4-min pace until faltering in the final 20 secs, again clocking it at 4 mins 2 secs. In 1954, just 3 weeks before Bannister’s accomplishment, Landy ran a 4 mins 2 sec race again. He did so despite the fact that on the very first lap, his shoe was pierced by a stray stud of a football boot. Landy had run a 4 min 2 sec race with a stud stuck in his foot for almost the entire race – could he have gone faster?

There was also the American Wes Santee, who would go on to break the WR for the 1500m. Santee also regularly clocked 4 mins 2 secs. But on of that, the American Athletic Union generally frowned upon having a pacer. It didn’t seem right. On the other hand, Bannister had 2 terrific pacers when he accomplished the 4-min mile (one of whom would later go on to break the WR himself). One month before Bannister’s record, Santee ran a 4 min 5 s mile at a university meet. Seems slow? Well, Santee ran that the mile after winning the half marathon. He was also part of the winning 4x 400m relay team.

But for a bit of luck, a stray stud in Landy’s boot, or if Santee had been able to concentrate solely on the mile with pacers, they might have been the ones whose names lived on in glory.

While Roger Bannister was a man of tremendous belief and determination, so too were his rivals. The record was not set because one person held an extraordinary amount of belief. Indeed, Bannister, Santee, and Landy were among a group who all held the same belief, and probably pushed each other to do better. 


 

John Landy (left) and
Wes Santee (right)
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Indeed, Bannister was well aware of his rivals’ capabilities. It was widely speculated that Bannister decided to run an earlier race in May, knowing that Landy was going to compete in an official meet in June. We talked about Bannister’s pacers; it was also important to note that Bannister’s “race” in May when he set the record had only 6 runners (including Bannister and his 2 pacers); unlike Landy who did it at an official meet, Bannister’s race seemed more like an event designed for him to break the record.

This isn’t to say that somehow, Bannister’s 4-min run itself wasn’t a great athletic achievement. It clearly is.

Rather, it is that the mystique and legend surrounding the significance of his accomplishment have been far overblown, passing from generation to generation as a watershed moment of mind over limits.

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What we can learn from the actual account of Bannister's accomplishment

But you might ask, why does this matter? Bannister did run the 4-min mile. Perhaps the 4-min mile wasn't the impossibility it was painted to be. And perhaps he wasn't the only one who believed it to be possible. Nonetheless, the story inspired many generations of people to overcome their limiting beliefs. So why quibble over this story? Why the need to be so pedantic?

I believe that it is necessary to be clear about what really happened, because the actual account provides better lessons which we can draw from:

  1. The spotlight is often on one individual; we often forget the efforts of others
    Bannister was the first to accomplish the 4-min mile, and almost instinctively, we give him all the credit. But consider all the other people who contributed to his success. There were pacers (who would later also go on to break the world record), his competitors who pushed him, the progress made by the sports science community, and earlier record breakers like Hagg and Andersson who pushed the target so much closer to the 4 minute mark. 

    Bannister did something very difficult. He was able to do so because he believed it was possible and was willing to attempt it. But he didn't do it alone. And he wasn't the only to believe it, a group of others did as well.


    Thought in this way, I believe the actual account of Roger Bannister and the 4-min mile is more inspiring than the story we've become familiar with. We don't need to wait for that one heroic character to open the path or change the world forever. Whether it is Bannister and the 4-min mile, Darwin and natural selection, Einstein for both theories of relativity, or Elon Musk and humans being an interplanetary species, no one does it alone. Our best breakthroughs come because we build on and with each other.

    It's a reminder for us not to simply acknowledge the CEO, the army general, the goal-scorer, the author, the scientist who finally finds a cure for cancer. That spectacular accomplishment is often the collective effort of many others. 

     

  2. The power of stories
    Bannister’s accomplishment is a great example of how powerful stories can be.

    The mile was not particularly different from any other middle-distance race. Yet because of the story created - particularly that of a hero overcoming a seemingly impossible task - the 4-min mile has stayed with us across generations. There was no story created for all the other races, and hence we simply paid no attention to them. 


    This should be observation we are familiar with. Data and accurate information allows for proper analysis. But it is stories that stir us, stay with us, and get shared and passed around, attracting interest from people of all backgrounds.

    Moreover, as long as the story resonates, the validity becomes secondary. No one is that bothered by accuracy. Some of our most popular stories are completely fictional. And very few of us know how difficult a 4-min mile actually is. We don't even have an idea what it takes to run that quickly. But it doesn't matter. We love our stories. 

     

  3. The allure of heuristics

    There is a second reason why no one particularly remembers all the other world records broken in all the other distances, even though they all happened in a similar fashion to the mile. No one, for example, remembers that the 800m WR stood for almost twice as long as the mile, or thought that this was impossible. Why? 

    “4 Mins” is a nice round number, easy to remember, feels more significant, a convenient milestone. Breaking 1 min 46 secs for the 800m? Or 3 mins 43 secs for the 1500m? Or 29 mins 35 secs for the 10000m? Seems like a right old mess to remember.
     If the 4 min mile was branded as the 4 min 1 sec mile, it probably will never have gotten anywhere near the attention it did.
     

  4. The importance of context
    It should be evident by now that context matters greatly. World War 2 curtailed all athletic pursuits (except for regions such as Scandinavia which were able to escape relatively unscathed). After the war, it took some time for people to get back into the swing of sports. Finally, professional contracting was frowned upon, which meant that only some people were attracted to high-level athletics, and which led to the retirement of top athletes like Hagg and Andersson.

    These contextual reasons are the main explanation why most records in middle-distance running were set by Scandinavians in the early to mid 1940s. There was then a break until the early 50s, after which a slew of world records were set across all events.


    Sometimes, something doesn't happen not because the people doing it were no good, or the effort was lacking. It just isn't the right time.

1500m

1500m world record

800m

800m World Record

5000m world record

5000m World Record

10000m

10000m World Record

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