I know I’m in the minority on this subject. Some people will read this blog post, shrug their shoulders and say: “he just doesn’t get it.” And in a way, they would be correct – I don’t get it. I don’t understand why so much praise is disproportionately heaped on a sub-four-minute run in the mile while performances of an equal (or even greater) standard often fly under the radar.
On the eve of the 56th anniversary of Roger Bannister’s world record-breaking achievement, I realise that many athletics fans will consider my opinion to be almost blasphemous. I’m just baffled as to why the breaking of this particular arbitrary mark is held in much higher esteem than the breaking of other ’round’ track and field marks, for example, the first sub-10-second run in the 100m.
A few years ago, Athletics Weekly magazine rated Bannister’s sub-four-minute mile as the greatest athletics moment of the past 60 years. The greatest? Across six decades? Better than the Lewis-Powell clash of the 1991 World Championships? Better than Michael Johnson’s earth-shattering Olympic double in 1996? Beamon, Joyner-Kersee, Oerter, Freeman – I can think of many more athletes whose achievements were not held up to an arbitrary yard-stick and whose performances were truly ahead of their time, or happened in a far more heated competition.
Bannister’s feat happened thirty years before I was born, but I have read several books and articles about it over the years in an effort to get my head around the sub-four hullabaloo. I have tried, I really have. I understand the “four laps; four minutes” symmetry, and I can see the attraction of wanting to become the first man to break four minutes for the mile when some people in that era (who apparently had the inability to look at how much the record had progressed throughout the ’40s and see that it was bound to happen sooner or later) felt that it was an impossible dream. But almost six decades later and with the benefit of hindsight, I can’t help but think that it’s much ado about nothing.
Why, for example, isn’t Jim Hines – the first man to break the 10-second barrier in the 100m – revered in the same way as Bannister? After all, it too has nice symmetry surrounding it – 100 metres, 10 seconds. It is a much higher quality mark to achieve, and sprint world record holders also have the bonus of being known as “the fastest man in the world”. So why, then, isn’t Hines celebrated every year on October 14, the anniversary of his achievement?
Similarly, why don’t we celebrate Jesse Owens’ first eight-metre leap in the long jump? Or Bill Nieder’s breaking of the 20-metre barrier in the shot? Or Sin Kim Dan for being the first woman to dip under two minutes in the 800m? Two laps, two minutes – see, that even has a nice ring to it too!
I think there are significant cultural factors leading to the reverence surrounding Bannister. After all, it seems to be predominantly white, Western, middle-aged men (who were either alive when Bannister broke the record, or who are simply obsessed by middle-distance running) that try to keep the mystique alive for the sub-four-minute mile – i.e. people who can identify with Bannister. But would they still hold the achievement in such high regard had the first sub-four-minute mile been achieved by Swedes Gunder Hägg or Arne Andersson? Or Hungary’s László Tábori? Or even if an African runner had been the first?
Perhaps at this juncture I should stress that I have nothing against Bannister personally. He was a great, if not all-conquering, athlete who happened to be the first in a long line of world record-holders to dip under an arbitrary mark. The one breath of fresh air about all of this is that Bannister himself has always felt that too much is made of the achievement. At a special event to mark the 50th anniversary of the first sub-four-minute mile, Bannister was quite embarrassed and took a lot of persuasion to turn up. Even at the time, after running his 3:59.4 at Iffley Rd in 1954, the Oxford student said:
“I think the four-minute mile has been overrated. After all, it’s only a time. The essence of athletics is racing against an opponent rather than a clock. I think people have been frightened of this four-minute mile. Now that it’s broken, I’m sure other runners will break it too.”
John Landy, Bannister’s Australian rival, was also in agreement:
“I’ve been fooling the public. The four-minute mile is vastly overrated. It is just four times around the track. It’s winning in real competition that counts.”
The first sub-four-minute mile wasn’t even a good race; certainly not as exciting as the Bannister-vs-Landy clash at the 1954 Empire Games is made out to be. It was a carefully-orchestrated record attempt with a handful of pacemakers. Give me a great duel – a la Gebrselassie-vs-Tergat in Sydney 2000 – any day over a rabbited attempt to break an arbitrary mark.
Bannister wasn’t ahead of his time. The record lasted just 46 days before Landy broke it, and within a decade a sub-four-minute mile had become pretty common. Someone was bound to break it sooner or later and Bannister just so happened to be the first.
The world record now stands at 3:43.13 – more than 16 seconds quicker than Bannister’s mark. Put another way, Bannister would still be on the top bend while Hicham El Guerrouj was crossing the finish line. That’s not intended as a slight against Bannister – of course pretty much all world-class marks from the 1950s would be made to look quite ordinary by today’s standards. It is simply a way of illustrating that the sub-four-minute mile is no longer a jaw-dropping performance in the current era.
Don’t get me wrong – of course you have to be a very talented athlete to run that fast in the first place. But the recognition that middle distance runners get for achieving this ‘feat’ is disproportionate to the recognition that sprinters get for, say, breaking 10.3 in the 100m or high jumpers get for leaping 2.20m (both marks being superior to a sub-four-minute mile). The real mystique of the sub-four-minute mile is that it continues to draw such superfluous adulation!
The mile isn’t even a standard championship distance and hasn’t been for several decades now. American fans would argue that it’s the one event that has some meaning to Joe Public, as everyone understands how far a mile is and is aware that running it in less than four minutes means you can create a bit of a fuss.
But surely if we want to get new fans involved in the sport, we shouldn’t try clinging on to an outdated tradition in a non-championship event – instead we should try to help usher in the new era of fans by educating them and getting them excited about a sub-10-second sprint, or a sub-20 in the 200m. Or if distances are your thing, how does a sub-13 in the 5000m or a sub-27 in the 10,000m grab you? I mean, how confusing must it be for these fringe fans who sit down to watch the track and field programme at the Olympics only to find that there is no mile?!
I know that many fans (particularly British ones) of a certain age will rank Bannister as one of their personal favourites and will continue to be mystified by someone who covers four laps of the track in less than four minutes. I’d just like to see the same kind of recognition given to equivalent – or even superior – marks in other events.
It’s fine to celebrate tomorrow as the 56th anniversary of Bannister’s achievement. I just long to see people mark October 14 as the anniversary of the first sub-10-second sprint. And let’s have a moment on August 12 to remember Nieder’s first 20-metre putt in the shot. Lest we forget to mark June 22 for Irena Szewińska’s first sub-50-second run in the women’s 400m.
Alternatively, if you’re worried about filling up too much space on your calendar, perhaps we can forget the celebration of all of these arbitrary marks, gain a little perspective, and finally put the ‘magic’ of the sub-four-minute mile to bed.