The first step on the moon, the first ascent of Everest, the first solo voyage round the world … There are a handful of moments of extraordinary and heroic human endeavour that live forever in the collective memory.

The holy grail of athletics was the four-minute mile. People said it couldn’t be done, that it was physically impossible. But on a grey day in 1954, a British medical student made racing history – in Oxford.

The date was May 6th. The place was Iffley Road Track, the university running stadium. The student was Roger Bannister (with the considerable help of his pacemakers Chris Brasher and Christopher Chattaway – their autographed photograph below c/o RB’s great friend John Caunt.)

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As the bell rang for the final lap he pushed forward, tendons stretching, face etched with focused effort, arms wheeling, quiff bobbing. The crowd of three thousand (most of them clad in gabardine mackintoshes to judge by the black and white film footage of the event) cheered him on as he collapsed across the finishing line.

3 minutes 59.4 seconds! The world of athletics was changed forever.

Iffley Road Track seems a rather empty place these day – a long way from its glorious zenith. A blue plaque is all that reminds us of that epic afternoon seventy years ago. It stands as a modest reminder of a very different world: pre-professional, pre-sports psychologist, pre-steroid, where a university athlete wearing simple running shoes could beat the best in the world, before returning to his studies in the faculty library.

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Roger Bannister went on to become a distinguished neurologist, a knight of the realm, and, in due course, Master of Pembroke College. There you can visit the glass cabinet in which are displayed some of his many trophies and medals.

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Also featured are various other fascinating memorabilia – including the stopwatch used on that momentous day (though it seems to have run on …) and the commemorative 50p coins minted half a century later.

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A college building has been named for him. So too a road near the Iffley Track. In 2012, at the age of 83, Sir Roger carried the Olympic torch when it reached the site of his historic feat. And in 2021, a memorial stone was unveiled in his honour at Westminster Abbey.

At the time of writing, the world record for the mile is 3 minutes 43 seconds.


Heroic thanks to Amanda Ingram, Pembroke College Archivist

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Who was on the finishing line on that record-breaking day? Trevor Rowley has identified one of the onlookers:

Charles Wenden, later Bursar of All Souls College, was one of the timekeepers for Roger Bannister’s Four Minute Mile. He can be seen holding a board with his head in his hands, overcome by emotion as Bannister crosses the finishing line. He later explained, ‘I wasn’t praying that he’d done it. I was actually weeping.’

Wenden and Bannister had become lifelong friends after they met as fellow students and runners in Oxford immediately after the Second World War. On the morning of the day on which the record was broken Bannister travelled by train from London, where he was completing his medical training. Charles met him at the station, took him to his home in Bardwell Road for lunch, and afterwards drove him to the Iffley Road running track.

Wenden was a lifelong amateur runner, who organized a group of fellow enthusiasts called the Iffley Road Strollers, of whom I was one. We used to set off from the Iffley Road Sports Centre most weekday lunchtimes. As Charles got older and a bit slower he would devise shortcuts for himself, or, rather, long cuts for the rest of us. He was quite a character. RB used to visit him regularly, and they played golf together for many years.

Did you know that Roger Bannister’s world-record-breaking running shoes were sold for over a quarter of a million pounds? Alan Bailey writes:

Sir Roger Bannister was a regular visitor to the fish stall on the North Parade Market (I gather he was very partial to a lobster). I was there in September 2015, shortly after the news came through that his world-famous running shoes had been auctioned at Christie’s for the princely sum of £266,500 (having originally been estimated to fetch somewhere between £30-£50k) The bidder was anonymous. The telephone call lasted less than four minutes. A proportion of the proceeds were later put towards the Autonomic Charitable Trust for research into neurological conditions. Roger himself was visibly shaken by the news. Rumour has it that he had to be steered over the road and into the Rose and Crown to recover his equilibrium!

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Stephen Foote recalls the state of the Iffley Road track.

I grew up in Oxford in the 1960s and well remember our school visits to Iffley Road Stadium. In fact I ran a few laps there. The track was made of ash cinders (It didn’t go synthetic until 1977.) This, together with the quality of running shoes in those days, makes Roger Bannister’s achievement all the greater. I gather he spent part of the morning on that great day sharpening his running spikes on a grindstone in the hospital laboratory.

Richard Gordon has a bitter-sweet memory:

My father was a keen middle-distance runner and, as a student here in the 1930s, ran for the University second team, the Centipedes. I remember begging him to take me with him to the Iffley Road track, along with my older brother, but I was deemed too young to go (I was six). I was deeply disappointed to learn the following morning that I had missed that dramatic, never-to-be-forgotten race. My brother still occasionally reminds me of the announcement of the result: ‘Roger Bannister in a new National, new Commonwealth, and new World record in a time of THREE MINUTES …’ Nobody heard or cared about the rest of the announcement. And I still grimace inwardly each time as I think of what I missed.

As if the Omega stopwatch we featured isn’t sufficiently historically significant, it turns out that the timekeeper using it on 6 May was none other than Harold Abrahams, Olympic gold medalist in the 100m sprint at Paris in 1924, the hero of Chariots of Fire and, it transpires, a personal friend. Amanda Ingram, the archivist at Pembroke College who was so helpful in the putting-together of this story, draws our attention to the transcript of a letter from RB to Abrahams in which is disclosed the reason for the stopwatch not showing 3:59:04. What a pity Bannister père twiddled with it!
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A decade ago Oxford Playhouse announced ‘a unique theatrical tribute, a play that takes audiences literally in the footsteps of greatness, albeit at a more sedate pace.’ The journalist Max Davidson was there (centre, in shorts)

Participants in the event walked three times round the track in the company of a guide who recounted the story of the four-minute mile. How Roger Bannister, who was a medical student in London at the time, had come up from Paddington on the train that morning. How he and his friends Chris Brasher and Christopher Chataway, who were to act as pace-makers, had decided not to go for the record because it was too windy. How the wind suddenly dropped, the St George’s flag on the neighbouring church went limp and they decided to run flat out for glory…

On the fourth and final lap of the recreation, we were all set loose to run as fast as we could, while the 1954 radio commentary rose to fever pitch in the background. No records were broken that day, but there were more than a few lumps in throats.

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Did you know that the Olympic torch which RB carried in 2012 was designed in Oxford – by Jay Osgerby, a student at Brookes? … And that the stadium announcer for the 1954 race was Norris McWhirter, who went on to co-publish and co-edit the Guinness Book of Records.
Oxford boasts another proud Olympian, Maureen Gardner, remarkable not only for her athletic prowess but also for her extraordinary modesty. Sir Roger unveiled the blue plaque in her honour, outside her home in Maidcroft Road, Cowley.
http://www.oxonblueplaques.org.uk/plaques/gardner.html

 

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A further Oxford blue plaque was unveiled last year. Sir Ludwig Guttmann (1899-1980) was a specialist in brain and spinal injuries, and the man responsible for inspiring the Paralympic Games. He lived for many years in a house on Lonsdale Road, Summertown. You can read about his remarkable life here:
http://www.oxonblueplaques.org.uk/plaques/guttmann.html
His story was also told in a wonderful BBC drama, The Best of Men (2012) starring Eddie Marsan and Rob Brydon. Its award-winning score, was written by another Oxfordian, the composer Mark Russell.
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For double-Olympian Sebastian Coe, “On every metric, I think it is arguably at the top of all sporting achievements in the last 100 years.” – view article in The Guardian
Stephanie Jenkins, Headington’s revered historian, was among those who completed the 2024 Bannister Mile. She writes:

On 6 May 2024 (Bank Holiday Monday) 1069 people ran the Bannister community mile from St Aldate’s to the Iffley Road stadium to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the legendary achievement. The race village was in Christ Church Meadow, the mile was from St Aldate’s along the High to the Iffley Road stadium, the best speed was 4:22 minutes, and a medal depicting RB was awarded to everyone who finished.

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