On May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister became the first man to run a mile under four minutes. In light of this anniversary, ESPN.com's Jeff Merron talked to Neal Bascomb, author of the new book, "The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It."
The book covers not only Bannister's achievement, but also the "Mile of the Century" that came three months later, when Bannister faced Landy in a duel of the two best milers in the world.
"The Perfect Mile" is already being hailed as this year's "Seabiscuit," and the movie rights have been optioned by the same team that produced that movie.
Why did you write this book?
I ran cross-country in high school and had been inspired by Bannister's story, and about impossible barriers and what one can achieve if he really sets his mind to it. You now, the sort of things that a high schooler finds very compelling. It was a story I had always wanted to tell, and nobody had really written a full story beyond Bannister's autobiography, which is 50 years old. That's really taking it from the fact that it was three men -- John Landy, Wes Santee, and Bannister -- all going for it at the same time. So on a personal level I wanted to do it, and on a professional level I knew it was a fantastic story.
Most sports fans know the name Roger Bannister. Some will have heard of John Landy. Very few will have heard of Wes Santee. How did he become part of the story?
The question is, why wasn't he part of the story all along? He was instrumental in this race, he was one of the three who were fighting it out, and it was commonly talked about 50 years ago in the press that it was Santee versus Bannister and Bannister versus Landy and vice-versa. The three of them were constantly being brought out as the ones who were in the race. And Bannister staged a race in 1953 six hours ahead of Santee running because he was so fearful that Santee would do it.
So on a very real level he was part of it, and the fact is that Santee and Landy both pushed Bannister to do it first, by the level of competition. Why was he forgotten? I think the answer to that is that he came short of four minutes by five-tenths of a second and was not in the mile of the century in Vancouver three months after Bannister broke four minutes.
Before Bannister broke four minutes, the record was 4:01.4. Then, within a space of three months, it came down to 3:57.9. It sounds like a pretty fragile world record. It came down 3.5 seconds in three months. What went on there?
There are two answers to that. The first is that these three runners had really been focused on it, almost to the exclusion of everything else, for two years, and come the spring/summer of 1954, the dividends of that effort were finally paying off in the way they wanted.
The second is that when Bannister was finally able to break four minutes and bring the record down, the psychological barrier was gone. And John Landy, who was probably the best-trained miler in the world at that time, finally got the fast tracks and the competition that he had been lacking in Australia. It could be argued that it was very likely that Landy would have broken four minutes before Bannister if he had had that competition and those tracks in Australia.
And Bannister used pacemakers.
His 4:02 record was disqualified in a race in the summer of 1953, and that was, incidentally, a race that he staged at a boy's school meet, to be run six hours before Santee was to run. He was disqualified because it wasn't a published race, meaning it wasn't publicly announced that it was an event taking place, and also because [Chris] Brasher really wasn't part of the race. He was one of the pacemakers, and he really didn't start running until the second lap. So it was obvious he was not even in the race, had no chance of beating Roger Bannister, and so it was fairly quickly disavowed.
What was the difference between that race and the pacemaking that went on when Bannister did break four?
All three of those runners [Bannister and his teammates Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher] were running all out. When Bannister finally broke past Chataway, that wasn't until a good part into the fourth lap. So there's always the chance that Chataway could have said, 'You know, I feel pretty good, I'm going to keep going, and I think I can do this.' Whether or not he would have ever done that is impossible to know.
Of course, they say quite publicly that they had set it up exactly, but that fell within the rules that they had in England at the time.
So Roger Bannister breaks the four-minute mile on May 6. It wasn't more than a day later that he had a sense of the fact that, yes, he had done this great prize, but to really prove himself as a competitor and as a miler, he had to win a real race. That is definitely the case after Landy broke four minutes [seven weeks later, breaking Bannister's record] in what could not be called anything but a real race.
So what makes the mile of the century [at the Empire Games in Vancouver in August 1954] such an important race, beyond the fact that it was probably one of the great mile races of all time, was that that race was really the one that proved to Roger Bannister that he was the best.
That was the perfect mile. That, in some ways, addresses the pacemaking [issue] for Roger Bannister. They were calling him 'the clockrunner' that summer. 'Yes, he may be great running against the clock, but can he win in competition?' I think that Bannister, by winning in Vancouver, not only has shielded himself, but has proved that he was indeed the best miler. People may call into question the pacemaking, but he broke four minutes there, in the greatest race of all time.
Recently, there's been some talk, most notably from Ken Wood, that Bannister wasn't the first -- Wood said he'd done it in practice. What's your take on Hall's story? Is there any validity to it?
Regardless of whether it's true or not, it's impossible to know. The fact is that it was not run in a race. I can say that I ran it if I was 50 years old. Someone can say they threw the javelin 500 yards. So, it's speculating that one could never know if it's true or not. To do that in such a serious way that you tarnish in any way Roger Bannister's achievement would be a mistake.
What was it like when Bannister broke the record? What kind of impact did it have at that moment?
It had been building up for two years, this great competition between these three runners, and when one finally did it, it was enormous news. It was front page headline news across the world. The newsreel of it was in theaters. Having looked at the news following Everest after it was scaled and the four-minute mile, even in the U.S. press and the British press, they almost equaled each other.
For England itself, who had been suffering under the weight of what happened in World War II, having failed miserably in the 1948 and 1952 Olympics, with people calling into question British character, not only in sports, but period, it was a great moment. The news reports afterward were 'Bannister saved the Empire.' It was tremendous, and they sent him over to the United States on what could not be called anything other but a victory tour. It was awesome.
Do you see any similar kind of drama in today's sports world?
This was such a unique time. I've even attempted to say well, 'Was this like the home run record' or Tiger Woods winning all the majors in one year? But those are considered sporting achievements, specific to either golf or baseball. Bannister's breaking the four-minute mile was considered even beyond sport. It was considered a human achievement.
It was a broken barrier for mankind. Now, how that evolved is a long conversation, but it was considered greater than sport, just like Everest was greater than the climbing community. It was unique because he was an amateur, and amateurs achieving great accomplishments were on their way out at that moment in time. So you have this unique individual achieving this grand prize. It was one of those moments in time that can't be recreated.
Jeff Merron is a staff writer for ESPN.com.