Gary Newbon: Four-minute mile was just what the doctor ordered..!

Roger Bannister, the first man to crack the four minute mile, easily retains his Mile title in the Amateur Athletic Association championships at the White City Stadium, London. July 1954. -Credit:PA
Roger Bannister, the first man to crack the four minute mile, easily retains his Mile title in the Amateur Athletic Association championships at the White City Stadium, London. July 1954. -Credit:PA

Funny how life turns out. I grew up sports mad with my heroes like Muhammad Ali, Pele, Billy Wright, Jimmy Greaves, the Charlton brothers and Dr Roger Bannister to name just seven – and then many years later, I met them on a different level as a television presenter and interviewer.

I interviewed Muhammad Ali three times; Pele seven times; Billy Wright gave me my big break at ATV; I helped start and develop the TV career of Jimmy Greaves at the same station; I befriended Bobby Charlton during my long stint covering Manchester United’s big matches for ITV; and worked with Jack Charlton when he was a pundit for the same channel – before more regularly interviewing Big Jack in Dublin and then the USA in his role as the Republic of Ireland.

Roger Bannister – Sir Roger as he became in 1975 – was a neurologist who became famous for running the first mile race under four minutes.

That feat was 70 years ago on May 6 1954. I was nine years old and used to follow it all on the BBC radio with my father Jack.

The new record was worldwide news when the one-mile distance meant so much in athletics. Sir Roger was then a 25-year-old.

Years later, I did a long interview with him at the ATV studios in Birmingham. But the highlight for me was when he was my guest in my Sky Sports series Sporting Heroes.

It was a hour-long slot and afterwards I was chuffed when he told my producer Mark Pearman that he had never been interviewed by anyone as well prepared for him as me!

You need to know your stuff. Just under one hour is a long time to keep it interesting.

The irony of Sir Roger’s athletics career is that his medical work was more important to him.

Indeed, he revealed to me that although he was one of the favourites to win gold in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki but, if he had done so, he would have retired to concentrate on medics.

But he finished fourth and carried on running. It did, however, urge him on to be the first to run the mile in under four minutes.

That happened at the Iffley track at Oxford University. That morning, he had down his round on duty at a London hospital as a junior doctor before catching the train to Oxford and lunch with Chris Chataway and pacemaker Chris Brasher.

Sir Roger told me that it was windy and that posed a problem. If it had not dropped by six oclock that evening, then the attempt would be called off. Luckily, it did in time.

I have watched the race so many times I can recall it all.

The crowd of 3,000 – mostly Oxford University students – watched the match between the AAA and Oxford University. The race went to plan.

Brasher immediately went into first place with 25-year-old Bannister second. Chataway quickly moved into third place.

That was within 150 yards. Brasher to set the pace at first.

The first quarter of a mile was run in 57.4 seconds which was ahead of the target set. They were the same positions at the halfway mark.

Half a mile gone. One minute 58.2 seconds which was still ahead of the clock.

After 1,100 yards, Chataway sprints ahead with Bannister still second. Brasher, having selflessly set the pace, drops behind.

Three quarters of the mile had a time of 3 minutes 0.5 seconds.

Bannister knew he would have to do the final lap almost as fast as his first lap time to beat the four minute mile.

With 250 yards to go, the taller Bannister took over with his long strides. The finishing tape was broken and so had the record time that had long been sought.

Bannister had no idea as he collapsed into his coach’s arms as he was completely exhausted by the effort.

There was further drama as the announcer Norris McWhirter gave the time of the public address system (“Three minutes”) and then the crowd drowned out the sound before they heard “three minutes 59.4 seconds”.

The remarkable factor was that Bannister had only been able to train a little due to his junior doctor responsibilities and had used lunch hours in parks and yet here he was with help from his friends on the track breaking the barrier.

The record only lasted 46 days before being broken by Australian John Landy in an international meeting in Finland when he set three minutes 58 seconds.

Both Bannister and Landy then met in what was dubbed the “Miracle Mile” later that year at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver. 100 million heard it on the radio and more on worldwide TV.

Landy was leading on the final turn on the last lap. Landy looked over his left shoulder as Bannister passed him on the right to win the gold medal.

Landy died two years ago last February aged 91.

Bannister passed away in Oxford in March 2018 aged 88.

He had been the Master of Pembroke College from 1985 to 1993. He had also won gold in the 1954 European 1500 metres and earlier bronze in Berne in 1950.

But it is with the first four-minute mile that Bannister earned his place in the history of sport.