3:59:4: The Quest to Break the Four-Minute Mileby John BryantHutchinson, £14.99, pp. 310, ISBN 0091800331
Fifty years ago, on 6 May 1954, it was a blustery evening in Oxford. On the Iffley Road cinder track an event took place which has since become synonymous with everything that was good about sport.
To run a mile in under four minutes had been seen by many as a feat beyond the limits of human endeavour. But Roger Bannister did so that night in front of a crowd of 1,200. His photograph appeared on the front page of newspapers all over the world and he became a British hero for the rest of his life. Yet he earned nothing, and the next day was back working at St Mary’s Medical School, London.
Neal Bascomb’s The Perfect Mile and John Bryant’s 3:59:4 take us back to the days in athletics when running was not just about winning but about the ‘nobility of the pursuit’. Both books have been painstakingly researched and the authors’ love of running shines through every page.
John Bryant has lived his life in the world of athletics but is also a friend of Bannister and his running colleagues, Chris Chataway and the late Chris Brasher. This personal closeness is marked by a preface written by Bannister himself, who praises the book for giving an ‘overarching picture of the history of the mile from its very early days’.
Bryant certainly gives us a fascinating insight into the runners of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, their methods of training and the battles between the Victorian amateur ideal and those who saw the sport as a useful way of making money through betting and the marketing of events as ‘shows’.
Bascomb’s The Perfect Mile dwells more specifically on the three world-class runners, the Australian John Landy, the American Wes Santer and the very British Roger Bannister, who all set out to capture the Holy Grail of sport. It was the race between them to be the first which gives intensity to the story. Each one represented a continent and a nation and had hugely different attitudes to running, training and competition. But they all had to battle with triumph and failure as they strove to be the best. Bascomb succeeds in seducing the reader into sympathising with them all and feeling involved in their individual stories.
He tells how John Landy trained incessantly, marking down each session in a book which was like a diary of torture. He recounts the battles Wes Santer had with the American Athletics Union over his amateur status. We learn how Bannister took to running as a way of gaining acceptance as a shy 12-year-old at his new school in Bath. He won the school cross-country race and suddenly the imbalance in his life was no more. He wanted to become a doctor and at 17 took a scholarship to Oxford where he realised that running would be his best chance of distinguishing himself from the mostly older students who had returned from the war. Before he had even unpacked he headed straight for the track to seek out some athletes.
Both authors tell the story of the occasion when Bannister saw Sydney Wooder- son run at the White City stadium in 1945 in the first international competition since the end of the war. The legendary Wooderson, who finally received recognition in 2000 with the award of an MBE, became Bannister’s hero from that day. His opportunity to win an Olympic medal had been blighted by the war. ‘If there was a moment when things began, that was it for me,’ Bannister said. He had understood that in a foot race, unlike other sports, greatness could be won with sheer heart.
These days the professionalism of sport has undoubtedly brought improved performances. Up to 1,000 runners have now broken the four-minute mile and it is no longer even remarked upon. All our Olympic athletes have the full back-up of sports science and medicine, psychologists and nutritionists. At the elite end of athletics there are huge sums of money to be gained from appearance fees, sponsorship and prizes. We are in an era when even the rules of sport are adapted to suit the broadcasters and the sponsors. These books give us a wonderful opportunity to be nostalgic for the age of decency and sportsmanship. They should be compulsory reading for any aspiring young athlete.
‘It was the last flowering of amateurism,’ says Chataway. For Bannister it was ‘a challenge of the human spirit’. At the end of the race he thanked the head groundsman for his help and had a glass of water mixed with table salt.
That world of athletics has vanished, but, as these books remind us, the inspirational story of the breaking of the four-minute mile will never fade.