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Roger Bannister, first to run mile under 4 minutes, dies at 88

By
Allen Cone
Roger Bannister crosses the finish line at Iffley road athletics track on the 50th anniversary of his breaking the mile record in under four minutes in Oxford on May 6, 2004. Bannister died Sayurday. Photo by Hugo Philpott/UPI
Roger Bannister crosses the finish line at Iffley road athletics track on the 50th anniversary of his breaking the mile record in under four minutes in Oxford on May 6, 2004. Bannister died Sayurday. Photo by Hugo Philpott/UPI | License Photo

March 4 (UPI) -- Roger Bannister, the first person to run a mile in under four minutes -- a test of speed and endurance that was one of the defining sports achievements of the 20th century -- died Saturday in Britain, his family confirmed. He was 88.

Bannister, who had Parkinson's disease since 2011, died in Oxford, England, where the runner achieved the feat in 1954.

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He was "surrounded by his family who were as loved by him, as he was loved by them," the family said in a statement. "He banked his treasure in the hearts of his friends."

While studying medicine at Oxford, he took up athletics.

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At the 1952 Summer Olympics, he finished fourth in the 1500-meter mile, setting a British record.

Two years later, on a windy afternoon in Oxford, Bannister clocked the mile in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds over four laps at the Iffley Road track on May 6, 1954 -- the equivalent of 15 mph. His Oxford team competed against the Amateur Athletic Association.

"It became a symbol of attempting a challenge in the physical world of something hitherto thought impossible," Bannister said as he approached the 50th anniversary of the feat in 2004. "I'd like to see it as a metaphor not only for sport, but for life and seeking challenges."

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Previously for nine years, Swedish runner Gundar Haegg had the mile record of 4:01.4.

But Bannister and Australian rival John Landy as well as others were threatening to break it.

Shortly before 6 p.m. in Oxford, the wind died down.

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Chris Brasher set the pace a first lap in 57.5 seconds, then 60.7 in the second lap for 1:58.2 for the half mile. Chris Chataway, a distance specialist, ran a third lap of 62.3 -- 3:00.4. To set the record, Bannister would need to run the final lap in 59 seconds.

With 250 yards to go, Bannister surged past Chataway as his lungs gasped for oxygen.

"The world seemed to stand still, or did not exist," he wrote in his book, The First Four Minutes.

"The only reality was the next 200 yards of track under my feet. The tape meant finality -- extinction perhaps. I felt at that moment that it was my chance to do one thing supremely well. I drove on, impelled by a combination of fear and pride."

Bannister didn't fully appreciate the significance of his achievement until reading the newspapers the next day.

"It had become rather like Everest, a challenge for the human spirit," Bannister reflected on the significance of his own achievement.

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His record lasted just 46 days as Landy ran 3:57.9 in Turku, Finland, on June 21, 1954.

Bannister and Landy then competed at the Empire Games, now called the Commonwealth Games, in Vancouver, British Columbia on Aug. 9, 1954.

Bannister won the race in 3:58.8 and Landy was second in 3:59 in a race that became known as "Mile of the Century" and the "Miracle Mile,"

Later in 1954, Bannister won the 1,500 meters at the European Championships in Bern, Switzerland, in a games record of 3:43.8.

Bannister was chosen as Sports Illustrated's first Sportsman of the Year in 1954.

He retired from competitive running and he then had a full-time career in neurology.

Bannister was chairman of the Sports Council between 1971 and 1974, during which he developed the first test for anabolic steroids.

"None of my athletics was the greatest achievement," he said. "My medical work has been my achievement and my family with 14 grandchildren. Those are real achievements."

In 1955, he married Moyra Jacobsson, an artist. They had two sons and two daughters and lived only minutes away from the track where he set the record.

Bannister was knighted in 1975,

Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj is the current mile record holder with a time of 3:43.13 in Rome on July 7, 1999. No woman has ever run the mile in less than 4 minutes.

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The 1,500-meter race is usually run instead of the mile in international competition. Since 1976, the mile has been the only non-metric distance recognized by the International Association of Athletics Federations for record purposes.

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