Fifty years after Britain's Roger Bannister first accomplished the feat, the phrase "4-minute mile" recalls long-ago taken-for-granted landmarks such as the jet engine, black-and-white television and the polio vaccine.
When Bannister ran 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds on May 6, 1954, at the Iffley Road track in Oxford, England, it was front-page news around the world. Today, perhaps one sports fan in 1,000 knows that Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco holds the mile world record of 3:43.13.
The mile run, long considered track and field's most popular event, rarely excites the average 21st century fan. E. Garry Hill, the editor of Track and Field News, suggests that, at least in the United States, the 100 meters might be the new glamour race, considering Americans' "marked predilection for speed events."
Many believed no human could break what had become almost a mythical barrier and run a mile in less than four minutes. After all, the world record of 4:01.4 had stood since 1945.
"It was a great moment in time," said Neal Bascomb, the author of The Perfect Mile. "There had been so much destruction and mayhem from World War II. The 4-minute mile was such a great contrast, particularly in Britain, to what had happened a few years before. I thought Sports Illustrated was right a few years ago in making the 4-minute mile equal to the climbing of Mount Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary in terms of great achievements of the 20th century."
At its heart, sports is not about records but competition, and what generated the real electricity in the chase for mile immortality was that Bannister was not alone. John Landy of Australia and Wes Santee of Kansas had the talent and determination to beat Bannister to the mark.
Landy's handicap was location. Far from track's world capitals, Australia lacked the facilities and competition to bring out the best in him. If he had competed in Europe during the 1953 summer season, he might have broken 4 minutes. Instead, Landy waited until 1954 for his European adventure. He ran a world-record 3:58.0 on June 21, 1954, in Finland, but it was six weeks after Bannister had broken the barrier.
Santee's big hurdle was the Amateur Athletic Union and hidebound secretary-treasurer Dan Ferris, who seemed as interested in seeing Santee break 4 minutes as baseball Commissioner Ford Frick was a few years later in having Roger Maris break Babe Ruth's home run record.
Ferris said Santee could not use other runners to set a fast pace for a record attempt, a common practice elsewhere in the world. The AAU prevented Santee from competing in the 1,500 meters, his best race, at the 1952 Olympic trials, saying he already had qualified for the 5,000 and was not good enough to double. Finally, in 1955, the AAU suspended Santee from track, alleging he had accepted $3,000 in expense money from a series of West Coast meets. Santee always has maintained it was AAU officials who paid him to run in "their meets."
Santee, 72, left track never having broken 4 minutes and never having faced Bannister or Landy. His best mile was 4:00.5. It was not until 1957, when Don Bowden of California ran 3:58.7, that an American miler broke 4 minutes.
Santee also competed far more often than Bannister or Landy. Santee had a full college schedule at Kansas. He says there was "no way" his two rivals could have run as often and as well as U.S. runners. Not that Bannister was taking an easy approach. In addition to his daily training, he was a medical student with a full load.
Bascomb believes Bannister broke 4 minutes because instead of training by himself, Bannister began working with coach Franz Stampfl and fellow British runners Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway.
Their hard work reached its peak on a windy, overcast day before a small crowd of 1,500 in the spring of 1954. The 6-foot-1-inch, 150-pound Bannister trailed until the final 230 yards before unleashing a finishing kick that carried him past Chataway toward the finish line and into history.
Utterly exhausted, Bannister regained his strength when his time was announced and took a victory lap.
"We shared a place where no man had yet ventured, secure for all time however fast men might run in the future," Bannister wrote in his autobiography, The Four-Minute Mile.
Bannister was the first below 4 minutes, but was he the world's best miler? He never had won a major international championship and had finished a disappointing fourth in the 1952 Olympic 1,500.
When Landy ran 3:58, attention began turning toward Vancouver. On Aug. 7, 1954, history's only two sub-4-minute milers would meet at the Empire Games. The media buildup for the Bannister-Landy race matched any of the Ali-Frazier fights or Super Bowls. The race was televised live in North America and was broadcast on radio around the world. The race matched the hype as Bannister caught Landy in the final 110 yards to win 3:58.8 to 3:59.6. It was the first time two milers had broken 4 minutes in the same race.
"The Mile of the Century in Vancouver was Bannister's ultimate achievement," Bascomb said. "For his own pride and for his critics, beating Landy was the apex. He needed to win."
Bannister's running days were nearly done. He won the 1,500 meters at the European championships in Switzerland, then retired to a career in medicine. When Bannister was knighted in 1975, it was for his work as a physician and promoter of physical fitness in Britain as well as his running.
"For him it was more important to become a physician and neurologist," said Track and Field News associate editor Jon Hendershott. He really is very much a Renaissance man."