A week has passed since Roger Bannister died. The legend of the race to break the four-minute mile will live on. It united the Anglosphere in friendly competition for a few golden years long ago. The history behind the legend is less famous — being history, it’s clotted with detail that’s inconvenient to the construction of a storybook narrative — but also worth remembering, because it’s true. Bannister’s Australian rival John Landy was the better runner, with a more impressive body of work. Here’s how he ended up the Alfred Russel Wallace of world-class milers.
First, the legend. It goes like this. Track athletes in the Dark Ages of the 1950s labored under the superstition that no human being could run that fast, that his head would explode in flames if he tried and came too close to crossing the finish line in 3:59:9. Even if runners laughed off the humbug, it was lodged in their minds. It haunted them.
In December 1953, John Landy came ever so close — again. Here legend and history begin to overlap. “No one outside of sport can imagine the grind of years of continuous training,” Landy, 22, told reporters after running his 4:02.0 in Melbourne, Australia. He had run 4:02.1 twelve months earlier. For the past year, he’d been scraping against the door without managing to clear it. Nine times between the summer of 1952 and the spring of 1954, he would run under 4:06.
I feel I could go on for ten years, but I don’t think it’s worth it. Frankly, I think the four-minute mile is beyond my capabilities. Two seconds may not sound much, but to me it’s like trying to break through a brick wall. Someone may achieve the four-minute mile the world is wanting so desperately, but I don’t think I can.
Bannister achieved it 21 weeks later, in Oxford, running 3:59.4. Now Landy decides he can do it? The next month, in a race in Finland, he runs 3:57.9, shattering Bannister’s short-lived record.
There was no brick wall, it turned out, and all hail to Bannister for tearing it down. Bannister was not averse to the legend. “Après moi, le déluge,” he said, referring to all the sub-four-minute miles after his. Three more were run in 1954 (one by Bannister, two by Landy), three in 1955, and so on. “I knew enough medicine and physiology to know it wasn’t a physical barrier, but I think it had become a psychological barrier.”
That had to have stung Landy. His former coach Percy Cerutty had accused him of dogging it at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, where Landy failed to qualify for the men’s 1,500-meters final. He had been typecast by Cerutty, pushed into a role that Bannister seemed ready to play off of, casting his own self, in contrast, as single-minded and resolute.
Only weeks after Bannister and then Landy had in quick succession run their first sub-four-minute miles, Landy’s reputation for, as Cerutty had put it, lacking a “killer instinct” appeared cemented. It’s not just that Landy lost the “Miracle Mile” to Bannister in the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver. It’s how he lost it: in his final strides, after looking over his shoulder at Bannister, costing himself a fraction of a second. Bannister 3:58.8, Landy 3:59.6.
Landy had cut his foot on a photographer’s flashbulb the day before. After the race, a reporter divulged the information. Landy denied it before he admitted it. He then insisted that it hadn’t affected his performance. To a journalist who remarked that he was limping, Landy quipped, “If I can run a 3:59.6 with a limp, I’ve got possibilities as a runner.”
As for Landy’s earlier comment to the press that he probably would never break four minutes, Neal Bascomb in The Perfect Mile offers that “no doubt” he was seeking to “reduce the pressure” on himself. Or he was playing possum, knowing that Bannister was watching his progress like a hawk. “Privately Landy felt that he could still lower his time,” Banscomb adds. Instead of reducing the pressure, however, Landy’s statement went into the record and eventually became material for the story that the rivalry between him and Bannister came down to attitude and mental toughness and that there was the ground on which Bannister defeated him.
Again, Bannister: “At one point Landy said, ‘It’s like a brick wall. I’m not going to attempt it again.’ I, as a medical student, knew there wasn’t a brick wall.”
For months before his 3:59.4 in Oxford, Bannister had been looking over his own shoulder, at Landy and Wes Santee, an American, who was also turning in times just a hair over four minutes. Hoping to beat Santee to the punch, Bannister arranged a mile race at a school track meet in London for June 27, 1953. Santee was slated to race in America later the same day, six time zones away. The runners in London were Bannister and two rabbits, or pacers. Both Bannister and Santee were poised to break four minutes.
Bannister came closer, at 4:02. The British Amateur Athletic Board declined to recognize the event, explaining that “individual record attempts” were not “in the best interest of athletics as a whole.” That is, it was a race between Bannister and the clock, not other athletes. So was the Oxford race a year later, but the BAAB let that one go, and Bannister’s 3:59.4 stood. Was it kosher? You might as well argue that the Jeffrey Maier home run should have been ruled fan interference.
Mantle and Maris chasing the single-season home-run record in 1961 were a bit like Landy and Bannister in 1954. Maris won that contest, as Bannister had won his against Landy. Like Mantle, Landy had won other honors and would win more, but track has never had much mass appeal, and so Roger Bannister is a household name and John Landy isn’t.
In the telling of the great race to be the first athlete to run a mile under four minutes, the belief that human beings were capable of running 4:01 but not 3:59 is often portrayed as more prevalent at the time than it probably was. And while it’s true that the record remained stuck at 4:01 (Gunder Hägg, 1945) for almost a decade, men who in the late 1940s were in the prime age cohort for middle-distance runners had lost years of training to the war. Bannister, Landy, and Santee represented the first post-war wave of male milers who were able to climb to their peak, in their early to mid twenties, from a base of uninterrupted training begun in adolescence. When that historical wrinkle is accounted for, the progression of record mile times in the 1950s is smooth enough. The four-minute barrier was broken pretty much on schedule.
Landy probably would have gotten there first if Bannister hadn’t. It’s half of what Bannister feared. The other half was Santee. Heroes, all of them, each in his distinct way. Roger Bannister, rest in peace. John Landy, salut. May your renown grow until it’s commensurate with your achievement.