A Point of View: How running has changed since the four-minute mile

Roger Bannister about to cross the tape at the end of his record breaking mile run at Iffley Road, Oxford

As we approach the 60th anniversary of the four-minute mile, Mary Beard reflects on what has changed in the sport of running.

In a few days' time it will be the 60th anniversary of the first four-minute mile. On 6 May 1954, at Iffley Road sports ground in Oxford, Roger Bannister, supported by his friends Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway, ran a mile race in three minutes 59.4 seconds. If we leave aside the story of James Parrott, who is supposed to have raced a mile around the streets of Shoreditch in three minutes something on 9 May 1770, this was the first time a human being had cracked the four-minute mile barrier. Certainly, the first time it was fully ratified by an array of official stopwatches.

When I was a child in the late 1950s, my parents taught me about Bannister's mile just as they taught me about the first climbing of Mount Everest. These were meant, I suppose, to be patriotic lessons in the physical prowess of Britain and the Commonwealth. I can still vividly conjure up in my mind the famous image of Bannister breaking through the finishing tape in triumph (though frankly I now think that he looks more in agony than in triumph).

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Mary Beard
  • Historian Mary Beard is professor of classics at Cambridge University
  • A Point of View broadcasts on BBC Radio 4 on Fridays at 20:50 BST and repeated on Sunday at 08:50 BST

But the whole occasion now feels strangely distant - part of a very different world in sporting, and other, senses. That's partly because the four-minute mile is no longer a particularly rare achievement. In fact, Bannister's record was broken only six weeks later, when the Australian runner John Landy cut the time to 3:58 seconds, and since then hundreds of men (and they are all men) have run the distance below the magic four minutes. The current world record - set in 1999 by the Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj - stands at just over 3:43 seconds.

And it's partly because the mile race itself is now a bit of a white elephant. It's still a popular distance for fun-runs and demonstration events, but it's long been overtaken for serious athletes by the 1500 metres (the "metric mile" as the British used, rather patronisingly, to call it).

But then there's also the whole ethos of the preparation for the race. Bannister's own accounts of this are extremely engaging. He was, at the time, a final-year medical student in London, and his regular training consisted in running round the local park, either at lunchtime - or when he was bunking off his obstetrics lectures (it's no coincidence, I suspect, that he became a neurologist rather than an obstetrician). For the few months before the big event, he practised at weekends too with Brasher and Chataway, and took advice from Brasher's coach - often over baked beans on toast at a Lyons Corner House. As for his equipment, just the day before the race he was found sharpening his running spikes on a grindstone in the lab.

On the day itself he went to Oxford by train, had a look around the track, and then went to have lunch (of ham salad) with some friends and their children. It was only when he went back to the track for the late afternoon start that he decided that the wind had dropped enough to make it worth having a shot at breaking the four-minute barrier.

Mo Farah running the London Marathon

This is a whole world away from the regimes that modern athletes undergo - with their retinues of physiologists, psychiatrists and dieticians (I very much doubt that the likes of Jessica Ennis or Mo Farah often sit down for a plate of baked beans in our own equivalent of a Lyons Corner House, or that they would be allowed out for lunch with friends just before a race). And it is a world away from the scientific calculations - on wind-resistance, friction, and so forth - that determine the tactics of modern races. The film of the Iffley Road event shows Chris Brasher - who presumably wanted to see where he was running, in an age before contact lenses - wearing what look like old-fashioned National Health spectacles throughout. Just think of the wind resistance in that.

Where modern runners, in other words, have become something not far short of specially constructed machines, Bannister and his friends remained well-trained (but not over-trained) human bodies.

Or so it seems at first sight. But, beneath the surface, the picture's more complicated. Even in Bannister's charming description of his self-consciously amateurish success, we get glimpses of a more hard-headed professionalism. So-called "effortless superiority" is rarely as "effortless" as it pretends to be. It wasn't all do-it-yourself preparation on the lab grindstone. He himself explains that he had some super-light running shoes specially made (4oz rather than 6oz per shoe - enough, he reckoned, to make all the difference between coming in under four minutes and not). He was also scientifically interested in how running times could be improved. One of his first academic papers, published in July 1954, was about the effects on athletic performance of taking supplementary oxygen (using himself and Norris McWhirter - one of the founders of the Guinness Book of Records - among the experimental subjects). There is absolutely no suggestion that the four-minute race was oxygen-assisted, but Bannister had more of a stake in the hi-tech science of running than we might imagine.

6th May 1954: Chris Brasher (1928 - 2003) takes the lead, closely followed by Roger Bannister during a historic race at Iffley Road, Oxford Roger Bannister (left) and Chris Brasher racing at Iffley Road in May, 1954

There was also controversy at the time about the methods used to break the record. The mainstream press was ecstatic in its celebration of Bannister's race, but specialist athletics magazines were anxious about the use of two fellow-runners as pacemakers. The tactics had been planned well in advance. Bannister achieved his time by keeping up first with Brasher who set the pace over laps one and two - and who then more or less dropped out and finished last. He then kept close to Chataway for another lap or so before making his final break for the line. Wasn't this, some critics worried, close to race-fixing? Two men had entered, whose aim had never been to win.

To put it another way, were the runners racing as individuals or as a team? Were they competing against their rivals in the race, or against the clock? Over his career as a whole, Bannister was not outstandingly distinguished against his human rivals - he was brilliant against the clock.

But the most disconcerting side of the Iffley Road race is its glaring display of class division. Sport is well known to reflect, or to reinforce, social, cultural and political hierarchies. But the class stand-off was never better captured than in the Alf Tupper strip cartoons that appeared in British comics and papers between the 1950s and the 1990s. Alf was a brilliant miler, he was also a tough guy who worked as a welder, and was regularly insulted by his languid, upper-class fellow athletes - though Alf, of course, usually came out on top.

If we look a bit closer at the line-up on 6 May 1954, we'll glimpse just the same split: Alf against the rest. The mile event was part of a bigger competition between Oxford University and the national Amateur Athletics Association. Although we only ever see photographs of Bannister, Brasher and Chataway, there were six runners in all. Oxford had a team of two students who seem to have ended up fourth and fifth (though the crowding of the track at the end of the race made it hard to tell). They were supposed to have been a team of three, but - in a scatty undergraduate way - the third member turned up at the last minute to watch, not realising he was supposed be running, and hadn't brought his kit with him.

Tom Hulatt (far left), Bannister (third from left), Chataway, (second from left), Brasher (second from right)  Tom Hulatt (far left), Bannister (third from left), Chataway, (second from left), Brasher (second from right)

There were four members of the AAA squad - the three we know about, who had all studied at either Oxford or Cambridge, went on to glittering careers in sport, academia, politics and the BBC and earned two knighthoods and a CBE between them, and then Tom Hulatt, from a local athletics club in Derbyshire, who finished third behind Chataway. Hulatt worked in the local colliery near Tibshelf, and had a rat-catching business on the side. His training was largely running the five miles to and from work.

Hulatt may have had a great day in Oxford, but he was certainly the odd man out. Before the event Bannister came up to him and advised him to "run his own race" (it was probably a kindly gesture, but it could also have been telling him to stay out of their way). Afterwards, the Oxford students presumably went back to their colleges, the Bannister trio went celebrating and clubbing in London, Hulatt got his programme signed by Bannister, Brasher and Chataway and took the train back to Derbyshire.

I doubt that, outside his home village, Hulatt who died in 1990, will be a big part in our commemoration of the mile-record of 1954. Rightly, perhaps, the moment will belong to Bannister. But happily Alf Tupper is coming back into the limelight - in the sports magazine, Athletics Weekly, our wonderful working-class runner is just now starting a brand new cartoon series.

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Here is a seletion of your comments.

As a young schoolboy not a million miles from Oxford at that time, and a member of the now defunct Ruislip/Northwood Athletic Club, I really can't agree with the posited class division in athletics as a whole. I always thought one of its great attractions was the mixture of social groups that participated at all levels - school, club, county, national.

Gerard Gilbertson, Sonnenbuehl, Germany

It's true that Bannister was criticised for using pacemakers in a planned race against the clock - something disdained by his great Australian rival John Landy, though standard practice today in world record attempts. But Bannister won their much-hyped showdown race, the "Miracle Mile" at the 1954 Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, in a faster time than he ran at Iffley Road, as well as the 1500m at the European Championships that year. Surely this vindicates his reputation as a genuine champion.

Geoffrey Allen, Iseo, Italy

I used to train at the Tooting Bec Common track and thrill to see 'Puffer' Pirie training there. I was never in his class. I remember so clearly the success of beating the four-minute mile as I moved into university Physiology. Now the pressure is on to be within 2 hours for the marathon. Two years ago I counted 14 petrol vehicles around the leaders of the Paris marathon. The exhaust must have an influence on the physiology of the leaders as well as the physchological disturbance of motor bikes advancing and retiring from those in front. Please can all vehicles in the leaders arena be limited to electrical ones to give haemoglobin the maximum opportunity for marathon runners to bust the 2 hour limit.

Dr Bryan Walker, Chiang Mai, Thailand

I was there, aged eight, and still have the programme. The pattern of pacemaking was undoubtedly well-planned. The author, however, is wrong to draw spurious class conclusions. In those days athletics, rugby and cricket were non-professional. One could visit Iffley Road or the Parks and see teams of undergraduates run, play rugby, or cricket against the best in the world and often hold their own. Oxbridge sport enabled the undergraduates to refine their sporting skills. It is no more remarkable to find Tom Hulatt in an AAA team than to find Stanley Matthews playing soccer for Blackpool and England at the time, or to find a working class member of the UK athletics team now. What has changed, as the article implies, is that sophisticated training methods mean that, except in rowing, only full-time professionals can be world class, and undergraduates simply do not have the time.

Dr Tim King, Oxford, UK

I was just wondering why the Oxford runners are never named as they played a part in this momentous day ? The untold story of runner 42. As a child my mother informed me that her brother John Pollard, who was an exceptional athlete, had taken part in this historic race. Unfortunately on the day he was unwell suffering, I think, from a cold and temperature but ran anyway as he did not wish to let the side down. It was one of the few occasions when my Grandmother, his mother, went to see him run and of course he was very upset when he was unable to put in his best performance. How different things might have been that day if Uncle John Pollard had been fit and well ?!

Jocelyn Gray, Auchendinny

Mary Beard has ignored the fact the there were professional runners at this time. Most famous of these were the fell runners in the Lake district, but there were other groups who were active. The results of these runners were ignored as they were running for money. The was a great stigma against professional sport in most games. Tom Hulatt receives a worthy mention, but research will reveal that he was considered slow by some professional runners.

Owen Roberts, Maidenehead, Berkshire

I grew up in the next village to Tibshelf in Derbyshire and at the age of 16 years I knew Tom Hulatt and spoke to him on several occasions. We attended Tibshelf Parish Church at the same time on Sunday evenings. Everyone in the area was so thrilled when we learned that Tom had been in the race when Banister broke the record. I had been cross country champion at Tibshelf School and Tom told me himself that Banister had told him that they were going to try for the record the night it happened. He made only complimentry remarks about Banister's words to him. However as a reader of comic stories myself I remember the Alf Tupper comic strips very well and how Alf trained on Fish and Chips. I was very pleased to read this story. I thought Tom Hulatt had been long forgotten.

Frank Andrews, Gainesville,Florida, U.S.A

Is Mary Beard not aware of the book about Tom Hulatt by Peter and Paul Stanley published in 2003. An good read and an interesting insight to running outside the top elite. Also amongst student runners Alf Tupper is a revered character, even to extent that Leeds University Cross Country Club use his image as a club emblem.

Peter Rawnsley, Leeds, Yorkshire

Not quite as simple as Prof Beard makes out. Sidney Wooderson, pre war 1 mile world record holder never went to university. Derek Ibbotson, world record holder only 3 years after Bannister was an electrician.

John Dawson, Chester

To help complete Mary's picture of this race, the Oxford athlete, third from right at the start (between Brasher and Bannister) is Alan Gordon who went on to establish the agri-business strategy consultancy, GIRA, and is now retired near Annecy in France. I seem to recall either Alan recounting, or seeing a picture of, Bannister finishing the race as he was entering the final straight.

Allan Mayo, London, UK

I was always lead to believe, and yes I saw it "live" on TV, that it was not a competitive race as such but an attempt to break the four minute mile, hence the pacemakers. I think it was Diane Leather that broke the women's five minute mile.

John Tebbs, Scarborough. N. Yorkshire

I think that you've slightly missed the point here about Bannister's connection with the academic study of exercise and oxygen/CO2 exchange. According to my tutor at Oxford (the late Dr DS Parsons, who had been Roger Bannister's tutor at the time), Roger was doing a D.Phil in exercise physiology (between the 2 halves of a medical course) and was struggling to get experimental subjects - so decided to use himself - and quite accidentally discovered that he was good at running. Put more succinctly, the research led to the running, rather than visa versa. This all fits with your description of his scientific paper, most likely published once the D.Phil was finished and he was continuing with the clinical part of his course (which at that time was normally done in London).

Dave Harvey, Swansea, UK

There was a working class runner that day - Roger Bannister. He had had to work very hard to win a scholarship to Oxford as his parents certainly did not have the money to send him there without it. After the faily moved to Bath, he went to the local grammar school, (now Beechen Cliff School) where he trained by running to school up the steep paths of Beechen Cliff. So he was not so very unlike Alf Tupper.

Kirsten Elliott, Bath England

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