He never won Olympic gold. And the only world record he ever held lasted just 46 days. Yet Roger Bannister's singular accomplishment 50 years ago Thursday stands as one of the milestones in the history of sport.
In the early evening of May 6, 1954, Mr. Bannister, a 25-year-old medical student at Oxford University in England, became the first person to run a mile in less than four minutes.
At the Iffley Road Track in Oxford, he covered the distance in 3:59.4. The photo of Bannister hitting the tape - his head back, his mouth seeking one final gulp of air - is among the most memorable of all sports portraits.
"The world seemed to stand still for the final 200 yards," says Bannister in a phone interview from his Oxford home. "The only reality was the track under my feet. The tape meant finality. Extinction, perhaps. I think the fear factor - the fear of pain and fear of the unknown - may have kept someone from running a mile under four minutes before then."
While the sub-four-minute mile remains a notable distinction for runners, it has become relatively commonplace. As of the beginning of this year, 964 men from 60 countries have accomplished the feat, according to the British journal Track Stats. Teenage boys have done it, as have men over 40. American Steve Scott has broken the four-minute barrier 161 times, more than anyone else.
Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco now holds the record. Racing in Rome on July, 7, 1999, he broke the tape at 3:43.13, more than 16 seconds faster than Bannister's record time.
When Bannister broke the record, no woman had run a mile faster than five minutes. Now women are nearing the four-minute barrier. Svetlana Masterkova of Russia currently holds the record, running a 4:12.56 mile in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1996.
Before Bannister's run, breaking four minutes was widely considered a psychological and physical barrier. Nonetheless, elite runners and track experts generally believed that the milestone would be reached by one of three men: John Landy of Australia; Wes Santee, an American runner from Kansas; or Bannister.
"I know each of us wanted to do it first," Bannister recalls. "I was hopeful that it would be me because I had already decided that 1954 was going to be my last year of competition."
Along with longtime friends and training mates Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway, Bannister eyed a small, informal track meet at Iffley Road where he would attempt to run into history.
"Without the two Chrises to pace me, I don't believe I could have done what I did," Bannister says. "Brasher went into the lead for the first quarter of a mile and Chataway went into the lead near the three-quarter-mile mark. If they had gone either too fast or too slow, the four-minute mile would have been impossible."
The weather conditions early that day nearly conspired to delay the record attempt. Heavy rains and winds struck the area. Fewer than 100 people braved the harsh conditions to watch the race. But when that tiny group heard public address announcer Norris McWhirter begin his call of the winning time as "three minutes...," the roar seemed to come from thousands.
The accomplishment was hailed on the front pages of newspapers around the world. But unlike today, when athletes are rewarded with huge commercial deals following breakthrough achievements, Bannister received nothing. Strict amateur rules kept him from receiving endorsement and appearance fees.
Less than seven weeks after Bannister's record run, Mr. Landy lowered the record to 3:58 at a race in Turku, Finland. But when Bannister and Landy faced each other at the British Empire Games in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Aug. 7, 1954, Bannister won, running 3:58.8 to Landy's 3:59.6. After that, Bannister never ran competitively again, keeping his promise to leave the athletic arena to devote his time to medicine.
He later became one of Europe's leading practitioners of neurology and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1975 for his contributions to medicine, not running.
Now 75, a father of four and grandfather of 14, Bannister lives with his wife, Moyra, near the Iffley Road Track. Still, he never tires of retracing his half-century-old steps. A banquet in his honor was scheduled to be held in London Thursday.
If the record continues to drop at an average of three-tenths of a second per year, Bannister believes that someone will travel the distance in 3-1/2 minutes by the time the 100th anniversary of his landmark is reached.
"Someone will have the mental and physical strength to do it," he says. "That's why people take up sport, isn't it? To surpass what's come before."