Roger Bannister – Nothing is Impossible
Estimated Time To Read: 2 minute(s) 35 seconds
I remember our general knowledge quiz in primary school always included the question, ‘who was the first man to run the mile in under four minutes, and where?’ The answer, of course: Roger Bannister at Iffley Road Track, Oxford.
The story came alive for me about 10 years ago when I heard a sports talk that gave a different angle to the historic event. Unknown to me was that there were four athletes in different parts of the world vying to beat the record of 4: 01 minutes, which had stood since the early 1940s. Among them was the great Australian, John Landy, who became Bannister’s arch rival in the race to break the four-minute mile barrier.
Medical specialists held that it was impossible for a man to run at this speed. Others suggested that it could be done, but only if conditions were perfect: a minimum of 20 degrees Celsius, with no wind on a clay track and probably in Scandinavia. Apparently even Landy, who had recorded a time of 4:02, was quoted in the London papers as saying that the sub-4 minute mile barrier was like a brick wall and that the feat was not possible. He suggested that people should stop placing such intense pressure on athletes to break the barrier.
Apparently, on the day Landy’s comments appeared, Bannister’s coach, the legendary Austrian Franz Stampfl, told him he could run 3:55. Bannister laughed, but the coach did not. He adapted Bannister’s training by introducing what became known as interval training in which athletes run at high intensity followed by short recovery periods. An example would be eight repetitions of 400 metres with a 200-metre jog between each.
Bannister then set out to do the impossible during an athletics meet at Iffley Road Track, Oxford on 6 May 1954 watched by about 3 000 spectators. With winds of up to 40 km/h before the event, it had also rained all day in Oxford up to the start of meet, making the clay track heavy going. Bannister had said twice that he favoured not running. However, the winds dropped just before the race was scheduled to begin, and Bannister decided to go for it, with coach Stampfl apparently telling him, “look its cold, wet and windy, I think you’ll do 3.57 minutes”.
Bannister used two other runners as pace makers and famously had to run the last lap in 59 seconds to break the barrier. Backed by innovative training, the confidence instilled by his coach and his own self-belief, Bannister did the impossible by running the mile in 3:59.4. After finishing the race in a state of near collapse, Bannister described feeling like “an exploded flashbulb,” adding: “I suddenly and gloriously felt free from the burden of athletic ambition I had been carrying for years.”
Remarkably, Landy beat his world record only 40 days later (in Scandinavia) and within months numerous athletes were running sub-4 minute miles.
Bannister’s feat has spawned many a thesis on the lessons to be learned from the achievement. One of the most elegant is by two professors of the Wharton School of Business in the US, Yoram Wind and Colin Crook. They emphasised the mindset behind the achievement rather than the physical feat.
How is it, they wondered in their analysis, that so many runners smashed the four-minute barrier after Bannister became the first to do so. “Was there a sudden growth spurt in human evolution? Was there a genetic engineering experiment that created a new race of super runners? No. What changed was the mental model. The runners of the past had been held back by a mindset that said they could not surpass the four-minute mile. When that limit was broken, the others saw that they could do something they had previously thought impossible.”
In other words: Once you stop believing something is impossible, then it is possible!