In athletics, the four minute mile is the running of a mile, or 5280 feet, in less than four minutes. It was first achieved in 1954 by Roger Bannister. The four minute barrier has since been broken by many male athletes, and is now the standard of all professional middle distance runners. In the last 50 years the mile record has been lowered by almost 17 seconds.
When Bannister crossed the finish line of Oxford’s Iffley Road track on May 6, 1954, he could hardly see straight. Completing the mile in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds, he had not only trimmed two seconds off the world record, but also run the world’s first sub four minute mile.
“People thought it was like bouncing off a brick wall,” explains close rival John Landy, who had come within three seconds of the four minute mark six times.
“It was a sense of relief,” said Bannister, recalling the momentous event more than 50 years later. “There was a mystique, a belief that it couldn’t be done, but I think it was more of a psychological barrier than a physical barrier.”
Landy, who broke Bannister’s record with a 3 minute 58 second finish only six weeks later, argues otherwise. “It has nothing to do with psychology,” he says. “It was just a matter of having the right runners at the right level of training and the right set of circumstances.”
John Walker, a distance runner from New Zealand, managed to run 129 sub four minute miles during his career, during which he was the first person to run over 100 sub four minute miles, and American Steve Scott has run the most sub four minute miles, with 136. Currently, the mile record is held by the Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj, who set a time of 3 minutes 43.13 seconds in Rome in 1999.
Another illustration of the progression of performance in the men’s mile is that in 1994, forty years after Bannister’s breaking of the barrier, the Irish runner Eamonn Coghlan became the first man over age 40 to run a sub four minute mile.
No woman has yet run a four minute mile. The current women’s record holder is retired Russian Svetlana Masterkova, with a time of 4 minutes 12.56 seconds.
In 1997, Daniel Komen of Kenya ran two miles in less than eight minutes, doubling up on Bannister’s accomplishment.