Skip to main content

SI 60: Duel Of The Four-Minute Men

The first great story in the history of Sports Illustrated came from the magazine's first issue: Paul O'Neil writing about the "Duel Of The Four-Minute Men" between Roger Bannister and John Landy.

In honor of Sports Illustrated's 60th anniversary, is republishing, in full, 60 of the most unforgettable stories in the history of the magazine. Today's comes from SI's very first issue, Aug. 16, 1954, and chronicles what happened when two men who had recently done something once though impossible -- running a mile in under four minutes -- met for a showdown in Canada.

VANCOUVER, B.C. -- The art of running the mile consists, in essence, of reaching the threshold of unconsciousness at the instant of breasting the tape. It is not an easy process, even in a setpiece race against time, for the body rebels against such agonizing usage and must be disciplined by the spirit and the mind. It is infinitely more difficult in the amphitheater of competition, for then the runner must remain alert and cunning despite the fogs of fatigue and pain; his instinctive calculation of pace must encompass maneuver for position, and he must harbor strength to answer the moves of other men before expending his last reserves in the war of the home stretch.

Few events in sport offer so ultimate a test of human courage and human will and human ability to dare and endure for the simple sake of struggle -- classically run, it is a heart-stirring, throat-tightening spectacle. But the world of track has never seen anything quite to equal the "Mile of the Century" which England's Dr. Roger Gilbert Bannister -- the tall, pale-skinned explorer of human exhaustion who first crashed the four-minute barrier—won here last Saturday from Australia's world-record holder, John Michael Landy. It will probably not see the like again for a long, long time.

The duel of history's first four-minute milers, high point of the quadrennial British Empire & Commonwealth Games, was the most widely heralded and universally contemplated match footrace of all time. Thirty-two thousand people jostled and screamed while it was run in Vancouver's new Empire Stadium, millions followed it avidly by television. It was also the most ferociously contested of all mile events. Despite the necessity of jockeying on the early turns and of moving up in a field of six other good men, Bannister ran a blazing 3:58.8 and Landy 3:59.6. Thus for the first time two men broke four minutes in the same race. (Though far back in the ruck, five other runners finished under 4:08 -- Canada's Rich Ferguson in 4:04.6, Northern Ireland's Victor Milligan in 4:05, and both New Zealand's Murray Halberg and England's Ian Boyd in 4:07.2.)

Landy's world record of 3:58, set seven weeks ago in cool, still Nordic twilight at Turku, Finland, still stood when the tape was broken. But runners are truly tested only in races with their peers. When the four-minute mile was taken out of the laboratory and tried on the battlefield, Landy was beaten, man to man, and Roger Bannister reigned again as the giant of modern track.

Seldom has one event so completely overshadowed such a big and colorful sports carnival as this year's Empire Games. The Empire's miniature Olympics, for which Vancouver built its $2,000,000 stadium, a bicycle velodrome and a magnificent swimming pool, would have been notable if only for the rugged, seagirt, mountain-hung beauty amidst which they were held. They were further enlivened by the sight of Vancouver's kilted, scarlet-coated Seaforth Highland Regiment on parade, by the presence of Britain's Field Marshal Earl Alexander of Tunis, and -- more exciting yet -- of Queen Elizabeth's tall, handsome husband, Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.

During seven days of competition 20 of 27 games records were cracked in track and field events alone, and England, by virtue of her peerless distance runners, walked off with the lion's share of glory (scoring by unofficial points: England 514-1/2, Australia 363-3/4, Canada 339, South Africa 260-3/4) and served notice on the world of tremendous new strength. Canadians and U.S. tourists alike were startled at the Elizabethan rudeness with which the Englishmen (Oxonians almost to a man, and thus held to be effete) ran their opposition into the ground in races demanding stamina and bottom. They placed one, two, three in the six mile (won by Peter Driver) one, two, three in the three mile (won by amiable, beer-quaffing Chris Chataway, who paced Bannister in the Oxford mile) and one, two, three in the half mile (won by Derek James Neville Johnson).

There were also alarums and sensations. Australia's bicycle team protested English tactics, were rebuffed, withdrew from competition in a scandalous huff, cooled off, and duly re-entered the lists. Vancouver's world champion weightlifter, Doug Hepburn -- who stands 5'8", weighs 299 pounds, measures 22 inches around the biceps and wears the look of a Terrible Turk -- lifted an aggregate of 1,040 pounds with contemptuous ease while his fellow citizens watched with unsurpassed pride and glee.

SI 60: 1954-94: How We Got Here Chapter 1: The Titan of Television

Canada's big, beautiful, blond woman shotputter, the Toronto schoolteacher Jackie MacDonald (see page 32), was barred from competition in mid-meet for publicly endorsing Orange Crush. And the big closing-day crowd in the stadium was treated to one of the most gruesome scenes in sports history after England's marathon champion, Jim Peters, entered the track a mile ahead of his field but almost completely unconscious from strain and weariness. Peters fell as he came in sight of the crowd, rose drunkenly, staggered a few steps and fell again (see page 31), until he was lifted to a stretcher and thus disqualified short of victory.

But for all this, nothing in the games remotely approached the tension and drama inherent in the mile. The race developed, in fact, amid an atmosphere much more reminiscent of a heavyweight championship fight than a contest of amateurs on the track. This was not unjustified; it was obvious from the beginning that Bannister and Landy would be engaged in a sort of gladiatorial combat, a duel of endurance in which no two other men who ever lived could even have engaged.

Scroll to Continue

SI Recommends

At first glance they seemed like an odd pair of gladiators. Like most distance men both look frail and thin in street clothes. Landy has a mop of dark, curly hair, the startled brown eyes of a deer, a soft voice with little trace of the Australian snarl, and a curious habit of bending forward and clasping his hands before his chest when making a conversational point. As a student at Australia's Geelong Grammar School ("A Church of England school," says his father with satisfaction, "where the prefects whack the boys, y'know") John developed a passion for the collection of butterflies and moths and an ambition to become an entomologist (which his father cured by sending him to Melbourne University to study agricultural science).

Roger Bannister is taller (6' ¾" to Landy's 5' 11¼"). slightly heavier (156 pounds to Landy's 150) and slightly older (25 to Landy's 24) but he too would be the last man in the world to be singled out of a crowd as an athlete. He is stooped and negligent in carriage; he has lank blond hair, a high-cheeked, peaked face, and a polite and noncommittal upper-class British voice. The face is expressive and can flash with instant animation and warmth. He can use words with precision and humor, and at times, even with a sort of conversational eloquence. But scholarly is the word for Dr. Bannister. It is apt -- he is a scholar and a brilliant one. Perhaps five per cent of London medical students go through their courses without failing one exam and Bannister was among that small fraction when he received his degree at London's St. Mary's Hospital this year.

But men are seldom what they seem; Bannister, a complex and many-sided person, is both repelled and fascinated by the hurly-burly of big time sport, but for seven years, he has driven himself, stoically as an Indian brave or a man climbing Everest, toward the four-minute mile. So during the last five years has John Michael Landy. Both men have engaged in an endless and grueling effort to explore and push back the furthest boundaries of their own endurance.

Neither has ever been coached -- in the casual British club system of competition, unlike the more regimented U.S. college team system, runners are presumed to be able to train themselves. Separately, half a world apart, both Bannister and Landy arrived at curiously identical conclusions; both decided that overtraining and stale-ness were simply myths and that the more the body endures the more it will endure. Both drove themselves to extremes of exertion (training sessions of 10 to 14 58-second quarter miles with one lap walked between) which would have staggered the average U.S. athlete.

Bannister carried his preoccupation with the mysteries of exhaustion into the world of science when he was a medical student at Oxford in 1951. He ran to the point of total collapse on a treadmill almost daily, with hollow needles thrust into his fingers to measure lactic acid and with an oxygen mask clapped over his face to give him extra fuel. Meanwhile at Oxford, and all through his three years at St. Mary's (where he ducked out to Paddington Recreation Ground and paid three pence to use the cinder paths), he went on with his massive burden of running.

The two four-minute milers developed into unique beings -- men whose hearts have enormous capacity and power and whose bodies can utilize oxygen with fantastic economy and resist the inroads of fatigue with fantastic success. Bannister's pulse rate, which was a normal 65 when he was 17, is now 45. Landy's is 50. But there their similarities end. In Vancouver, as the remorseless pressure of the world's excitement pressed down on them, and race day neared, their differences of temperament became obvious. Landy seemed assured, relaxed, cocky. Bannister became quiet, remote, and fled daily to a golf course to train.

But Bannister's teammates were not misled. "Roger hates the idea of having to beat Landy -- of having thousands of people expecting him to do it," said one. "But he'll do it. Nobody gets in such an emotional pitch before a race as he does. He's got a cold now, you know. I suspect it is psychosomatic and I suspect he suspects it -- he had one just like it before the Oxford mile. Roger may tell you he has slept before a race, but he hasn't. When he goes out to run he looks like a man going to the electric chair. There are times the night before a race when he actually makes involuntary sounds, like a man being tortured. But Roger is a hard man to comfort -- if you try he'll give you a look that goes right through you."

Whatever their preliminary travail, both runners seemed equally intent and equally oblivious of the rumble and roar of applause as they warmed up on the infield grass in the moments before race time. Bright sunlight bathed the jampacked stadium. The temperature stood at a pleasant 72, the relative humidity at a pleasant 48. Only the faintest of breezes moved on the track, as the field of milers was called to the mark. Landy, in the green of Australia, stepped quietly into the pole position. Bannister, in the red-barred white of England, had lane 5 -- he drew one deep, shuddering breath and then leaned forward for a standing start.

The gun puffed and popped and New Zealand's darkhorse Murray Halberg burst into the lead with his teammate William David Baillie at his heels. Landy let them go -- he wanted speed, but he wanted top cover if he could get it -- and settled into a docile fourth on the turn. He stayed there for less than the lap. The pacesetters slowed, almost imperceptibly, and Landy moved instantly and decisively into the lead. His strategy was simple and savage -- to run the first seven furlongs at so blazing a pace that Bannister would be robbed of his famous kick.

As Landy moved, Bannister moved too. They ran Landy first, Bannister second at the end of the stretch and the duel had begun. "Time for the first lap," the loudspeakers grated as they entered the turn, "fifty-eight seconds." Then bedlam began too. It increased as Landy moved away -- five yards, ten yards, fifteen yards -- in the backstretch of the second lap, and Bannister let him go. "It was a frightening thing to do," said the Englishman later, "but I believed he was running too fast. I had to save for my final burst and hope I could catch him in time."

Landy's time was 1:58 at the half. The groundwork for a four-minute mile had been laid. The field had faded far to the rear. The duelists ran alone in front with Landy still making the pace. But now, yard by yard, easily, almost imperceptibly Bannister was regaining ground. He was within striking distance as they fled into the last, decisive quarter amid a hysterical uproar of applause. He stayed there on the turn. Two hundred yards from home, Landy made his bid for decision and victory. But Bannister refused to be shaken, and with 90 yards to go he lengthened his plunging stride. He came up shoulder to shoulder, fought for momentum, pulled away to a four-yard lead and ran steadily and stylishly through a deafening clamor to the tape. He fell, arms flapping, legs buckling, into the arms of the English team manager a split second after the race was done.

"I tried to pull away from him in the backstretch of the last lap," said Landy after he ceased to gasp for breath. "I had hoped that the pace would be so fast that he would crack at that point. He didn't. When you get a man in that sort of a situation and he doesn't crack, you do. From then on I knew it was only a question of time. I looked over my left shoulder to see where he was on the turn, and when I looked back he was ahead of me." He paused, grinned, shook his head and added: "I've had it."