Prevailing wisdom seems to have it that the 1950s were dull, that this was a decade when the nation gazed down the long fairway of indifference and apathy. It was reputedly a peaceful, carefree time, years of numbing boredom between a terrible war and a social revolution. This is a canard, circulated most freely by those who weren't around in the '50s. Take it from someone who was very much there that these were years of constant change, of social turmoil, of excitement and wonder.
I give you the year 1954, one under consideration here for reasons only too apparent. And what a year it was, both in and out of sports. I know it was a year I'll never forget, and, later, I hope to explain why. Perhaps it was the same for you. So suppose we look at a few of the events and people of a time that for some of us seems like only yesterday.
THE FOUR-MINUTE MILE. Maybe the thrill has gone from those once magic words. This is the metric age in track, after all, and hardly anyone seems to run mile races anymore. Ah, but in 1954, the four-minute mile was the Holy Grail of running. It wasn't so much a goal as a barrier, as in the sound barrier, something to be broken through, presumably at great physical peril. And yet most experts of the time agreed that the problem of breaking through the barrier was more psychological than physical. Many runners had come close to it, but they all were eventually repulsed, as if held back by powers unseen and demonic. They all were, that is, until the drizzly afternoon of May 6, 1954, at the Iffley Road track, in Oxford, England. That was the day the clock was beaten.
The four-minute mile did not seem a realistic goal until the early 1930s when first Jules Ladoumègue of France (4:09.2) and then Jack Lovelock of New Zealand (4:07.6) ran it in under 4:10. Then, in 1934, Glenn Cunningham, the splendid middle-distance runner from Kansas, ran a 4:06.8. Britain's Sydney Wooderson lowered the record to 4:06.4 three years later, and, in the early 1940s, the great Swedish runners Arne Andersson and Gunder (the Wonder) Hägg, alternated at lowering the record virtually every year until, in 1945, Hägg ran a tantalizing 4:01.4. The four-minute mile had at last become a probability.
And yet Hägg's record stood for another nine years. There were runners consistently approaching it, among them Australia's John Landy, who had run a 4:02.1, and another miler from Kansas, Wes Santee, who had done 4:02.4. But Hägg's personal choice to break the barrier was a 25-year-old British medical student, Roger Bannister, who had done a paced 4:02. Hägg said in March of '54 that Bannister had the courage and the brains to turn the trick.
But Bannister was apprehensive on the morning of May 6 in Oxford. It had been raining and there was a 15-mph crosswind. Bannister told his trainer, Franz Stampfl, that maybe he shouldn't run at all. Stampfl, who had been working with Bannister since November, was sure the time was ripe, and he argued that the foul weather might actually spur him on to greater exertions. There followed a conversation between these two gentlemen that ranged from psychology to philosophy to supernatural experience. Bannister finally agreed to run.
Stampfl had a plan. Bannister's teammates on the British Amateur Athletic Association team, Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway, were to take turns pacing Bannister, Brasher leading him through the first half mile, Chataway picking him up from there for as long as he could hold out. As if in league with the scheme, the skies cleared five minutes before the race. Brasher immediately took the lead, pulling Bannister to a swift 57.5 quarter mile. At 660 yards, Stampfl shouted to Bannister, "Relax!" Bannister reached the half mile in 1:58.2, on pace for a breakthrough. Chataway then took his turn as the rabbit and held on until Bannister, into his finishing kick now, swept by him with 300 yards to go. Head rolled back, face contorted in pain, Bannister broke through the tape and collapsed in exhaustion.
There was an anxious pause, broken only by the anticipatory mumbling of 1,200 spectators, and then the announcement came: "A time, which is a new meeting and track record and which, subject to ratification, will be a new English native, a British national, a British allcomers, European, British Empire and world's record. The time was three...." The rest was lost in pandemonium. Bannister had done it! He had run the mile in 3:59.4.
He had also opened the way for previously frustrated competitors everywhere. Six weeks later, Landy ran a 3:58 flat in Turku, Finland, and in August, Landy and Bannister ran the "Mile of the Century" at the British Empire Games in Vancouver, B.C., with Bannister winning in 3:58.8. The four-minute mile had become old hat. Bannister ran one more event and then retired to a career in medicine, his niche in sports history forever assured.