SI Vault
Roger Bannister
June 27, 1955
The bitter disappointment of the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki; revised training methods; the legendary barrier is broken; John Landy and the Mile of the Century at Vancouver's Empire Games
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June 27, 1955

The First Four Minutes

The bitter disappointment of the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki; revised training methods; the legendary barrier is broken; John Landy and the Mile of the Century at Vancouver's Empire Games

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In the winter of 1951-52 I started on my Olympic plan. Because of the tremendous nervous strain I suffered during races, I believed that excessive competition was essentially harmful to someone of my temperament. So I did not run in any cross-country races during the winter. I decided not to start running on the track until February, and did most of my training near my home round the grass cricket field of Harrow School.

I was building myself up for one supreme explosive effort on July 26, 1952 in the final at Helsinki. I had intended that the AAA Championships of 1951 should be my last fiercely competitive mile until Helsinki. I decided that I would not defend my AAA Mile title in the summer of 1952, but I would run in the half-mile instead. This would take away none of my freshness or strength, and would give me sharper tactical experience. There was much surprised comment, but I did not allow it to disturb me.

I did not expect people to understand my scheme of training. I only hoped that they would be patient with me and trust that I was doing my best to prepare for the Olympic race. But everyone seemed to know better than I how I should train. I had no coach or adviser, and hence no alibi if things went wrong. I had to carry the full weight of decisions myself. I now regretted that by running so fast the previous year I had added fuel to the fire.

Ten days before the Helsinki final I ran my last time trial at Motspur Park. Chataway led for the first lap and a half, and I completed a three-quarter-mile in 2 minutes 52.9 seconds. The time was unbelievable, with each lap faster than the previous one—58.5, 57.5 and 56.9 seconds. I had never run at such speed before and I rank this as equal to, if not better than, a four-minute mile. I felt joyously full of the running that I had restrained for so long.

The Olympic distance of 1,500 meters, which suits me better than a mile, is only 320 yards longer than a three-quarter-mile. I felt now that in a final race, with a day's rest after the heat, I could beat even the world record. This should be fast enough to win at Helsinki. I bound those who had seen the trial to secrecy, because it was only valuable as a boost for my own state of mind. I felt very happy.

Next morning I opened my paper and saw the headlines, "Semifinals for the Olympic 1,500 meters." There were to be races on three consecutive days, heats, semifinals and then the final.

I could hardly believe it. In just the length of time it took to read those few words the bottom had fallen out of my hopes. There had never been semifinals before. Just when I had become certain that my training method was right, this change in the Olympic program made nonsense of it, and denied me all chance of vindicating my ideas. This was the frame of mind in which I traveled to Helsinki with Chat-away, after the main party and five days before my first heat.

The night before the Olympic finals was one of the most unpleasant I have ever spent. I had finished fifth in my semifinal the day before, winded and unhappy, while Luxembourg's little Joseph Barthel romped home in 3 minutes 50.4 seconds. My legs ached and I was unable to sleep. I felt I hated running.

On Saturday, the day of the finals, I was the only representative of Great Britain left. The finalists included two Germans, Lueg and Lamers; two Americans, McMillen and Dreutzler; two Swedes, Aberg and Ericsson; Johansson of Finland; El Mabrouk of France; Boysen of Norway; MacMillan of Australia and Barthel of Luxembourg.

I hardly had the strength to warm up. As I walked out in front of those 70,000 spectators, my step had no spring, my face no color. The ruthless fighting of the semifinal, the worry and lack of sleep had exhausted me. There had been too little time between the races to regain my strength. As I stood at the start I felt a loyalty to all sports' lovers waiting at home. Everyone wished me well, but they could not help me here.

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