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3:59.4 The Quest for the Four Minute Mile

Release date: 22nd March, 2004
Publisher: Parrs Wood Press

List Price: £12.95
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Sports book review
'3:59.4 The Quest for the Four-Minute Mile'
By Bob Phillips
Parrs Wood Press

4Sportsbook.co.uk price: £ 9.05 (rrp £12.95)

By any measure of national sporting achievement, Roger Bannister's first sub-four minute mile in 1954 stands alongside previous and subsequent successes for individuals or national teams.

Five weeks from now, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Bannister's achievement, one which undoubtedly succeeded in lifting the whole nation. In this hugely enjoyable book, Bob Phillips, a member of the BBC's athletics commentary team for 17 years, tells a tale of athletics history which encompasses not just the moment at Iffley Road when history was made, but of the century which led up to Bannister's epic run.

Early 1950s post-war Britain was still a drab place where the memory of rationing and perennial shortages was yet to fade: Hillary's conquest of Everest and the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth provided welcome relief from the cheerless nature of everyday life. Set against this background, Roger Bannister, a full time medical student, had established a British record time of 4:02 for the mile in June 1953 and knew immediately that a sub-four minute time was possible.

It's astonishing today to think that as few as 1,200 people would be present to witness a well trailed world record attempt in a blue ribband athletics event, yet on 6th May 1954, at a windswept Iffley Road, Oxford University's athletics track, Bannister and his two pacesetters, Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher, decided this was the moment. They were joined by three others (Tom Hulatt, Alan Gordon and George Dole, the latter, now the Reverend G.F. Dole, writes the prologue to Phillips' tale) in what was modestly billed as a race between the AAA and Oxford.

The world mile record had stood for nine years, having been established by Gunder Hagg of Sweden, who had run 4:01.03 in July 1945; by the end of the third lap at Oxford in 1954, it seemed probable that Hagg's time would remain unbeaten as Bannister's spilt time (3:00.4) was slower than when the world record had been set. Yet by tapping into his vast reserves of mental and physical strength, Bannister managed to come home in 3:59.4, an amazing feat which is given added weight when one considers it was his first competitive race since the previous August!

While this race is the centrepiece of Phillips' book, he provides a comprehensive history of how the mile became a "valid distance for meaningful competition" from the days in 1787 when a London butcher by the name of Walpole ran from Newgate market along City Road in a time of 4:30. Later, in 1841, a farmer in Cumberland (now Cumbria) is recorded as having run a downhill mile in 4 minutes 2 seconds and won £500, but by the end of the 1860s, the mile record was acknowledged as being 4:17.

The series of mile races between Walter George and William Cummings (the Coe and Ovett of their day) in the 1880s are faithfully recorded as is the rise of the American runner, Glen Cunningham 50 years later. Throughout, the book's narrative is in keeping with its subject matter.

One final fact: the mile record now stands at 3:43.13, a time that would leave Bannister 120 yards behind Hicham El Guerrouj, but the extent and manner of Bannister's achievement has ensured that his name is forever etched into athletics history


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