LONDON (AP) — It was a typical British afternoon in early May: wet, cool and blustery. Not exactly the ideal conditions for running four laps around a track faster than many thought humanly possible.
A lanky Oxford medical student named Roger Bannister looked up at the white-and-red English flag whipping in the wind atop a nearby church and figured he would have to call off the record attempt.
But then, shortly after 6 p.m. on May 6, 1954, the wind subsided. Bannister glanced up again and saw the flag fluttering oh-so gently. The race was on.
With two friends acting as pacemakers, Bannister churned around the cinder track four times. His long arms and legs pumping, his lungs gasping for air, he put on a furious kick over the final 300 yards and nearly collapsed as he crossed the finish line.
The announcer read out the time:
The rest was drowned out by the roar of the crowd. The 3 was all that mattered.
Bannister had just become the first runner to break the mythical 4-minute barrier in the mile — a feat of speed and endurance that stands as one of the seminal sporting achievements of the 20th century.
The black-and-white image of Bannister, eyes closed, head back, mouth wide open, straining across the tape at Oxford’s Iffley Road track, endures as a defining snapshot of a transcendent moment in track and field history.
Bannister died peacefully in Oxford on Saturday at the age of 88. He was “surrounded by his family who were as loved by him, as he was loved by them,” the family said in a statement Sunday. “He banked his treasure in the hearts of his friends.”
British Prime Minister Theresa May remembered Bannister as a “British sporting icon whose achievements were an inspiration to us all. He will be greatly missed.”
Bannister’s time of 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds captured the world’s imagination and buoyed the spirits of Britons still suffering through post-war austerity.
“It’s amazing that more people have climbed Mount Everest than have broken the 4-minute mile,” Bannister said in an interview with The Associated Press in 2012.
Bannister followed up his 4-minute milestone a few months later by beating Australia’s John Landy in the “Miracle Mile” or “Mile of the Century” at the Empire Games in Vancouver, British Columbia with both men going under 4 minutes. Bannister regarded that as his greatest race because it came in a competitive championship against his fiercest rival.
While he will forever be remembered for his running, Bannister considered his long medical career in neurology as his life’s greatest accomplishment.
“My medical work has been my achievement and my family with 14 grandchildren,” he said. “Those are real achievements.”
The quest to break the 4-minute mile carried a special mystique. The numbers were easy for the public to grasp: 1 mile, 4 laps, 4 minutes.
When Sweden’s Gunder Hagg ran 4:01.4 in 1945, the chase was truly on. But, time and again, runners came up short. The 4-minute mark seemed like a brick wall that would never be toppled.
Bannister was undaunted.
“There was no logic in my mind that if you can run a mile in 4 minutes, 1 and 2/5ths, you can’t run it in 3:59,” he said. “I knew enough medicine and physiology to know it wasn’t a physical barrier, but I think it had become a psychological barrier.”
Bannister was born on March 23, 1929, in the London borough of Harrow. At the outbreak of World War II, the family moved to the city of Bath, where Bannister sometimes ran to and from school.
Bannister, who was chosen Sports Illustrated’s first Sportsman of the Year in 1954, retired from competition and pursued a full-time career in neurology. As chairman of Britain’s Sports Council between 1971 and 1974, he developed the first test for anabolic steroids.
Bannister also served as master of Oxford’s Pembroke College from 1985-93. In 2012, he edited the ninth edition of a textbook on nervous-system disease and said his most treasured trophy was the lifetime achievement award he received in 2005 from the American Academy of Neurology. He was knighted for his medical work in 1975.
“I wouldn’t claim to have made any great discoveries, but at any rate I satisfactorily inched forward in our knowledge of a particular aspect of medicine,” he said. “I’m far more content with that than I am about any of the running I did earlier.”
Bannister was slowed in later years by Parkinson’s, a neurological condition that fell under his medical specialty.
His right ankle was shattered in a car accident in 1975, and he had been unable to run since then. In his late life, he walked with crutches inside his home and used a wheelchair outdoors.
Bannister made several public appearances as part of the 2012 London Olympics. He carried the flame on the Oxford track where he broke the 4-minute mile during the torch relay and attended the final of the men’s and women’s 1,500 meters at the games.
“I feel I never really left,” he told the AP as he watched the action in the Olympic Stadium.
Bannister married Moyra Jacobsson, an artist, in 1955. They had two sons and two daughters and lived in a modest home only minutes away from the track where he made history.
Brasher, who founded the London Marathon, died in 2003 at the age of 74. Chataway died in 2014 at 82.