TORONTO -- If you were around in 1954, you couldn't escape the four-minute mile. The newspapers were full of it, and the coverage wasn't confined to the sports pages. Running a mile in under four minutes was something nobody had ever done before, and there were even those who doubted whether the human body was up to the challenge.
Until then, the fastest recorded mile had been by Sweden's Gunder Hagg in the summer of 1945. But Hagg's time was a second and a half away from breaking the four-minute barrier, and nobody had been able to shift it downwards in the ensuing nine years.
Still, as 1954 dawned, the smart money had it that there were three serious contenders -- England's Roger Bannister, Australia's John Landy, and America's Wes Santee. Ultimately, though, it came down to a duel between Bannister and Landy.
Born in 1929, Bannister was an Oxford man and a final-year medical student. Landy, a year younger, was a freshly minted agricultural science graduate from Melbourne. Both men were amateurs.
At home in Australia, Landy enjoyed an impressive season, after which he headed to Europe to continue his quest. So, with timing being of the essence, Bannister planned to make his move in Oxford on May 6, 1954. To help, two friends agreed to act as pacemakers.
But when the day dawned, the windy weather didn't look hopeful, and Bannister -- a great believer in carefully managing energy levels -- considered calling the attempt off. However, his coach, the Austrian expatriate Franz Stampfl, was of a different view. Stampfl put it bluntly: "If you pass it up today, you may never forgive yourself for the rest of your life."
As luck would have it, the wind died down, thus resolving the dilemma. So the attempt went ahead, and with a time of three minutes, 59.4 seconds, Roger Bannister sailed into history as the first man to run a mile in under four minutes. Less than seven weeks later, Landy topped that with a three minutes, 58 seconds mile in Turku, Finland.
With Bannister as the first and Landy as the fastest, the debate raged as to who was the world's top miler. Accordingly, when the two competed head-to-head at the Empire Games in Vancouver on August 7, interest was intense. In the parlance of the day, it was dubbed the Miracle Mile.
As was his style, Landy ran mostly from the front, opening up a gap that stretched to as much as 15 yards. But Bannister was the superior tactician, putting in his famous finishing kick on the final bend and passing Landy on the home straight. Both men finished in under four minutes.
For Bannister, there was just one more athletic mountain to climb. On August 29, 1954, he won the 1,500 metres at the European Athletics Championship in Bern, Switzerland. Then he was done, retiring from running to focus on a medical career, becoming an eminent neurologist in the process.
In contrast, Landy kept going for a while. At the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, he was the hot favourite for the 1,500 metres gold medal, only to be pushed into third place. He retired shortly afterwards, and went on to a distinguished career that included writing two books on natural history and being appointed governor of Victoria in 2001.
Bannister and Landy were of a type that we'd struggle to recognize today. Bona fide amateurs, they competed for the challenge and the glory, not for financial gain. And their training and dietary regimes would appear laughably simplistic by modern athletic standards. For Bannister, beans on toast was a favoured post-training meal.
Mind you, someone will always ideologically nit-pick.
In a commemorative piece for the BBC, historian Mary Beard professes to be disconcerted at the "glaring display of class division" evident on May 6, 1954. Horror of horrors, Bannister and his two pacemaker friends were Oxford and Cambridge men!
However, it's hard to escape the impression that Beard is overreaching, that she has a hypothesis in pursuit of supporting facts.
After all, Bannister was a man of modest background, the first of his family to go to university. His success in life, on and off the track, was a product of personal merit, not inherited privilege.
Perhaps, as the saying goes, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy worked in the Canadian financial services industry for more than 30 years.