Stories You Should Know: The History of the 4-Minute Mile Run

The Mile Run:


Paavo Nurmi, Jack Lovelock, Glenn Cunningham, Gunder Hagg, Arne Andersson, John Landy, Peter Snell, Michel Jazy, Jim Ryun, Filbert Bayi, Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett, Never heard of them. At one time they were the most famous athletes in the world. The were the LeBron James, the Clayton Kershaws, the Leonel Messi and the Usain Bolts.


What were they famous for? They all held a record in what Sports Illustrated called “The Most Treasured Mark in All of Sports”. What record could hold such stature in the eyes of all athletes and all sports. It was the record for the Mile Run. When Jim Ryun had earned this accolade in 1966 he had taken the record from Michel Jazy by more than 2 seconds.


Hicham El Guerrouj
Hicham El Guerrouj holds the World Record in the Mile.

Today, does the average sport’s fan have any idea who holds that record? I didn’t…I had to look it up (Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco in Rome on July 7, 1999, 3:43.13). With the recent passing of Roger Bannister, the question about what happened to the Mile Run seems pertinent.



Walter GeorgeThe first generally accepted record for the Mile was set in London in 1855 by the United Kingdom’s Charles Westhall. The time was 4 minutes 28 seconds. Britain’s Walter George was the first celebrity Miler in the 1880s. His record 4:12 and ¾ set in London on August 23, 1886 stood until 1915 when broken by American Norman Taber. Taber held the record until 1923 when the greatest distance runner of all time, Paavo Nurmi, added the Mile World Record to his list of 22 World Records he would hold in distances between 1500 meters and 20 kilometers.


Paavo Nurmi
Paavo Nurmi or the “Flying Finn”, one of the greatest runners of all time. He would hold the Mile Record for 8 years along with 22 other world records.

The “Flying Finn’s” time of 4:10.24 set in Stockholm in 1923 would hold for over eight years. The Mile Run became a major sport’s story in the 1930s when American Glenn Cunningham and New Zealand’s John Lovelock began a rivalry that entranced the world. It was during this time that the idea of a 4 Minute Mile first came into prominence. After trading the world record the competition ended with Cunningham holding the record at 4:06.8. Cunningham was especially vocal in his view that the 4 Minute Mile was within reach.


Glenn Cunningham and John
Glenn Cunningham is in number 746 and John Lovelock of New Zealand is 467.

Beginning in the 1940s the Swede’s Gunder Hagg and Arne Andersson would swap the record over a three-year period, with Hagg lowering the record to 4:01.4 in 1945. Due to the Second World War the Haag record was not seriously challenged until 1952 when the top runners were putting up times in the 4:02 range. This set up an intense competition to see who could be the first to break the 4-minute barrier.

Gunder Hagg
Gunder Hagg of Sweden would hold the Mile Record through World War II.

The two leading contenders were Australian John Landy and Roger Bannister of the United Kingdom. The Roger Bannister record breaking race has been well documented, but we will briefly cover it here.

Roger Bannister and John Landy
Bannister and Landy were in a race to break the fabled 4-minute mile.

Bannister made his first serious attempt at a 4-Minute Mile in Surrey in June of 1953. He was on pace for the record, but faded late for an individual best time of 4:02. John Landy then made three pointed attempts at the record. Bannister assumed Landy would beat him to the record on every attempt, but Landy failed all three times, finishing in 4:02.4 in January 1954, then 4:02.6 a month later. He would post the same time in his last attempt in April. Roger knew Landy planned another attempt in June, so he targeted a dual meet between British AAA and Oxford University on May 6th for his attempt. With track standouts Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher pacing him on every lap Bannister posted a time of 3:59.4. The 4-Minute mark had been bested. (As a side note 1924 Olympic Hero Harold Abrahams was one of the broadcasters for the BBC covering the event. You can read about his story here.)

Roger Bannister
Roger Bannister breaks the 4-minute mile barrier for the first time.

Bannister did not hold the record long, 46 days later Landy ran 3:58 in Turko, Finland to become the new record holder. Roger Bannister would only break the 4-Minute mark one other time, that was in Vancuver, B.C. in the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games, when he defeated Landy in a head to head race known as “The Miracle Mile” with both men breaking the 4-Minute mark. Bannister would end his running career at the end of 1954 and use the rest of his life in the pursuit of medical advances. He was named by Sports Illustrated as their first “Sportsman of the Year” in January 1955. He was Knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1975. He is probably the most famous miler ever. The irony of all this is he only held the mile record for 46 days, the shortest reign of that record since the record have been kept.

SI Banniester S of the Y  Jim Ryun SI cover  Filbert Bayi SI Cover  Sabastian Cole SI Cover

The World Record in the mile remained a hallowed achievement through the early 80s. When Jim Ryun set the record in 1966 it warranted a SI Cover Story, as did Filbert Bayi’s lowering of it 9 years later. Britain’s Sebastian Coe was the last record holder to warrant such coverage. The race is now seldom run, with the best middle-distance runners concentrating on the 1500 meters. It does not sound as good to say “The fastest man in the 1500”. In other words, here at A Sip of Sports we blame the blasted metric system for the loss of glamour for the mile.



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