The late Roger Bannister, who ran the first sub-four-minute mile in 1954, celebrates at Oxford's Pembroke College in Britain in 2004. Picture: REUTERS
The late Roger Bannister, who ran the first sub-four-minute mile in 1954, celebrates at Oxford's Pembroke College in Britain in 2004. Picture: REUTERS

London — Roger Bannister, who has died aged 88, will live forever in the annals of athletics history as the first man to run a mile in under four minutes.

A statement from his family on Sunday said: "Sir Roger Bannister died peacefully in Oxford on March 3, aged 88, surrounded by his family who were as loved by him as he was loved by them. He banked his treasure in the hearts of his friends."

British Prime Minister Theresa May led the tributes to the former athlete, who later became one of Europe’s leading neurologists and was made a knight. "Sir Roger Bannister was a great British sporting icon whose achievements were an inspiration to us all.

"He will be greatly missed," she said on Twitter.

The "miracle mile" was run on the Oxford University track during a local athletics meeting with only a few spectators witnessing the Englishman’s destruction of the myth that no human being could run so fast. His achievement opened the physical and psychological door for many other milers who have since beaten his 3min 59.4sec.

Bannister, born in Harrow, a London suburb, on March 23 1929, was a shy, gangling medical student who preferred to be an oarsman rather than a runner. In 1946, when he went to Oxford, his great ambition was to row against Cambridge in the annual boat race on the Thames. But Bannister, who stood 1.8m tall and weighed only 68kg, was told he was too light to make a first-rate oarsman.

So he turned to running and his new ambition became to win the 1,500m at the Olympic Games in Helsinki in 1952.

Bannister started a five-year build-up and in 1947 at the age of 17 at Oxford ran his first mile race, finishing second in a time of just over five minutes. Later that year he won the mile for Oxford against Cambridge in an athletics meeting. He asked for his name to be withdrawn from a list of 1948 Olympic possibles and continued his preparations for the 1952 Games. But he managed only fourth place in the Helsinki Games 1,500m final.

The press criticised him for faulty training methods. Bannister, nicknamed the "lone wolf miler" because he scorned coaches, had worked out his own training schedule to fit in with his studies.

After Helsinki he became the forgotten man of athletics. But he had set his sights on the four-minute mile.

Australia’s great miler, John Landy, recorded a 4min 2.1sec mile in December 1952 and Bannister cut this to 4min 2sec in June 1953.

With Wes Santee trying to lower his US record of 4min 2.4sec, the pressure was on and four-minute-mile fever was mounting. To Bannister, the challenge was not only to break the barrier but to be the first man to do so.

The Oxford University versus Amateur Athletics Association fixture of May 6 was the first competition of the British season of 1954. Bannister set that day for his attempt. He enlisted the aid of his training companions Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher as pacemakers.

It was a cold, wet and windy day, not ideal for a record-breaking attempt. After a false start by Brasher, the field got away. Bannister urged Brasher to go faster and at the halfway mark called on Chataway to take over. Then 210m from the tape he pulled out from behind Chataway to immortalise himself as the first sub-four-minute miler.

Seven weeks later Landy beat Bannister’s record with a mile in 3min 57.9sec and in August Bannister lowered his own time to 3min 58.8sec, beating Landy at the Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, Canada. In August 1954, Bannister captured the European 1,500m crown. He retired from active athletics at the end of 1954.