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Roger Bannister's four-minute mile a perfect storm of circumstances, a Mason professor says

March 7, 2018

Roger Bannister, George Mason University, Chris Elzey, four-minute mile

Chris Elzey

To truly understand how significant it was when Roger Bannister in 1954 became the first person to break the four-minute mile, it is imperative to understand the context of the times, a George Mason professor said.

Track and field was a popular sport in the 1950s and ’60s, said Chris Elzey, a professor of sport history.

“It was one of those sports almost all nations understood,” he said.

And Bannister represented the amateur ideal, a medical student who was self-coached and for whom running was an avocation.

“There was this evolving clash between amateurism and professionalism,” Elzey said. “It was sort of intriguing the narrative Bannister presented, an amateur who didn’t really focus on sports.”

In fact, Bannister, who died on March 3 at the age of 88, saw patients at a hospital on the day he broke the four-minute mile. At the time, Bannister was a month from completing his medical studies at St. Mary’s Medical School in London.

“For Bannister, track and field was sort of secondary, so a lot of it was about pushing the human limits,” Elzey said. “Is this possible, is this possible?”

“It was just one of those things that aligned in so many ways,” Elzey added. “It’s hard for people today to wrap their heads around that.”

Chris Elzey, who has written on the Cold War and sport, the Olympics and Olympic history, can be reached at 703-993-1250 or

For more information, contact Damian Cristodero at 703-993-9118 or

About George Mason  

George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls 36,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility.