John Landy - Governor of Victoria, Australia (AFP/Getty Images) © Copyright
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50 years on, John Landy reflects

Fifty years ago on May 6, 1954, young British medical student Roger Bannister became the first man to run a mile in faster than four minutes. Paced by training partners Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway, Bannister clocked 3:59.4 at Oxford University's track at Ifley Road, Oxford, England.

It was a barrier-breaking performance some had believed impossible and, although almost 1000 men have since joined Bannister in sub-4 territory, his run remains the most celebrated achievement in athletics history.

Yet only 46 days passed before Australian John Landy - now the Governor of Victoria - became the second man to break four minutes, destroying Bannister's World record with a time of 3:57.9 (rounded up to 3:58.0 under prevailing IAAF rules) in Turku, Finland on June 21, 1954.

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Sydney Daily Telegraph staff writer Mike Hurst spoke with Landy, 74, who looked back 50 years on that golden age of mile running.

QUESTION: It has been suggested that by the rules of the day, Bannister's first sub four minute race should not have been ratified as a world record because some of the competitors did not finish, because of the crowd spilling onto the track or whatever?

The pace for each lap was pre-determined and several men had been allocated pace-making tasks to set Bannister on his way into history.

A similar attempt a year earlier by Bannister had been ruled ineligible for any record purposes.

ANSWER: First of all, you've got to think the thing was done. The four minute mile had been run. You couldn't undo it, right. The four minute mile had been run, however it had been run.

But I have never criticised it. My attitude was that if it's a bona fide run, and said to be by the authorities, that's it.

And that's what happened and I have never ever, nor would I ever, doubt that it was a wonderful effort.

My only point is, people say, would you have done it that way?

The answer is no!

I wanted to run the four minute mile myself.

And I never saw it as a team business. Even though I had some very good teammates who wanted to pace me, I wanted to do it myself.

That was not to do with whether it was right to pace or not. It was just simply that I saw it as an individual effort.

And I was able to do that. I did have some help on the first lap and a half from a Finnish runner. I didn't ask for it. Probably the good part of that is they stopped me running too fast.

But I led for about 900m to 1000m of my race in Turku. That's the way I wanted to run and that's the way I tended to run most of my races. I very seldom ran from behind, except in 1956 Olympics when I had some problems - that's the only time I've run from behind.

I wanted to run out in front. It's dangerous but I liked that. But it's very hard to beat somebody of the same ability running from the front - it's extremely difficult - but I liked the challenge of that.

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Q: How often did you run under four minutes?

A: Six. With the other events that I ran, with that silly race I ran with [Ron] Clarke in it - where I whizzed back after he'd fallen - it would obviously [also] have been under four minutes if I'd run on. That was 4:04 in that race.

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Q: Was that the Olympic selection trial?

A: No. That was in March at the 1956 Australian championships. I had a lot of trouble in the trials. I had a lot of leg trouble in the winter. I was picked on my form in those days. I had some times from earlier in the year.

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Q: Times from when you raced in the US during our winter (on a tour to promote the Olympics at the request of the Melbourne Games organisers and government.)

A: I ran four sub-fours over there. Obviously if I could get to the line I was going to be selected. In those days they didn't select on the basis only of your form in the trial.

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Q: It is still such an inspirational thing you did there, going back to help the fallen Clarke in the national final.

I spoke of that to Australia's current head coach, Keith Connor, an English triple jumper, and I was amazed. I thought he may not even know who you were and he said: "Landy is my hero. That was such a great thing to do."

It's strange: you didn't win a gold medal, you did something far greater though, far more memorable. A lesson for life.

A: Well, maybe but these things happen. I reacted on the spur of the moment. You do things like an embedded impulse. You don't ask why.

But to put that into context you've got to realise I ran down his arm with my spikes when I was jumping over him and that's why I went back. He had to go for a tetanus injection after the race.

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Q: Did you feel there was a race to be the first man under four minutes? There was definitely a race to be the first man to the top of Mount Everest a year earlier in 1953.

A: That's the way it was seen by some people.

I was much more interested in running the fastest time.

I went to Scandinavia in late April 1954 with the twin aims of breaking Gunder Hägg's World mile record [of 4:01.4, set in Malmo, Sweden on 17 July, 1945] and winning the Empire Games in Vancouver in early August of that year.

I didn't think that anyone would run four minutes for the mile.

There was good reason to believe that because if you look at late in 1952 to March of 1954, nine races - six of them by me - were run between 4:02.0 and 4:02.8.

People don't get that. It tended to reinforce in people's minds there was something magical about this four minute mile.

Here you had the Swedes [Gunder Hägg and Arne Andersson] running six World records from 4:06 to 4:01.4 nine years before.

Then you had three runners, four runners actually because the Belgian is often forgotten in this - Gaston Rieff also ran 4:02.8 in September 1952.

I ran 4:02.1 on December 12, 1952, out of a clear blue sky which shocked me and shocked everybody else.

It was completely unexpected. I had hoped to break Don Macmillan's Australian record of 4:09 and I ran 4:02.1. I ran it easily. That's by far the best race I ran ever. I had no idea what I was doing, came home easily. I was absolutely staggered to run 4:02.1.

Then a series of races were run. I ran five more inside 4:03.

Wes Santee, the American runner, ran 4:02.4 and Bannister in that race you already mentioned which was disallowed, ran 4:02.0.

So you have nine runs, all inside 4:03 but not inside 4:02.

People started to believe the four minute mile really was some sort of impenetrable barrier.

But it was really nonsense.

It's just a round figure that cropped up in front of a distance that everybody understood. People say why was there such great interest in the four minute mile. Well, there were two reasons.

One was that everyone understood what a mile was. It was a measuring distance. And everyone could understand the concept of four minutes.

Then it had the additional advantage of being four equal laps.

And on each of your laps you had to average less than 60 seconds.

It was a concept that was unique. People understood the distance you were trying to run, the number you were trying to exceed was simple. It was four minutes. And it had this lovely symmetry of four 60 second laps.

So the four minute mile was an enormous sort of goal to a lot of people, but in my mind it was unlikely that I would run it or anyone would run it.

Now when Bannister ran it just after I arrived in Europe. I was absolutely amazed.

People - particularly the English people - said I fell down in a heap. Absolutely on the contrary. I said well, that's out of the road, let's move on.

I'd been running more consistently than anyone else over the mile so I felt if I get the right chance I'd probably run something pretty good too.

Nothing happened for a while. I ran a couple of 4:01.6 races. Then [England's] Chris Chataway turned up and he provided one of the missing ingredients: competition, fear of defeat.

And, without pacing, that was the thing I lacked. That was somebody to frighten me into it.

Still I had no idea I was running four minutes.

People say it was a psychological barrier. It was not!

It was just a matter of somebody coming along with the right level of physical fitness at the right time in the right set of circumstances.

When I did run it, it couldn't have been psychological because I had no idea what [time] I was running, except I was running as fast as I could. But hell, I had beaten Chataway and that's all that mattered when I crossed the line. And the World mile record was a bonus.

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Q: And you ran 3min 41.8sec to break Wes Santee's 17-day-old 1500m world record of 3min 42.8sec en route.

A: Yes. But neither of them I was aware of. I thought I'd run the fastest race I'd ever run, but I would have accepted it was just over four minutes. I had no idea.

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Q: You were the first man to break four minutes in a true race.

A: Hmm. That's not much. That doesn't go in the record books. [Landy laughed at this notion]

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Q: I know. But it's crucial because you weren't paced. I'm not trying to denigrate Bannister's performance. It was a terrific achievement. But it lacked the purity of the race in which the honours go to the last man standing.

A: Yes, but that doesn't go down in the history books. So I got on with it. I accepted it.

I'm going over to the celebration [in England]. I'll be there at the dinner for him. But I've always accepted it was a great, ground-breaking run and good luck to him.