Was the 4 Minute Mile Really Considered an “Impossible” Feat?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about the Olympics and Olympians and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the Olympic urban legends featured so far.

OLYMPIC URBAN LEGEND: The idea of running a four minute mile was considered impossible before Roger Bannister did it in 1954.

On May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister amazed and delighted the world when he became the first person to run a mile in less than four minutes, with a time of 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds.

The former Olympic competitor (1952 Olympics, where he failed to medal) Bannister instantly became one of the most famous athletes in the world, and even today, his name is one of the more recognizable ones in sports history.

bannister

One of the most standout aspects of his success was the idea that was being passed around at the time that what he did was “impossible.”

If you do a quick search for the 4 minute mile and “impossible,” you get quotes like:

“Before 1954, it seemed to be a physical barrier that humans could not cross. It was impossible.”

“Runners were told by scientists that it was physically impossible to run a mile under 4 minutes.”

“It was believed that the 4 minute mile was physically impossible. And it was commonly accepted. It was a fact.”

“Many philosophers and physiologists supposed that it was impossible for anybody to run that fast.”

“Before the 1950’s, running the mile in under four minutes was considered impossible.”

I think you get the gist of it.

This particular brand of thought is being brought about a lot lately due to the fact that it works well for a certain brand of philosophy, or, more specifically, a certain brand of “self-help” – to wit, everyone thought it was impossible, but then Bannister did it, and within FIFTY DAYS (forty-six, to be precise), Bannister’s record was broken, and THAT record was broken and so on and so forth (the current record in the mile is a shocking 3 minutes and 43.13 seconds, set by Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj in 1999). So the theory is that if you BELIEVE something is impossible, it is, so you only need to believe in yourself and your ability to achieve a goal, and you will be able to. Yadda yadda yadda.

So, at the heart of the matter, WAS the Four Minute Mile considered impossible?

There are really two answers to this one.

Yes, it WAS considered impossible – by the general public who were being fed the line constantly by sportswriters. And yes, there were scientists who proclaimed that it was impossible. But there were scientists who said that it WAS possible.

In the sport itself, though, it was deemed a sheer inevitability.

What people tend to gloss over is the fact that sports, as a whole, took a big hit from World War II, by way of athletes being involved in you know, World War II, rather than training to set new world records.

If you look at the progress of runners BEFORE the War, it was pretty evident that the four minute mile WAS going to be broken, it was just a matter of who did it. Heck, in 1942-1945, the record in the mile had already been shaved off by FIVE seconds down to just barely over four minutes. It just so happened that that 1945 record was held for longer than usual due to the War. The War threw off the time tables, but by the early 1950s, Bannister and his peers all knew ONE of them would eventually run the four minute mile – it was just a matter of who would do it first.

So while yeah, sportswriters definitely did harp on the whole “it’s impossible!” thing frequently, and even some scientists got in on the act, but ultimately, everyone involved knew it was possible, so…

STATUS: False.

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2 Responses to “Was the 4 Minute Mile Really Considered an “Impossible” Feat?”

  1. Thanks, nice article. Do you have sources by any chance? Would like to know more about it.

  2. Here’s the mile run world record progression:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mile_run_world_record_progression

    4:07.6 Jack Lovelock New Zealand 15 July 1933 Princeton, N.J.
    4:06.8 Glenn Cunningham United States 16 June 1934 Princeton, N.J.
    4:06.4 Sydney Wooderson United Kingdom 28 August 1937 Motspur Park
    4:06.2 Gunder Hägg Sweden 1 July 1942 Gothenburg
    4:06.2 Arne Andersson Sweden 10 July 1942 Stockholm
    4:04.6 Gunder Hägg Sweden 4 September 1942 Stockholm
    4:02.6 Arne Andersson Sweden 1 July 1943 Gothenburg
    4:01.6 Arne Andersson Sweden 18 July 1944 Malmö
    4:01.4 Gunder Hägg Sweden 17 July 1945 Malmö

    As you can see, Gunder Hagg himself, just himself, shaved five seconds off of the record in just three years. It seems pretty inevitable there that the next step was someone breaking 4:00.

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