The First Four-Minute Mile, In One Pain-Wracked Photo

Image: Norman Potter (Central Press/Getty Images)
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Sir Roger Bannister died over the weekend at the age of 88 and, as to be expected, the glowing obituaries focused on his epochal mile of May 6, 1954, when he shattered the four-minute barrier on Oxford University’s Iffley Road track.

In this day and age, when Usain Bolt goes 9.58 for the 100 meters and elite marathoners appear poised to slip under the two-hour barrier, Bannister’s achievement seems quaint, a relic from when the Olympics were an all-amateur affair and PEDs were not yet part of the vernacular.

But it’s worth remembering that, at the time, many experts took for granted that the four-minute mile was physically impossible. The world record was 4:01.4, set in 1945 by Sweden’s Gunder Hägg.

“Most people considered running four laps of the track in four minutes to be beyond the limit of human speed,” wrote Neal Bascomb in The Perfect Mile, his excellent account of Bannister’s quest. “It was foolhardy and possibly dangerous to attempt. Some thought that rather than a lifetime of glory, honor, and fortune, a hearse would be waiting for the first person to accomplish the feat.”

Emerging from the horrors of Nazism and atomic warfare, Bannister’s breakthrough came to symbolize something more than just another athletic milestone. Never mind that he utilized two rabbits (Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher) to pace him through the early stages of the race. Never mind that two other milers, American Wes Santee and Australian John Landy, were also approaching the sub-four mark. Like the inaugural ascent of Mt. Everest just a year previous, Bannister’s 3:59.4 mile provided a much-needed dose of optimism and pride for a world attempting to find its post-war footing. He was “the runner who redefined the possible,” as Roger Robinson wrote in Runner’s World. (The accomplishment has held up, too: more than three times as many people have since summited Everest as have run a four-minute mile.)

A post-graduate medical student at the time, Bannister was named Sports Illustrated’s inaugural “Sportsman of the Year.” He retired later in 1954 after he lowered his personal record to 3:58.8 in a memorable duel with Landy in the British Empire and Commonwealth Games (dramatically captured by photographer Charlie Warner). He became a clinical neurologist and later wrote fervently against drugs in sport. He was in poor health in recent years, after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2011.

What allowed Bannister’s accomplishment to resound beyond Oxford was the magisterial picture of him about to break the tape. His exhaustion is palpable. He’s in full stride, both sockless spikes above the ground, every muscle of his legs and arms straining with effort. His mouth gasps for oxygen, his eyes are shut against the pain. He would collapse immediately afterward.

The backdrop presents a tableau of officials in Mackintosh raincoats studying their stopwatches and fellow athletes cheering him on. (One of the track officials was Harold Abrahams, the inspiration for Chariots of Fire; Norris McWhirter, who along with his twin brother Ross co-founded the Guinness Book of Records, was a timekeeper and track announcer.)

Beyond the significance of Bannister’s triumph, this was one of the very first action photographs to capture the climactic moment of a major sporting event. Cameras were too slow to stop motion,” according to author Gail Buckland in Who Shot Sports. But post-war innovations in camera, lens, and film technology enabled photographers to capture the speed of athletes in motion. Later that year came another: the astonishing sequence of Willie Mays’s “The Catch” in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series, shot by the New York Daily News’ Frank Hurley.)

For decades, the identity of the photographer who snapped the picture of Bannister at the finish was never published. It was the custom of newspapers, magazines, and photo agencies not to credit individual photographers in that era. Typically, whenever the photo was reproduced in books or magazines, the credit read, “Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.”

But everyone who worked on Fleet Street knew well that photographer was Norman Potter.

Potter’s grandparents had worked as chef and lady’s maid for Queen Victoria. Potter himself was born in 1932 and suffered the loss of a finger as a youngster. He began his photography career at age 16 with Central Press Photos, a London photo agency. His first job was as a photographer’s assistant, doing grunt work six days a week for a salary of 15 shillings. He learned by doing, training on the job.

His first camera was a Contessa folding plate model that employed 9x12 cm glass-plate negatives. These were quite fragile. One time Potter was ordered to retrieve a glass negative of the historic “triple century” recorded by Len Hutton at the Oval in 1938. As Potter was rushing from the agency’s library back to the office along Fleet Street, he tripped and fell. The sound of broken glass meant that he had destroyed an irreplaceable image of cricket history.

Still, he worked his way up the ladder from assistant to apprentice. On May 6, 1954, he was 22 years old when he was sent to shoot the Oxford University-British Amateur Athletic Association track meet. It was well-known that Bannister was going to try to break the four-minute barrier that day. (He had made at least one previous attempt.)

According to eyewitness accounts, the conditions were not favorable, with a fierce crosswind and a cinder track sodden from rain. Most believed that Bannister had no chance at the record, or at least not on this day. Besides Potter, only two other photographers stuck around the meet to cover the mile.

Potter had upgraded to a 5x4 Speed Graphic plate camera, produced by the Graflex company in Rochester, NY. The Speed Graphic was a reliable, large-format camera used by countless professional photojournalists (including Weegee). Despite its name, it was a slow camera. With glass plates, Potter could only take a single shot at a time before having to laboriously switch out one plate for another, unused one. And so he waited patiently by the finish line and watched the race unfold.

With about 300 meters left, Bannister sprinted past Chataway and kicked for home along the straightaway. As he approached the tape, Potter was ready. Standing across from the finish line, he was perfectly positioned to capture Bannister as he crossed the line with an emphatic final stride of his right leg, the No. 41 bib centered on his chest.

Afterwards, he managed to switch out the glass negative to shoot a post-race picture of Bannister, still grimacing, flanked by Chataway and Brasher.

Potter carefully—carefully—carried the glass plates back to London, where the negatives were developed. The action shot was immediately transmitted around the world. It has since appeared in countless books, newspapers, and magazines, and is one of the very few sports photos that Life magazine editors selected for the 2003 book 100 Photographs That Changed the World. A colorized version of the photo appears on the cover of Bascomb’s book.

The two other photographers on the scene also snapped memorable images of the climactic moment. Dennis Evans of the Associated Press captured Bannister breaking the tape from a vantage point just beyond the scrum of officials. It, too, shows Bannister’s exhaustion as well as masses of spectators and surrounding dorms. Ivan Samson of the local Oxford Mail newspaper had the finish from a similar angle as Potter’s.

Neither picture resonates with the same raw emotion as Potter’s; neither places Bannister, the winning post, and the officials in such a harmonious triad. His is the keeper of the bunch.

Potter eventually left Central Press and went to work for the Daily Express newspaper. He also freelanced for many years until retiring from the “Street of Ink” in 1996. That same year, when Getty acquired the Central Press archive, he was still not officially credited for taking the Bannister shot.

For some 20 years, Potter’s original 5x4 glass plate of the finish was missing. According to Matthew Butson, vice president at Getty Images, Hulton Archives, it was finally discovered in a box of miscellaneous broken negatives, and, unfortunately, was cracked in two. Getty conservators went to work restoring the image to its original state (although the fracture line was digitally removed).

Potter outed himself as the photographer of the Bannister image on the 50th anniversary of the event. Then, in 2008, he mounted an exhibition of his work on the Isle of Wight entitled “Photographer Unknown,” a nod to the days when credits were not published. There, on the back wall, was Bannister again, mouth agape, in his youthful glory. Photographer and subject, together forever.

Potter and his wife had seven children and many more grandchildren. He was working on his memoirs with a ghostwriter, relating his experiences wrestling Frank Sinatra to the ground in a headlock and covering the gruesome Indo-Pakistani war in 1971, when he died last year at the age of 85. By then, he was publicly saluted as the shooter of one of the most indelible images in sports history.

“Photography did not make me rich or famous,” he told the Isle of Wight News, “but what a great life I’ve had.”

David Davis is the author of Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku.