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The Four-Minute Man

by The life of Roger Bannister

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To explore the idea of ambition via the story of Sir Roger Bannister’s first four-minute mile (SEAL theme: Motivation).

Preparation and materials

  • You will need a leader and two readers.
  • Have available the song ‘I am the one and only’ by Chesney Hawkes and the means to play it at the end of the assembly.


Leader What can you do in four minutes?

Reader 1 You can hard-boil an egg.

Reader 2 You can listen to a song.

Reader 1 You can queue at a till in the supermarket.

Reader 2 You can walk to (name a nearby location).

Reader 1 You can take a shower.

Reader 2 You can answer a question that you’ve been set for your maths homework.

Leader Four minutes isn't a long period of time, but it also isn't a particularly short period of time either. It can seem too long if you're doing something that takes a lot of effort. It can seem too short if you need to complete a certain task within that time. For instance, a distance runner trying to break a record has to keep up his or her speed even when the body wants to give up, knowing that the seconds are relentlessly ticking away. Roger Bannister is an athlete who understood exactly what four minutes felt like.
Reader 1 For male athletes in the middle of the twentieth century, running a mile – four laps of an athletics track – in under four minutes became an obsession.

Reader 2 During the Second World War, two Swedish athletes – Gunder Hägg and Arne Andersson – took advantage of their country's neutrality to chip away at the world record. They brought it down from 4 minutes 6.4 seconds to 4 minutes 1.4 seconds, but they couldn't break the magic 4-minute barrier.

Reader 1 For nine years that record remained unbroken. It was as if there was a psychological barrier. Some even believed it wasn’t physically possible.

Different athletes attempted to break it. At least one claimed to have done so in a training session, but no one could manage it in a public race until Roger Bannister, with his friends Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher, lined up at the Iffley Road track in Oxford on the windy evening of 6 May 1954.

Reader 2 Brasher led for the first two laps, reaching the halfway stage in 1 minute 58 seconds. Chataway then took over, with Bannister on his shoulder until, with half a lap to go, he sprinted into the lead, head rolling and arms waving in his signature running style, pounding down the finishing straight and through the tape before collapsing exhausted into the arms of his supporters.

Leader The winning time was given as 3 minutes 59.4 seconds. The barrier had been broken!

Time for reflection

Of course, anyone can break a world record. You simply need to choose the right event, as illustrated by some of the bizarre records in the Guinness Book of Records. For Roger Bannister, the four-minute mile was right for him. He was already the British record holder for both the mile and 1,500 metres. He knew he had the ability, he just needed to step up his training and find the right conditions for his attempt. Crucially, he also needed to put together the right team to help him achieve his ambition. In Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway, he had that team. They led him through the early stages of the race, keeping the pace up, protecting him from the gusty wind. So it was that he became a world record breaker.

Anyone can break a world record  . . .

That may sound a bit daunting and, for most of us, it probably is, but only you can get a personal best.

World records are about pitting yourself against the whole world. Personal bests are about achieving your potential. They aren't public unless you choose to make them public. If they're not particularly outstanding, that doesn’t mean you’ve failed. They are about being the best that you can be and doing the best you can do. They're about your personal ambitions and your personal sense of achievement. They may be shown by little improvements or occasional leaps forward, but, when they do happen, they make you feel good.

Personal bests happen when we take the same steps Roger Bannister took. First, we choose what we want to improve. It's a good idea for it to be something in which we think we have some potential. It's the right area of your life. It doesn't have to be a school subject. It can be a relationship, a hobby, your personality, your knowledge, a skill. Next, you need to put some effort into what you want to achieve. That's the hard part, isn't it? Yet, any ambition is surely worth it. No pain, no gain, as the saying goes. Finally, it's often good to involve others, for their support, advice and company. They'll also be there to congratulate you when you achieve your new personal best!

Sir Roger Bannister was asked if he considered running the four-minute mile to be his proudest achievement. His reply was, ‘No’. He valued his contribution as a neurologist to research on the human nervous system far more. It's like that with personal bests, too. We achieve one, but there are always others we can aim for. Ambitions never end.

Dear Lord,
Thank you for the potential that lies within each one of us.
Remind us of all we are good at and help us to be imaginative in our ambitions.


'I am the one and only’ by Chesney Hawkes

Publication date: January 2015   (Vol.17 No.1)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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