Interview with John Landy, second under 4mins



Q: Fifty years on!
A: Yeah, long time ago. It makes me very, very old.
Q: How does it feel 50 years on? Does it feel lifetime away or do you feel
like the same runner, just a tad slower?
A: Oh no. It feels very different. It’s not only a tad slower, I can’t even
run. I walk. I get up at 5.15 every morning and walk for 4 kilometres. I
can’t run, most people cant run after they’re 70. Or they can but the
consequences for their back and everything make it not worth doing. So I’m a
very different person to the person who was 24 years old and running the
so-called four minute mile. Very, very different. I suppose you’d say you
think you haven’t changed but if you tried to run you’d find you’re very,
very different.
Q: Is there anything about that historic period in the 1950s you regret?
Would you do it all again just the way you did it then?
A: I’d do it all again if it was the same situation. But the period was very
Running was a hobby. It was a bit more than that: it became an obsession.
But it was never a profession.
So you were not in the situation an athlete today is where you have to
devote an immense amount of time to it.
I did _ by the standards of the day _ probably train as hard as anybody, but
by today’s standards it would be very much part-time running.
It was very much like what you call university sport where your main thrust
was your career, your studies. And then running was a sort of peripheral
But I did train hard. But running is one of the very few sports where you
can train hard without very good facilities. I mean, I ran in the early days
at Central Park (Geelong). Nearly all the training was at night, in winter.
I didn’t use a clock. One year I used the clock, but most years I didn’t. I
trained in sand shoes, ran at night. But you can do that with running. You
can’t do that with pole vaulting or hurdling or hammer throwing. You need a
coach, you need special facilities.
It’s important to remember that when I ran the fastest time in the world in
both 1953 and in 1952 _ almost the same times 4:02.1, 4:02.0 _ both those
times were run within two weeks of my university exams. Now you couldn’t do
that in this age. You couldn’t do it. The standards were lower, that’s the
first point. And the second point is there was no room for professionalism.
It wasn’t allowed. You couldn’t be supported. You couldn’t make money out of
the sport because there was no money in it. I wasn’t looking to make money
out of it anyway. Certainly the suggestion of the passing of any pounds, as
it was in those days, was extremely dangerous. Australians were
philanthropists. They were people who gave money to the sport rather than
took money from it.

Q: Looking back on what you did then, was there anything you’d have changed?
Might you have gone to another coach? Gone to England or to Europe earlier?
A: I don’t look at it that way. I didn’t have a coach then. I was associated
with [Percy] Cerutty earlier.
Q: I know and you said some very charitable things about him.
A: I would never have done what I did, or none of us [the Australians] would
have done what we did, if it hadn’t been for Cerutty.
But I had nothing to do with him after 1952, at all. Never spoke to him
I wouldn’t change anything, for this reason. A lot of people said `well, you
didn’t run the first four minute mile, Bannister beat you’.
But, all the decisions were mine and at 24 I was in Vancouver and I was in
control of the situation. I was making my own mind up [at the 1954
Empire/Commonwealth Games where he he won the silver medal behind Roger
Bannister in the ``Mile of the Century’’].
That’s great training. We all make mistakes but you learn from it and I
gained an immense amount out of doing things my way which sometimes were
wrong, or probably wrong. But you learn from these things, it’s part of life
and I wouldn’t change anything.
Q: 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.
It was clearly a fabrication of an event: a glorified time trial in which
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.
I wonder whether that record on May 6, 1954 would have stood had an
Australian not come along so soon to smash it while the English authorities
were perhaps still figuring out what to do with the paperwork.
A: 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.
Q: If you catch up with Morocco’s current world mile record-holder Hicham El
Guerrouj at the 50th anniversary celebrations in England is there any advice
you would offer him about his final attempt at winning the Olympic 1500m in
Athens this year?
A: No. I wouldn’t attempt to advise somebody like that. I think he was a bit
unlucky in Sydney because he relies on pacemakers and he didn’t have that
advantage he was hoping for in Sydney. When he suddenly found himself in
front, he didn’t run that third lap too fast. The Kenyans, once they caught
him they reckoned they could beat him. But he could have in fact continued
on [through the third lap] and they would rapidly have been fighting for
second and third.
Q: I think he was not feeling that well that day either.
A: It’s a shame. He’s a wonderful athlete and he was unlucky. I don’t know
whether he would have won in Atlanta but he fell over.
Q: He’s going to double up for the 1500m and 5000m in Athens.
A: That’s a tall order, with the heats and in that heat. I wanted to do that
in Melbourne [at the 1956 Olympic Games] but couldn’t. It’s a hard double,
that. All doubles are very, very difficult. The 800m/1500m has only been
done by [New Zealand’s Peter] Snell and probably will never be done again, a
double win anyway. Coe and Ovett have come close, but that’s more attainable
than 5000/1500. That’s very difficult. There’s a huge amount of work
involved, even your heat can be hard.

Q: How many times 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 4min
04sec in that race.
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.
Q: Times from when you raced in the US during our winter (on a tour to
promote awareness of the Olympics at the request of the Melbourne Games
organisers and government.)

A: I ran four sub-4s 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.
The Clarke incident occurred at the nationals, which was a guide.
Q: It is still such an inspirational thing you did there, going back to help
the fallen Clarke in the national final.
I was talking to Australia’s current head coach, Keith Connor, an
Englishman, and I was amazed. I thought he might 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
than that, far more memorable. A bigger lesson.
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 you did it.
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.
Q: Did you feel that there was a race to be the first man under four
minutes? There was definitely a race to be the first man to get 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 Haegg’s world mile record [of 4min 01.4sec, 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. I thought it
was unlikely.
There was good reason to believe that because if you look at late in 1952 to
March of 1954, nine times _ six of them by me _ nine races 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 Haegg 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. He
as a 5000m runner. It was not a well publicised race.
I ran 4:02.1 on December the 12th, 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 ran it easily. 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.
If you said to them, look, that’s the same as running 3min 43.0sec for 1500m
_ which it is in terms of effort _ they’d go off to sleep. They couldn’t
understand what you were talking about.
Then it had the additional advantage _ which the 1500m hasn’t got _ 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.
Now there’s never been an event that’s had that public acceptability.
Somebody jumps the equivalent of 29ft 6in for the broadjump and you turn
that round at 8 metres 91cm or something, people don’t know what you’re
talking about. It’s marvellous to watch, but has no … what’s 8.91 metres?
It’s marvellous to watch but it’s hard to sell isn’t it?
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
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
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
[Englishman 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
And the world mile record was a bonus.
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. That’s right. 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.
Q: You were the first man to break four minutes in a
A: Hmm. That’s not much. That doesn’t go in the record books. [Landy laughed
at this notion]
Q: I know. But it’s crucial because you weren’t paced.
I’m not trying to denigrate Bannister’s performance. How could I? It was a
terrific performance. 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. 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
Q: Thanks John. You’re still a champion.