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05/05/2014 08:13 BST | Updated 02/07/2014 06:59 BST

Dirty Tricks In The Battle For The Four Minute Mile

Things were very different - 60 years ago - when Roger Bannister became an icon to England and the British Empire by becoming the first to break the four minute mile. For decades people had speculated about whether this barrier could be conquered - and some suggested that you might die in the attempt.

By John Bryant, author of Against the Clock: Breaking the 4 Minute Mile.

Things were very different - 60 years ago - when Roger Bannister became an icon to England and the British Empire by becoming the first to break the four minute mile. For decades people had speculated about whether this barrier could be conquered - and some suggested that you might die in the attempt.

There was an epic battle over three continents to see who could be first. And in a little reported episode, an American came within an ace of breaking the barrier a year before Bannister.

By the early 1950s the "four minute field" had narrowed down to just three. Foremost among them was the challenge from the United States, from Wes Santee, a confident young crew-cut athlete from Kansas. Breathing down his neck, was an Australian, John Landy, one of the fittest middle distance runners in the world, and the nervous, thoroughbred Englishman, Roger Bannister.

What all of these runners needed desperately was information about their rivals.

Bannister, in particular, was kept well informed by Norris and Ross McWhirter. The twin McWhirters were athletic nuts, with phenomenal memories for sporting results and went on to edit the Guinness Book of Records. The McWhirters were eager that this epic moment in history should be grabbed by Britain.

In the 1950s, pace-making was strictly illegal. No athlete was allowed to race unless you intended to complete the race and try to win it. The McWhirters told Bannister that they had learned that Santee was planning an attempt on the record in Dayton, Ohio, on 27 June, 1953.

Chris Brasher, a friend of Bannister and one of his pace-makers, said, "The danger was the record might cross the Atlantic before Roger could do it. There was a sense of desperation and hurry." Because of the time difference between Britain and America, the McWhirters decided to include Bannister's event secretly, just hours before Santee was scheduled to race, as an invitation mile in the Surrey Schools AAA championship.

"There were only three of us in the race," said Brasher. "There was Roger, Don MacMillan, a top-class Australian runner, and me. It was all a bit mad. But we came up with what we thought was a fiendishly clever idea. While MacMillan and Roger covered three laps, I would jog slowly around for two."

Urged on by Brasher (who had towed Bannister round for the last lap) Bannister crossed the line alone in 4:02 - missing the magic target by just two seconds. Only five hours after Bannister ran 4:02, Wes Santee ran 4:07.

When the British Amateur Athletic board met to ratify this record they held that this mile was not done in a bona fide competition according to the rules.

A year later, in 1954, Roger Bannister took five days rest - with no running - before the race in Oxford and was schoolboy-fresh for his barrier-breaking effort. The event played out to the plans they had hatched - though there was considerable criticism later that this was more of a time-trial than a bone fide race. Brasher towed Bannister round for two laps, Chataway took over on the third lap and with just 300 yards to go Bannister struck for home and hit the tape in 3:59.4.

Bannister was the first to climb this Everest of track and field. But Santee, who was suspended by the athletic authorities for alleged professionalism, missed his chance in 1954. He believed for the rest of his life that he had been robbed - not just for himself but for the honour of America.

John Bryant is the author of Against the Clock: Breaking the 4 Minute Mile, published by Endeavour Press.