The story of Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile barrier in 1954 is often cited as proof of the power of positive thinking. The fact is, however, that Bannister’s realism, not exuberant faith, can easily explain how Bannister achieved the feat.
The typical telling of the story is a conflict between negative and positive beliefs. The good guy is Roger Bannister, who uniquely believes that he can beat the four-minute time. The bad guy is everybody else, including the other runners of the world. Bannister’s faith in himself propels him across the finish line, breaking the barrier, proving that the positive is stronger than negative. He wins over converts to his faithful cause, who then proceed to smash the barrier themselves.
A deconstruction of the myth lays bare the underlying message while admitting a more thorough admission of fact into the story. The mythological structure supports three crucial elements of the “positive thinking” message:
- the world is divided into positive believers and negative non-believers
- negative belief is the primary obstacle to achievement
- blind faith in positive belief is necessary for success
The myth makes use of omission and exaggeration of fact in order to communicate its message.
The first element is supported by citing doctors and other authorities who claim that the four-minute mile was impossible if not lethal. The reference to “impossibility”, danger, or death underline the “negative” aspects of the belief.
The second element–that belief, as opposed to physical ability–is the primary obstacle to achievement, is supported by the fact that many runners broke the barrier so quickly after he did. They must have been physically able, for how could they train so quickly to such a high level of performance? The story implies that belief alone explains why runners followed suit so quickly.
The third element is that blind positive faith is able to and required to transcend physical limits. Including the fact that he was the first implies that the barrier at four minutes was real. He had no evidence that it was possible, and people warned him of the dangers. His belief rested in faith alone. There is usually an underlying theme, evident in the title or otherwise, which suggests that the fact that the belief is positive is what give it its power.
To recap the story in terms of the three elements: everyone believed that the four-minute mile was impossible. Everyone, except Bannister. His pure, positive faith allowed him to do what others failed to do. Once he proved it possible to the non-believers, others began to see the light and they could do the impossible as well.
The assertion that most (if not all) believed that the four-minute mile was dangerous if not impossible is easily falsified. The story omits that the other runners of the world were in pursuit of the four-minute mile. They must have believed it was possible or they wouldn’t have competed for it. The tendency for journalists to drum up conflict and drama easily explains why the “barrier” was created. It also explains why so many doctors were quoted saying it was dangerous. Danger sells papers. Bannister himself was a medical student at the time he broke the barrier, trained in the same medical system as the rest of the doctors. It is highly unlikely that he was unique in his beliefs.
The issue that so many runners broke the barrier so quickly is used to show how important belief was. But the fact is that the record was ready to be broken. The graph of world records (shown below) clearly shows that the sport was ready for a breakthrough. The major tension at the time was who would succeed and when, not whether it was possible. The fact that people only succeeded after him is due to the convenient choice of Bannister as the hero. He was the first, so of course there was no one before him.
The final element–that Bannister was bolstered by blind faith–is similarly false. The implication downplays his medical training and his talent as a runner. As a medical student, he was well aware of the physiology and anatomy of the human body. He was also a good runner, so probably had a good intuition for his own limits. The myth omits the fact that Bannister used a peculiar training regimen and pacing strategy for the deciding race. His actions show his belief in planning and strategy, not a reliance on blind faith. Anyone at the time, especially an educated person, could clearly see that the four-minute mile was due to be broken, so need not rely on faith.
As to the fact that he was first, the timing of his and his competition’s races (along with the weather) decided who would break the barrier first. John Landy ran a four-minute mile forty-six days later. What would have happened if the dates of the two races had been reversed?
The myth of the four-minute mile implies that blind faith can overcome physical obstacles. But on closer inspection, the facts of the event support a much different message: that critical thinking, physical endowment, planning, luck, and hard work are “the secrets” to success. Roger Bannister was 6-foot-1 and obviously one of the fastest runners of his day. His race was luckily timed just before Landy’s race, and the weather met the world record requirements. He ran every day to train for the race. Of course he believed he could do it, but it was not blind faith.
The call to faith erodes the more important idea that we are very often wrong so we must critically question our beliefs. We must rely on our intelligence and available evidence to determine what to believe because we have nothing better. It is frightening that we know we are wrong but we don’t know in what way and still we must act in the world. It is much more comforting to believe that “positive” beliefs are truer than “negative” ones and not have to face the real difficulties of the world. Beliefs should not be classified into positive and negative, but into true, untrue, and undecidable. The troubles of the world are too real to rely on wishful thinking.
Raised as an atheist, Eric Normand observes that the more support exists for a belief, the more likely it is to be false. Only mass delusion can produce such agreement. Besides getting him into trouble, this perspective leads him to question popular thought and explore contrarian views with as critical an eye as he can muster. Eric Normand confronts certainty, wishful thinking, and the difficulty of everyday life at The Journal of a Renegade Yogi.
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