Last in the First

An Oral History of the First Sub-4:00 Mile

In May of 1954, George Dole, a Rhodes Scholar Finalist at Oxford University, was preparing for final exams. A member of Yale’s track team while an undergraduate, Dole had arrived in England as 1:56 half miler two years earlier, but he soon became the top miler on Oxford’s loosely organized track team.

Oxford’s dual meet with the British Amateur Athletics Association was scheduled for the evening of May 6. The day opened rainy and windy, and Dole, discouraged, debated whether or not to run.

Dole was among the six entrants. (A seventh, Nigel Miller, hadn’t realized he was meant to race until noticing his name on the meet program when he arrived at the Iffley Road track, to spectate.) Some 3,000 people had gathered to watch Roger Bannister make an attempt on the four minute mile. Bannister had brought his training partners, Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher, and all those three, like Dole, were coached by Franz Stampfl, the legendary Austrian who headed Oxford’s track club.

Brasher false started, which irritated Bannister. The men were called back, and the next start was clean.

“I have a pretty clear memory of the first turn, I remember basically losing touch with the trio, with Brasher, Chataway, and Bannister. A letter I wrote home indicates that I probably tried to hang in reasonably close through the first quarter. And that was a mistake.” 

Says Dole, who is now 85.

Dole was born in 1931 and grew up in Fryeburg, in western Maine near the New Hampshire border. Dole’s father, an identical twin, was an intercollegiate champion wrestler at Yale; his twin later won the 1908 Olympic welterweight title. Dole picked up running during his senior year of high school, and decided to pursue it at Yale under coach Bob Giegengack. He was primarily a half miler, and in his freshman year he won the Yale-Harvard meet in a record 1:56.6.

Dole arrived at Oxford in 1952 to study Biblical Hebrew and Arabic. Like his father, he intended to be a minister, which provided a convenient pretext for indulging his love of language.

Stampfl maintained a clear line between the Oxford team and his three star runners. In that era, athletics at Oxford were mostly student run. Stampfl came two or three times per week, and never let on about his Bannister’s training. “We were aware that it was happening, but we were not informed as to how it was going,” Dole says. “Stampfl was very closed mouthed about how they were doing. It was not a topic, not open for conversation. But we were watching because it was no secret, especially as Landy was getting very close also.”

Still, many top runners had tried and failed to run under four minutes, and Dole was far from certain that Bannister or anyone else could actually do it. “It was sort of like an eight-foot high jump, or something like that. It just did not seem possible. These guys were so good, and basically so much better than everybody else.” But if Bannister was to do it, May 6 was the right time. He had run 4:02 the year prior, and he knew that Landy had another attempt scheduled in Australia. The weather cleared. At 5 p.m., Bannister agreed to run.

Dole’s best mile was 4:15, run at Oxford’s dual meet with Cambridge. Stampfl though he was good for 4:12, but as Brasher took Chataway and Bannister through halfway in 1:58, and then three quarters of a mile in 3:01, Dole found that he was more observer than racer. “I was fascinated. I virtually became a spectator. Watching, keeping my eye on the three that were up front. I remember being surprised that Brasher held the lead after the first half. I had figured probably Brasher for the first half, and Chataway then taking over. And I was surprised that Brasher continued. I have very vague memories of thinking that he looked like he was working very hard, after the first half. And if you look at the film, he drops out of the picture very quickly on the backstretch there.”

Bannister, of course, closed hard to finish in 3:59.4. Chataway was second in 4:07.2, Tom Hulatt third in 4:16, followed by Alan Gordon in 4:18.

Later, Dole would write home that he had finished last, in 4:25, and carried that distinction — “Last in the first,” all the way until the 40th anniversary, when Gordon informed him that Brasher had officially finished. “I know there was a strong feeling that Brasher would have to finish,” Dole says. “You weren’t supposed to have a person that paced and then was not an honest competitor. That was part of the ethic of the sport.” But Dole simply has no memory of passing Brasher, nor of seeing him finish.

Though buzzing with excitement, Dole left the track not long after the meet concluded. The AAA group headed to London for celebratory drinks, which Dole learned about only after reading Neal Bascomb’s book on Bannister. In those days, Oxford graduate students were graded during finals, and so Dole was preparing for two years’ worth of exams. He showered and returned to his apartment, where his landlord, who had listened to the race on the radio, was eager to hear how it had unfolded. But there was no celebration. He spent the rest of the evening studying.

George Dole's shorts from the May 6th mile

Over the next two days, Dole competed for Oxford in two additional meets. He relished team competition, and set personal records in the quarter mile (50.9) and half mile (1:56.4). “As the British say, I was reasonably fit.” The Bannister race hadn’t meant very much to Dole. “If it had been a matter of where there was a possibility of scoring points for the team, or something like that, I would’ve run a much more intelligent race. And I had lost interest in the mile at that point.”

After Oxford, Dole returned to Yale, where he pursued a doctorate studying the Old Testament and helmed the cross-country team while Giegengack coached the U.S. Olympic team. His doctoral thesis wouldn’t come together, and he soon moved on to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he was ordained as a minister and obtained a PhD at Harvard, in Assyriology and cuneiform studies, the study of ancient Babylonian clay tablets.

Dole gave up running as soon as he left England. “I didn’t realize until after I came back to the States how much my running was motivated by the companionship and participation in the team,” he says. “Without a support system I really didn’t have the drive to keep at it.” He returned to the sport in his 40s, partly to lose weight, and today still runs three days per week. “I think at this point, in ideal circumstances, I could probably run a mile in about the time it use to take me to run two.”

After 13 years as a minister in Massachusetts, Dole and his wife and three children moved to Maine, where he taught at the Swedenborgian ministry in Bath. Dole retired from full time teaching several years ago, but he has translated several volumes of Swedenborg’s writings, and is currently working on a new collection of Swedenborg scholarly theological works.

“I have spent most of my life not running against Roger Bannister,” he says. “In one sense it was not a landmark event for me. It did not change the course of my life except it got me a free trip to England for the 40th. And it gets me nice little memory trips, nostalgia trips. But in terms of my career, my marriage, the things that have mattered, it really doesn’t make the list. I’m glad I was there, and I wish I had done a little better, but I am the only person in the world to whom that matters. And it doesn’t matter tremendously any more!”

George Dole


This story is republished from Issue #00 of Meter magazineWords by Peter VigneronPhotographs by Josh Rothstein.

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