John Landy, a scholarly Australian who became the second man, after Roger Bannister of England, to run the mile in under four minutes, and who later dueled Bannister in a race that became known as the Mile of the Century, died on Thursday at his home in Castlemaine, Victoria. He was 91.
His death was reported by Australia’s main public broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
For as long as races were measured in time, running a mile in less than four minutes had remained one of humankind’s seemingly unbreachable barriers. But by 1954, three of the world’s greatest runners — Landy, Bannister and Wes Santee of the United States — had been edging closer to that mark and appeared ready to shatter it.
All three faced obstacles: Landy, at just over 5-foot-11 and 150 pounds, was running on slower grass tracks in Australia; Bannister was deep into medical studies at Oxford; and Santee had to run three relays for the University of Kansas in almost every meet.
Bannister reached four minutes first, running a mile in 3 minutes 59.4 seconds on May 6, 1954, in Oxford. Not to be outdone, Landy, who graduated from Melbourne University that year with a degree in agricultural science, headed for Europe and its faster tracks.
On June 21 — 46 days after Bannister’s historic race — Landy lowered the world record even more, to 3:57.9, in Turku, Finland. (According to the timing rules of the day, which called for mile records to be listed in fifths rather than tenths of a second, the time was listed as 3:58.0; it is now recognized as 3:57.9, the actual time recorded by four timers.)
As Landy saw it, he and Bannister had simply done the inevitable. “Four minutes was not a psychological barrier,” he said. “Someone was going to break it. If there hadn’t been a war, it would have fallen 10 years earlier.”
Landy’s record would last three years; it was broken in 1957 by Derek Ibbotson of England, who ran 3:57.2. (The current record is 3:43.13, run by Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco.)
As for Santee, he never broke four minutes, although he did run 4:00.5, 4:00.6 and 4:00.7.
But the excitement of 1954 was not over. On Aug. 7 — 48 days after Landy’s world record — Landy and Bannister, still the only sub-four-minute milers, met head to head in Vancouver, British Columbia. The occasion was the British Empire Games. The encounter would be immortalized as the Mile of the Century.
As expected, Landy led from the start, building a 15-yard lead. But Bannister — by then Dr. Bannister — closed in on the last lap, and Landy could sense him coming. Rounding the final turn, he peeked over his left shoulder to see where Bannister was. But Bannister was on his right, and as Landy’s head was turned, Bannister stormed by him, and won, in 3:58.8. Landy came in second, in 3:59.6.
It was the first time two men had bettered four minutes in the same race. Today, a statue outside the stadium commemorates the moment.
Only later was it learned that Landy had run the race with a wounded foot. By his account, he could not sleep the night before the race, so he got up and, barefoot, walked the streets — and gashed a foot on a photographer’s discarded flashbulb. He allowed a doctor to close the wound with four stitches, but only after the doctor swore that he would keep the incident quiet.
Years later, Landy said, “I keep running that Vancouver race on the theory that if I rerun it a thousand times, the results will at least once be reversed, but it hasn’t happened yet.”
Landy and Bannister remained friends. “Landy has played Ralph Branca to Bannister’s Bobby Thomson,” Newsday said in 1994, likening one to the New York Giants hitter who won the 1951 National League pennant with the legendary “shot heard round the world,” and the other to the pitcher who served up the fateful ninth-inning home-run pitch. “They have become a team of sorts.”
Critics said Landy was a runner and not a racer, more interested in running fast than in winning races. He did not argue. “I would rather be beaten in 3:58 than win in 4:10,” he said.
Above all, Landy was a sportsman, as exemplified in a startling moment in the 1956 Australian track and field championships in Melbourne, just before the Olympics there.
Landy had entered the race hoping to break the world record for the mile. But with the race underway, a 19-year-old competitor, Ron Clarke, was bumped only strides ahead of him and fell to the track. Landy leapt over him and, as he did, accidentally spiked him on his right shoulder. Landy stopped, ran back to Clarke, brushed cinders from Clarke’s knees and said, “Sorry.”
“Keep going,” Clarke said. “I’m all right.”
Clarke got up, and he and Landy started after the others, by this time 60 yards ahead. Landy caught them and won in 4:04.2.
Gordon Moyes, an Australian minister who was there, later called it “the most incredibly stupid, beautiful, foolish, gentlemanly act I have ever seen.”
In the Olympics that year, Landy was the favorite in the 1,500 meters. Before the final, he saw that Ron Delany, a young Irishman who attended Villanova University, was nervous. Landy calmed him down and said, “I think you can win this one, Ron.”
Delany did. Landy took the bronze medal.
John Michael Landy was born on April 12, 1930, in Melbourne. As a youth, he seemed more interested in collecting butterflies than in running. But in 1948, at 18, he won the Australian private school mile championship in 4:43.8. That same year Bannister, a year older, ran 4:11.0.
Landy was selected for the Australian team in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, but he had to pay his own way. He was eliminated in his preliminary heat when he finished fifth. (Bannister finished third in the same heat.)
Landy retired from running in 1957 and became a distinguished researcher in agricultural science. He was later an environmentalist and then chairman of the Wool Research Corporation and the Australian Meat Research Corporation. He wrote two books on natural history.
In 2001, he was appointed to the ceremonial position of governor of the state of Victoria.
His survivors include his wife, Lynne, and two children, Matthew and Alison.
Despite his world records, many people remembered Landy for his losses in the 1954 Empire Games and the 1956 Olympics. But he expressed no regrets.
“I may have lost the two biggest races of my running career,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1999, “but the sport has been a big part of a very rich life.”
Would that life have been different, he was asked, if he and not Bannister had run the first sub-four-minute mile?
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve had an extraordinarily interesting life, and I just leave it at that.”
Frank Litsky, a longtime sportswriter for The Times, died in 2018. Jaevon Williams contributed reporting.