Sir Roger Bannister’s death on 3rd of March 2018 was widely reported in the UK and around the world. Bannister’s achievement of being the first man to run a mile in less than 4 minutes led to global fame and he was held in the highest esteem in the worlds of athletics and sport. For example Paula Radcliffe said: “We have lost one of the true pioneers, trailblazers and iconic inspirations of our sport. Sir Roger Bannister showed that barriers are there to be broken and there are no limits.” (Twitter, 4th March 2018)
This led me to wonder how many people are aware that just 23 days after Bannister’s world record run, a British woman crossed a similar significant threshold when she became the first woman to run a mile in less than 5 minutes. Has Diane Leather’s achievement received the same enduring admiration and applause?
Diane Leather and the 5 minute mile barrier
On 29th May 1954 Diane Leather became the first woman to run a mile in less than 5 minutes, when she competed at the Midlands Women’s Amateur Athletic Association Championships at Birmingham’s Alexander Stadium. Her time was 4 minutes and 59.6 seconds. Leather (born 1933) was a 21-year old analytical chemist at the University of Birmingham who had joined her athletics club, Birchfield Harriers, two years previously in order to get fit for hockey. Her potential as a runner was soon spotted by her coach Dorette Nelson Neal.
Three days earlier, on 26th May, Leather had attempted to run sub-5 minutes at another athletics meeting in Birmingham. She had narrowly missed it, running 5:00:2, a new world best time. This attempt was filmed by Pathé News and at the end you see Diane Leather with her coach. It’s worth noting that, whereas Bannister had pacers for his sub-4 attempt, Leather does not have pacers: she pulls away from the rest of the field halfway through the race and runs on her own to the finish.
The next year, 1955, Diane Leather ran faster mile races on two occasions, both world best times. The time she set on 21st September that year, 4:45:00, stood as the world’s best time for more than seven years.
In 1953 Leather was part of a British relay team which set a world record for 880 yards relay. In June 1954 she set a world record for 880 yards and in September that year she was part of a team that set another world record for the 880 yards relay.
Leather won the National Cross Country Championships in four consecutive years from 1953 to 1956, and national titles for the mile and half mile (880 yards). She won silver in 800 metres in the European Championships in 1954 and 1958. Towards the end of her elite athletics career, she competed at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, but did not progress beyond her heat in the 800 metres.
The photograph of Diane Leather dates from April 1956 and may show her competing in the International Cross Country Championships held in March of that year.
Embed from Getty Images
Not well known today
Diane Leather’s name is not well-known today, except amongst those who know their athletics history. I only heard of her once I had become interested in the history of women’s endurance running. I decided to get an idea of how well-known she is by asking two questions in the UKrunchat public Facebook group, a community of over 2,800 runners.
- Before Sir Roger Bannister died last weekend, had you heard of him and did you know he was the first man to run a sub-4 minute mile?
- Have you heard of Diane Leather (the first woman to run a sub-5 minute mile)?
I wasn’t sure that anyone would respond. I was surprised that 69 people did, and delighted that several said that they now wanted to find out more about her. 97% (67) of the respondents had heard of Sir Roger Bannister and only 17% (12) had heard of Diane Leather as well. Two people said they hadn’t heard of either of them.
Given that the respondents were all runners, it is likely that awareness of Diane Leather’s achievement is much lower amongst the general public.
Why don’t people know about Diane Leather’s sub-5 minute mile?
I think there are many factors that contribute to this achievement being somewhat forgotten. I am not attempting to discuss all of them in this article.
Contemporary media coverage
Sean Ingle, in his article for The Guardian, notes that: “Leather’s achievement did not even merit a sentence in the Observer or Sunday Times” and contrasts this to the front page coverage that Bannister received. A search of The British Newspaper Archive (an online archive of digitised copies of mainly local and regional newspapers) returned 820 newspaper articles mentioning Roger Bannister between 1954 and 1956.
However Diane Leather’s race wins did not go unnoticed at the time, as the Pathé News coverage shows. The British Newspaper Archive returned 414 newspaper articles mentioning her between 1954 and 1956. There was significant coverage of her races in the local press in Birmingham, including the Sports Argus; and the Coventry Evening Telegraph. There was also some national coverage in the Daily Mirror and Daily Herald. A 1956 article in the Daily Mirror referred to her as “Britain’s queen of the track“. (The Daily Mirror and Daily Herald appear to be the only national papers in the Archive. I haven’t investigated what other national coverage there was.)
Attitudes to women and women’s sport in the 1950s – an example
In 1954 Sir Adolphe Abrahams, who is regarded as the founder of sports science and had been Medical Officer to the British Olympics athletics teams for 36 years until 1948, published a book entitled “Woman: Man’s Equal?“
The Birmingham Daily Gazette featured a review of the book by Margot Peers with the title “The Picture You Will Never See“. The article starts off with a question raised in Abrahams’ book as to whether women and men will ever compete against each other at the Olympics. To illustrate this The Gazette fabricated a photograph of Diane Leather competing against and beating Roger Bannister’s rival, Australian John Landy. Peers comments “What an exciting scene that would be“.
Abrahams’ answer is that this type of competition will not happen because women are physically weaker and it wouldn’t be interesting to watch a woman being beaten by a man. The article continues: “Sir Adolphe feels that the mental barrier to women’s superiority may be even greater than the physical.” This is because competitiveness is not a feminine trait.
“Athletic distinction in women is bought at the cost of their femininity and charm. Where can women succeed if they care about establishing themselves as men’s equals (leaving aside motherhood, home-making and nursing – spheres where no-one will quarrel about their superiority)?”
You may not be surprised to learn that Abrahams cannot come up with many examples of successful women. He does however suggest that women might like to consider exploration and mountain climbing as new fields of endeavour, noting that their tolerance of pain and cold is higher than men’s.
This book, written by a respected figure in the sports establishment, clearly sought to put women in their place as second class citizens who should not venture into fields dominated by men. It is within this context that women’s sport is seen very much as secondary to men’s and their achievements as inferior because they are unable to beat a man.
Not a world record – the lack of equality and opportunity for women in athletics
Diane Leather’s mile time was not recognised, and is still not recognised, as a world record. Why not? The IAAF ( International Association of Athletics Federations) ratifies world records in athletics and did not recognise the mile as a distance for women until 1967. Men’s mile times were recognised as world records from 1913.
This means that Diane Leather’s sub-5 minute time can only be described as a “world best” whereas Bannister’s is a world record.
In the years when Diane Leather was competing at her peak the longest internationally-recognised distances for women were 800m and 880 yards (the half mile); and women were prohibited from running more than 200m at the Olympics from 1928 to 1960, when the 800m was added (see my post Olympics Timeline – Women’s Running). The 1500m for women was not added until the Munich Olympics in 1972. (See my post on Joyce Smith for the impact of this on later British athletes). This meant that Leather could not compete at her best distance on the international stage.
Generally held reasons for the exclusion of women from longer distances included that women did not have the strength for endurance sports such as running and that their gynaecological health would suffer – they might even become infertile. As Abrahams propounded, being competitive and getting hot and sweaty were seen as unfeminine and unbecoming for women.
Why does Diane Leather’s story matter?
The catalyst for writing this article for International Women’s Day was reading comments on Twitter about the TV and radio coverage of the Vitality Big Half, a half marathon held in London on 4th March 2018. It incorporated the British Half Marathon Championships which meant that elite British athletes were competing. Many people commented on the poor coverage of the elite women’s race.
The charity Women in Sport carried out research in 2014 which found that women’s sport accounted for only 7% of total sports coverage in the media, but that 6 out of 10 sports fan wanted to see more TV coverage of women’s sport. Open any newspaper today and women’s sport still feels very much secondary to men’s.
Diane Leather’s sub-5 minute mile was celebrated in the press, as were many of her other athletic achievements, but the prevailing social attitudes that limited opportunities for women, and denied them equal recognition in sport, mean that her achievement is not well-known or widely applauded today.
Because alongside making the case for more coverage of women’s sport now, it is equally important to share these stories from the past. Stories which show what women achieved in the face of limited opportunities and prejudice. Stories that built the foundations for women’s sport today. We should not allow the prejudice of the time to make them invisible to us now.
To appropriate Paula Radcliffe’s words Diane Leather was a pioneer and a trailblazer for women’s sport who showed that barriers are there to be broken.
Diane Leather died on 5th September 2018 at the age of 85, 6 months after I wrote this article. Obituaries were published in The Guardian, New York Times and Washington Post.
Pathé News clips
There are a number of Pathé News clips of Diane Leather. There isn’t a clip of Leather’s sub-5 minute mile race (she decided that the media attention was off-putting), but there is one entitled “Almost the 5 minute mile” from the Perry Barr race track in Birmingham on 31st May 1954. Leather does not have a pacer, and pulls away from the other runners. She finishes in 5:02.
Diane Leather is shown winning the National Cross Country Championships in Leeds with a large lead in 1955. The commentator refers to her as “the first woman in the world to run the mile in less than 5 minutes“.
Diane Leather is seen with Roger Bannister in a short silent clip of athletes leaving for the European Games.
Diane Leather was inducted into the England Athletics Hall of Fame in 2013.
In 2014, the Westminster Mile saluted the 60th anniversary of Sir Roger Bannister’s and Diane Leather’s record-breaking achievements. They introduced the Sir Roger Bannister trophy and the Diane Leather trophy to be awarded to the winners of the men’s and women’s elite miles.
On 21st November 2019, Diane Leather was honoured at the World Athletics Heritage Mile Night in Monaco, an event hosted by World Athletics President Sebastian Coe celebrating Bannister and Leather and famous mile events. Her silvered racing spikes are held by the Museum of World Athletics (MOWA) which opened as a virtual museum in 2021. Her daughter Lindsey donated them to MOWA when she attended the Mile Night in 2019.
World Athletics awarded Diane Leather a Heritage Plaque in 2019. This was presented at the Diamond League meeting at Birmingham’s newly-renovated Alexander Stadium on 21st May 2022 with one of her sons Matthew Charles representing her family. Leather ran her sub-5 minute mile at the Alexander Stadium which is the home of her club Birchfield Harriers.
World Athletics published a follow-up article after the Heritage Mile Night.
Sources for this article:
Wikipedia article on mile record progression The women’s world record for the mile is 4:12:56, set by Russian athlete Svetlana Masterkova in 1996. The men’s record is 3:43:13, set by Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco in 1999.
Diane Leather’s great-niece, Ellie Leather, is a British middle-distance athlete who lives and trains in the USA. As of 21st May 2022, she ranks 62nd on the UK all-time list for the mile, having run 4:34:89 (indoor) on 11th February 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee.