OPINION | The Miracle Mile: What Sir Roger Bannister teaches us about...

OPINION | The Miracle Mile: What Sir Roger Bannister teaches us about investing, part 2


Roger Bannister breaks teh record on 6 May 1954. Photo: Getty Images

Roger Bannister breaks teh record on 6 May 1954. Photo: Getty Images

  • At first, it was believed no one would manage a four-minute mile. Then, in the space of two months, two people broke that record. 
  • But in investing, as in athletics, one’s strategy can help you win, or be your downfall. 
  • Be careful how you set your pace. 

  • The race would become known as The Miracle Mile.

    The build-up to the mile at the 1954 British Empire Games [Commonwealth] in Vancouver was more like a heavyweight world title fight than a running race.” 

    Earlier in the year, Roger Bannister became the first man to run a mile in under four minutes: 3:59.4, to be exact. At that time, a new world record. 

    The record would not stand for long. John Landy, an Australian runner, broke the record just 46 days later in Turku, Finland, with a time of 3:57.9. Remarkable, especially because some believed the four-minute mark would never be achieved and here it was, breached twice in a space of less than two months.

    Bannister broke the record with the use of pace setters, Landy did not.

    The two runners were different in many ways. Landy was happy to train in public and speak to anyone. Bannister was more the quiet type and trained in private.

    Landy enjoyed leading races from the front, tiring out his opponents. Bannister enjoyed someone else setting the pace, staying in the pocket and “kicking” when he believed he could hold a certain pace, higher than his competitors, to the finish line.

    It was the first international sporting event to be broadcast live to all of North America. The event was also the lead story in the first issue of Sports Illustrated

    As the race started, two New Zealanders in Murray Halberg and Bill Baillie set the early pace; it was quick, but of course, too slow for Landy. At the end of the first lap, he took the lead.

    Landy kept a vicious pace and at one time, he led Bannister by almost 14m.

    Bannister wrote in his book, The First Four Minutes: “I was almost hypnotised by his [Landy] easy shuffling stride – the most clipped and economical I have ever seen. I tried to imagine myself attached to him by some invisible cord. With each stride, I drew the cord tighter and reduced his lead.”

    Landy was in front when the bell rang for the final lap, 2:58.4 on the clock, Bannister 0.6 seconds behind.

    Going into the last bend, Landy was still in the lead.

    Coming of the last bend, he looked over his left shoulder to see if he had done enough to veer off his opponent. At that point, Bannister passed him on his right and beat him to the line in a time of 3:58.8. Landy was 0.8 seconds behind. The first time ever two athletes have broken the four-minute mark in the same race. The Miracle Mile is ranked as the number one Commonwealth sports moment.

    The benchmark trend

    There has been an increased tendency from fund managers, service providers and the like to not only report performance numbers against a respective benchmark, but also against peers. In turn, this is also usually only done by those who have performed in the second or top quartile against those peers.

    The reality when it comes to investing is summed up in the saying, “You can’t eat relative performance”.

    If the performance of my balanced portfolio is, for example, 5% over the past three years, should I be pleased that it is at least better than the market average of similar funds that only returned 1%? Should I feel better about the performance because I performed better than my relative at the braai who only returned 2% over the period?

    Or should my focus rather be on performance metrics that is important in aiding me to achieve my goal?

    Did the person/fund that achieved the top quartile performance take on volatility that is in line with my goal? Or was the time period measurement carefully selected to make the performance look good on a relative basis?

    Making sure you have the right people in charge of managing your money is vitally important, but don’t try and chase top quartile performance each year.

    John Landy looked over his left shoulder to see where his opponent, relative, peer was when he entered the final bend of the race. By doing so he almost didn’t notice he was being passed on the outside, and he eventually, arguably, lost the most important race of his life.

    Make sure you measure your performance against relevant outcomes and predetermined goals. Be satisfied if you are on your way to reach that goal, whatever it may be, even if you have performed slightly worse than John Doe over the past few years.

    A bronze statue was erected to commemorate the race, and is now standing only a few metres from where the race actually took place at the new Empire Fields.

    Referring to the sculpture, Landy remarked: “While Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt for looking back, I am probably the only one who ever turned into bronze for looking back.”

    Hannes Viljoen is a chartered financial analyst. The views expressed are his own. 

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