OPINION | Phenomenal acceleration: What Sir Roger Bannister teaches us about investing, part 3

Roger Bannister breaks the record on 6 May 1954. Photo: Getty Images
Roger Bannister breaks the 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. 
  • After that, there was an even more rapid acceleration. 
  • What seems unlikely or impossible often triggers a 'tipping point' if it occurs. Thereafter, trends take root rapidly.
  • The unexpected pandemic has accelerated a number of pre-existing patterns that will become trends that influence investors' decisions.


The story goes something like this. 

"Coach Brutus Hamilton, one of the most revered figures in track and field, published 'The Ultimate of Human Effort', listing the perfect records beyond which man could never go for the javelin, the shot put, the 100 meter, the 400 meter, the mile, the 5 000 meter, and the 10 000 meter. Hamilton backed up his analysis with detailed statistics, but many would have considered his word final even if he had jotted these “perfect records” down on a cocktail napkin. To the question, ‘Can the mile be run in four minutes flat?’ Hamilton replied, not quite. The fastest time that would ever be possible, he stated, was 4:01.6."

British journalist and runner John Bryant reminds us that breaking the four-minute mile mark has been chased seriously since 1886. Also not by amateur athletes, but by the efforts of the world’s best coaches and athletes from North America, Europe and Australia.

Bryant remarked:

"It had become as much a psychological barrier as a physical one." And he added: 

"And like an unconquerable mountain, the closer it was approached, the more daunting it seemed."

The first recorded world record in the 'mile for men' by the International Amateur Athletics Federation, now better known as the International Amateur Athletics Federation, was recorded in 1913. The record was set by John Paul Jones, an American runner with a time of 4:14.4. [2]

The record time declined gradually over the years and on 17 July 1945, 'Gunder the Wonder' Hagg held the final record in the mile of over four minutes at 4:01.4. Almost nine years later was the first time the magical barrier was broken by Sir Roger Bannister.

Things progressed a bit quicker after that.

Forty-six days after the feat by Bannister, John Landy broke the record set in Vancouver by 1.4 seconds (3:58).

Another 47 days later, during 'The Miracle Mile', it was the first time that two men in the same race broke the four-minute barrier.

The year 1964 was the first time a high school runner ran a sub four-minute mile at 3:59, namely American Jim Ryun.

In 1975, John Walker from New Zealand ran the first mile in sub 3:50. Consequently, he was the first person to run 100 sub four-minute miles. He ran 135 of them - only to be ousted by American Steve Scott who ran 136 sub four-minute miles.

In 1993 the Algerian Noureddine Morceli ran the first sub 3:45 mile (3:44.39).

Why did it take such a long time for the four-minute mile to be achieved and then, suddenly, in a relatively short period, it almost became commonplace?

The Great Accelerator

Athletes and coaches took aim at 'the impossible' from 1886 and it was not until 1954 that the mark was achieved. Sixty-eight years later. Then, a mere 46 days later, the mark was achieved again. Forty-seven days later, two athletes did it in the same race.

The moment the mark was reached; 'acceleration' took place at a phenomenal pace. Why?

Was it because human evolution suddenly changed? Did the human race find some new drug or engineered the perfect way to run the race? No. The mindset changed.

I believe our current scenario should be seen in the same light. Think of it as 'The Great Accelerator'.

There were some rumblings that working from home would increase in the future. Hot-desks were popping up at a few companies. However, we did not know the tipping point for working from home would be a virus. Facebook has announced that many employees will work from home from now on, permanently.

We started using video conferencing many a years ago. We did not anticipate it would become the new normal. Microsoft Teams reached a record of 2.7 billion meeting minutes, in a single day. Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft commented, "We saw two years of digital transformation in two months."

What else will accelerate?

The virus has brought about an acceleration of many things. What else will come to the fore and be commonplace in the very near future?

Will global warming finally be taken seriously, as we see how a lack of travel for a month or two has changed our surroundings? Will this lead to a big investment in clean energy, the Green Economy and ESG related funds?

Will every manufacturing company have a range of 3D printers to guard against supply chain disruptions?

Will accelerated use of automation and robotics be the new theme for the next couple of years?

Will a drone or an autonomous vehicle delivery replace the human hand?

Will Fortnite be the new 'bar' where you meet people for the first time?

Will we see the end of cash, or 'the virus super spreader' as it was recently referred to, and virtual wallets be the new normal?

The current world record in the mile is held by Hicham El Guerrouj from Morocco at a staggering time of 3:43:13. This time was set on 7 July 1999. Twenty-one years ago!

There is, as I am sure you can fathom, some speculation why this record has stood for such a long time. Primary of which is that the mile race is just not ran as often as it used to.

What if attention turns to the mile again? With earnest. Will we see a time below 3:40? 3:35? 3:30?

Running the mile race will invariably lead to you starting and finishing the race at the same point. The aim is to do it as fast as you can. At the highest speed possible. Velocity on the other hand is equal to speed plus vector, referring to distance covered. Make sure when you think about ‘The Great Accelerator’ you don’t fall into the trap of speed, but rather velocity.

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

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