First Woman to Break the Five Minute Mile
On 29th May 1954 Diane Leather became the first woman to run a mile in less than 5 minutes at the Midland Counties WAAA Championships at Birmingham’s Alexander Stadium. Her time was 4 minutes and 59.6 seconds. Three days before she had attempted to run under 5 minutes missing out by hundredths of a second but still setting a new world best time. According to a report in The Daily Mirror after breaking 5 minutes Leather said
“Thank goodness that’s over. Now I can concentrate on my chemistry exams.”
Leather was born in Streetly in Staffordshire and played lacrosse, netball and hockey at school. Whilst at Birmingham College of Technology studying chemistry, she was inspired to take up athletics after watching the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. She joined Birchfield Harriers where her potential as a middle distance runner was soon recognised. She was coached by Dorette Nelson Neal.
In 1953, in her first track season, Leather, along with Norah Smalley and Chris Slemon, set a world record for the 880 yards relay. In 1954, she set an individual world record for 880 yards in June and in September the same British relay team set the world record for the 880 yards relay again. She won silver in 800 metres in the European Championships in 1954 and in 1958.
Leather won the National Cross-Country Championships in four consecutive years from 1953 to 1956, and the International Cross Country Championships in 1954, 1955 and 1957.
Diane Leather’s sub-5-minute mile in 1954 came just 23 days after Roger Bannister had become the first man to run a mile in less than 4 minutes. Whereas Bannister’s record attempt had been carefully planned with a team of pacers supporting him, Leather had no pacers and finished with a 160 yards lead over the second-placed runner. Bannister’s time was a world record. Leather’s time can only be described as a world best because the IAAF (International Amateur Athletic Federation) did not recognise either the mile or 1500m as distances for women until 1967. In 1955, she set two more world best times for the mile. The time she set on 21st September 1955, 4:45:00, stood as the world best for more than seven years.
Diane Leather had no opportunity to compete at her best distance at the Olympics. The 1500m for women was not added to the programme until 1972. 200 metres was the longest distance for women at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. When the 800m was re-introduced at the 1960 Rome Olympics, Leather was reaching the end of her competitive career. She did not progress beyond the heats.
Diane Leather married Peter Charles in July 1959. She retired from competition after the Rome Olympics.
Inducted into the England Athletics Hall of Fame in 2013.
Since 2014, the Westminster Mile race organisers have awarded the Diane Leather trophy to the winner of the elite women’s mile race.
In 2019 World Athletics awarded a Heritage Plaque in recognition of Diane Leather’s breakthrough mile time. This will be displayed at the Alexander Stadium. Her children donated her silvered racing spikes to the Museum of World Athletics.