Sir Roger Bannister

Week 33 (3 - 9 May 2014)

It’s not poetic licence to suggest that Roger Bannister’s feat in breaking the four-minute barrier for running a mile redefined athletics in the mid-twentieth century.

In fact, so monumental was Bannister’s achievement – the 60th anniversary of which was celebrated this week by the UK and global sports press – that you could have found people at the time of his run, in 1954, who would have said it redefined what it meant to be human.

British newspaper The Daily Telegraph described running a mile in under four minutes as “sport’s greatest goal… elusive and seemingly unattainable as Everest”; while Bannister’s main rival in the sport, John Landy, had labelled four minutes “a brick wall”. The Australian had run the mile in 4:03 on five occasions before Bannister broke the glass ceiling.

Yet for all the fanfare surrounding Bannister’s heroic run of 3:59.4, the man himself, in the true spirit of amateurism and British understatement, has always been keen to play down his history-making.

As he told The Associated Press, in an exclusive interview at his home in Oxford this week: "It was just something which caught the public's imagination. I think it still remains something that is of interest and intrigue."

Watch the British Pathé newsreel of Bannister's historic run

Speaking eloquently and humbly of his achievement has always been one of Bannister’s trademarks since his 25-year-old self tore up the cinder track at Oxford’s Iffley Road athletics ground 60 years ago.

Take the way Bannister described how his body felt "like an exploding flashbulb" as he fell into the arms of supporters after the finish line, or, how moments earlier he had “leapt at the tape like a man taking his last spring to save himself from the chasm that threatens to engulf him."

Another characteristic of Bannister’s communication about his feat is his vast memory for all the small details of that day, lots of them recorded in his autobiographical works The First Four Minutes and Twin Tracks, but also at his fingertips during interviews.

From Bannister’s memory we know that he ate porridge for breakfast and a ham and cheese salad for lunch at a friend's house in Oxford. We also know how he sharpened his spikes on a grindstone when doing his house rounds at Paddington Hospital on the morning of his run, and how he shouted at his pacemakers after the first lap because he thought they weren’t running fast enough.

Bannister’s athletics career didn’t last much long after 6 May 1954 – but he certainly made the most of being in the form of his life that year. He went on to win Great Britain's only track gold medal at the European Championships in the 1500 metres, and followed that up by beating his rival Landy – who had taken Bannister’s record off him by this stage with a time of 3:57.9 in a race in Finland – in the "Miracle Mile" race at the Empire Games (a forerunner to the Commonwealth Games) in Canada. In beating Landy, Bannister dipped below the four minute barrier again to record a time of 3:58.8.

But Bannister then retired from competitive running to pursue his medical career as a neurologist, and he sees his work as a doctor as the primary way of defining his life. Asked this week about his proudest achievement, Bannister, now 85, replied:

"Medicine without a doubt. I wouldn't claim to have made any great discoveries, but at any rate I satisfactorily inched forward in our knowledge of a particular aspect of medicine. I'm far more content with that than I am about any of the running I did earlier."

Amongst sport’s hyperbole there is sometimes little room for perspective. Bannister’s wise words paint sport in its purest light: something that should be “of interest and intrigue”. 

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