Sad news today that Sir Roger Bannister has died aged 88. He probably isn’t very well known outside the UK but here – and particularly in Oxford – he is a legendary figure.
In 1954, Bannister was the first man to run 1 mile in under four minutes. For many at the time, the “four minute mile” barrier was considered to be physically impossible. Bannister and his colleagues simply viewed it as a goal to be achieved.
When Bannister did so at the Iffley Road track in Oxford, it was headline news. People of my father’s generation describe it as a moment on a par with man walking on the moon.
The mile is still a popular event at competitions in the UK, Commonwealth nations and the US. But at the Olympics it is replaced by the 1,500 metres (which is about 110 metres shorter than a mile).
What makes Bannister truly special, in my view, was that at the time he achieved this feat he wasn’t a full-time athlete but a busy post-graduate medical student. He had been a “track scholar” at Oxford University (his fees were paid by the university) and a serious academic. He later became an eminent neurologist and later Master of Pembroke College.
When I was at Oxford, I had a friend at Pembroke and remember asking him if he had ever seen Bannister. In other words, to me Bannister was the kind of figure it was an honour just to have clapped eyes on. My friend had, by the way, and I never did.
Famously, the day Bannister broke the barrier no one there heard what time he had actually recorded. The announcer read “The time was three …” and the rest was drowned out by loud cheering.
The previous world record of 4 minutes 1.4 seconds had lasted 9 years, during which time the myth of the 4 minute barrier became established. But Bannister’s record of 3:59.4 lasted only 46 days, when John Landy of Australia ran 1.4 seconds faster. Today the record is 3:43.14, held by Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco since 1999.
So in a sense Bannister’s achievement was just to be first to a particular landmark. But he also did it with very limited training, on a cinder track, wearing a pair of old spikes that he sharpened himself that morning. It was also a very early example of using pacemakers in a race: his friends Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher. He showed sporting intelligence to reach his target.
But the real reason Bannister was so admired in Britain is that he was a kind of ideal Englishman: modest, serious and good-humoured. He never claimed to have done the impossible and always credited his colleagues for their contribution (Chataway and Brasher were not just “also there”). He said his proudest achievement was his academic work, not the four minute mile.
When he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in old age, he took it with good grace, joking that it was better than the alternative. He himself had done much work on Parkinson’s and treated sufferers. He lived in a modest house not far from the Iffley Road track. In 2007, it was renamed The Roger Bannister running track.