Roger Bannister

Last Saturday, the eyes of the world of track and field were focused on the penultimate day of the 2018 International Associations of Athletic Federations (IAAF) World Indoor Championships being held in Birmingham, England.

In a remarkable show at Arena Birmingham, Christian Coleman, the 21-year-old American sprint sensation, followed up his 6:34 seconds 60 metres world record set last month, with a 6:37 effort to take the gold medal, and lay claim to the three fastest times ever recorded for the distance. Ethiopian middle distance runner Genzebe Dibada, winner of Thursday’s women’s 3000 metres race, easily disposed of her opponents in the 1500 metres, to become only the fourth athlete ever win five individual golds at the IAAF Indoors.

On Sunday morning the entire sporting world awoke to the news that Sir Roger Bannister, the first man to run a mile in under four minutes, had passed away peacefully the previous day, at Oxford, about 78 miles south of Birmingham.

Who was Roger Bannister, and why all the fuss, the younger generation might be wondering? Over six decades ago, Bannister set post-war England ablaze with his sensational world record-breaking performance.

Bannister had arrived in the fall of 1946 at Oxford University, as a gangly, five foot eleven inches 17-year-old medical student, weighing 150 lb and with aspirations of competing as an oarsman in the annual Oxford and Cambridge boat race on the Thames. Informed that he was too light for rowing, Bannister switched his focus to running, and in 1947 set his sights on winning the gold medal at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. Later that year he won the mile for Oxford in a meet against Cambridge.

The ‘lone wolf miler’ as he came to be known, eschewed coaches and developed his own training methods and schedules to facilitate his medical studies. Bannister finished a disappointing fourth at Helsinki, and soon became the forgotten man in athletics. He continued to train and turned his attention to the challenge of becoming the first man to break the barrier of the first four minute mile.

The time threshold had eluded runners for decades, and now three athletes were closing in fast. In December 1952, Australian, John Landy clocked four minutes 2.1 seconds, with Bannister recording a time of four minutes two seconds, six months later. Meanwhile, Wes Santee’s American record stood at four minutes 2.4 seconds.  Bannister realized it was only a matter of time before one of them ventured into the unknown.

On Thursday, 6th May, 1954, medical student Bannister completed an early shift at St Mary’s Hospital in London, jumped on a train and headed to Iffley Village in Oxford, where as a member of an Amateur Athletics Association team, he was challenging his alma mater. It was cold and damp, hardly the ideal conditions for a world record attempt, but after a light shower and a dip in the wind, Bannister decided to go for it. It was his first meet in eight months, six of which had included hard training.

With his friends and training companions Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher, world class runners themselves, agreeing to act as pacemakers, the six man field got off to a flying start. The latter led through the first two laps, before Chataway moved to the front to push the pace even harder, in front of the small crowd of 1200 onlookers. With 300 yards to go, Bannister unleashed his trademark explosive kick, and went on to stop the clock at three minutes, 59.4 seconds to smash the myth that no human being could have ever run that fast. Bannister’s name would be plastered on the front pages of newspapers all over the world the next day. “One of man’s hitherto unattainable goals” according to the New York Times.

Seven weeks later, Landy lowered the mark to three minutes 57.9 seconds. In August, Bannister defeated Landy at the Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, Canada, taking the gold in three minutes 58.8, and three weeks later, took the European 1500 metres title. Now a qualified doctor, and at his peak, Bannister retired from athletics to pursue a career in medicine.

Dr Bannister went on to become a consultant in nervous diseases, and following a serious car accident he retired from medical practice to pursue research.  Bannister was a member of Britain’s Advisory Sports Council before he was appointed the first chairman of the Executive Sports Council in 1971, which was designed to finance and promote British sport. Following the award of a knighthood in 1975, he became President of the World Sports Council.

Bannister spawned a tradition of British middle distance running that peaked in the 1970s and 1980s with the likes of Brendan Foster, Dave Moorcroft, Steve Ovett, Sebastian Coe and Steve Cram. The latter trio ensured that the Union Jack flew continuously next to the mile record from July, 1979 to September, 1993, as they lowered the mark six times between themselves.

Bannister was not by any stretch the world’s greatest runner of all time, but he certainly helped to transcend sport beyond athletics. Most lists of the top the sporting achievements of the last century include Bannister erasing the four minute mile barrier. One of the world’s most exclusive clubs, the milers who have held the mark since Bannister’s 3.59.4, with only fourteen members has lost its founder. (The current holder is Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj, with a time of 3.43.13, set in July, 1999).

Local sportsmen and sportswomen, not only athletes, would do well to take a few pages from Bannister’s book, and pay attention to the discipline, dedication, planning and sacrifice he put into his relatively short career. When he surprisingly announced his retirement in December, 1954, he told the English Sportswriters Association, “I shall have to give up international athletics. I shall not have sufficient time to put up a first class performance. There would be little satisfaction for me in a second rate performance, and it would be wrong to give one when representing my country.”

At the IAAF World Indoors, the news of Bannister’s death cast a shadow over the final day, but the attendees broke into long applause after a special tribute to Bannister was screened.

Sebastian Coe, IAAF president and former three time mile record holder addressed the audience. ”This is a day of intense sadness both for our nation and for all of us in athletics. On May 6, 1954, Roger made the impossible possible…It was as much a psychological as it was physical barrier and Bannister’s success allowed mankind to enter a new world filled with possibilities…”

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