Monday 17 December 2018

History-maker Bannister revealed true power of human spirit

Roger Bannister. Photo: PA Wire.
Roger Bannister. Photo: PA Wire.

Roger Bannister, who has died aged 88, was a distinguished neurologist and Master of Pembroke College, Oxford, but will be universally remembered as the first man to break the four-minute mile.

Running a mile in less than four minutes had been deemed impossible. As Bannister himself later recalled: "The four-minute mile had become rather like an Everest - a challenge to the human spirit."

It was at the Iffley Road track in Oxford on May 6, 1954, running with the Amateur Athletic Association team against the university, in adverse conditions that included rain and a crosswind, that Bannister made history.

The race commentator, Norris McWhirter, announced: "Ladies and gentlemen, here is the result of event number 9, the one mile. First: number 41, R G Bannister... with a time which is a new meeting and track record and which, subject to ratification, will be a new English native, British national, British all-comers, European, British Empire and world record. The time is three... "

The rest (the time was 3:59.4) was lost in the deafening roar of the ecstatic crowd.

Bannister's achievement was testimony to his powers of self-belief and determination. He was later to remark of the race: "The physical overdraft came only from greater willpower. Those last few seconds seemed never-ending." Afterwards he "felt like an exploded flashlight, no will to live".

That evening he climbed Harrow Hill with his pacemakers, Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher, whom he later made godfathers to his first son. The three men looked down on a glittering London, and Brasher later remembered: "We didn't have anything to say to each other. We all knew that the world was at our feet and that we could do anything we wanted in life."

In the event, Bannister held his world record for only 46 days before it was broken by the Australian John Landy. The two men were due to face one another at the Empire Games at Vancouver in August, and both knew that this battle would mean more to Bannister than the four-minute mile and more to Landy than the world record. As Bannister wrote: "The world seemed almost too small for us both, and we must meet to settle the score. The race would settle our rivalry."

The Bannister versus Landy mile race turned into a huge media fanfare, and 40 million people watched it on television.

It became one of the most exciting duels of all time as Bannister overtook Landy on the last lap. In looking around, Landy had lost a valuable fraction of a second - and Bannister grabbed his chance and overtook him at 3 minutes 58.8 seconds.

Bannister went on to win the European Championships before disappearing from the athletics scene to practise medicine.

After the 1952 Olympics, Bannister came under fierce criticism for his training methods. He had avoided competition, and his preparation was described as "unenterprising" and "perfunctory". This was, however, deliberate because of what he called the "tremendous nervous strain" that he suffered during races.

He was also attacked for not having a trainer. Instead, he carried out his own scientific experiments into breathing. He realised that if he could eliminate unnecessary movements, he would increase his oxygen uptake, thereby maximising his running potential.

Bannister has often been called the last of the amateurs. He was essentially a self-made athlete who never allowed sport to take over his life. He would write that "my ideal athlete was first and foremost a human being who ran his sport and did not allow it to run him".

After retiring from running at 25, Bannister threw himself into his medical career but accepted that he would be remembered principally for his record-breaking achievement in 1954. But although proud of that milestone, he regarded it as an interruption of his career in medicine: it was, he said, "the shadow of my being, not the substance".

© Daily Telegraph, London

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