Obituary: Roger Bannister
Medical student's sub-four-minute mile assured him a place in the pantheon of sporting greats, writes Oliver Brown
A Frenchman once asked Roger Bannister's wife, Moyra, how the runner could be sure, in his quest to run the first sub-four-minute mile, that his heart would not burst. Such views were far from outlandish.
Bannister, a medical man to his core, who died on March 3, aged 88, was well-appraised of murmurs that the very attempt could put the body under inconceivable strain. John Landy, his Australian rival and later the Governor-General of Victoria, joked that there was a "cement wall" protecting the mark. The Daily Telegraph famously described it "sport's greatest goal, as elusive and unattainable as Everest".
By 1953, Everest itself had been chalked off the pinnacles of human endeavour, thanks to Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. But the four-minute mile continued to exert its near-mythic fascination.
As far back as 1770, a London costermonger called James Parrott, believed to have earned no more than 50 guineas a year selling fruit and vegetables from a barrow, had been credited with the feat.
With a 15-guinea wager that he could not complete a mile in under four and a half minutes, he lined up at the Charterhouse Wall, turned on to the flat expanse of Old Street, and ran for all he was worth until he reached the gates of Shoreditch Church. The time? "Four minutes," said The Sporting Magazine, unambiguously. Those who came after, not least Bannister himself, dismissed the story as apocryphal.
Come the early 20th Century, the four-minute barrier had assumed such vast dimensions in the popular imagination that any claim to have breached it needed verifying with the latest measuring devices - and not, as in Parrott's day, a few agricultural chains.
By tiny increments, athletes were coming closer to crossing a sporting Rubicon.
Walter George's effort of 4min 12.75 seconds in 1886 stood for a remarkable 37 years, before the great Paavo Nurmi and France's Jules Ladoumegue left track and field's most tantalising target a mere nine seconds away.
With the quality of outdoor tracks fast improving, the symmetry of such an achievement - four laps, four quarter-miles, four minutes - became captivating.
Bannister was one of those smitten, especially once his running idol, Sydney Wooderson, took the world's-best time down to 4min 6.4sec just before the outbreak of war. Still, it was Landy who looked best placed to be the trailblazer, running four separate races in Australia close to 4min 2sec.
By the time Landy announced, early in 1954 that he would spend the summer months in Finland, where Nurmi had helped create such a rich middle-distance tradition, Bannister understood that he had limited time to pounce.
He regarded the task with a cool scientific detachment.
Given his clinical studies at Exeter College, Oxford, Bannister had no time for anyone depicting the four-minute mile as a lethal enterprise, beyond the limits of what the human heart and lungs could tolerate.
"There was no logic in my mind that if you could run a mile in 4min 1.25sec, you couldn't run it in 3:59. I knew enough medicine and physiology to realise that it wasn't a physical barrier. Instead, it had become a psychological one." Even though the 1500m, roughly 120 yards short of a mile, had been incorporated into international athletics, it was the mile proper where the legends dwelt, signifying as it did the perfect blend of speed and endurance.
Whether in character or demeanour, Bannister was few people's idea of a legend-in-waiting. He had no coach and took the train from Paddington to Oxford on the morning of his record attempt.
That said, as he approached the start line at Iffley Road's cinder track, he was, by no means, oblivious to the magnitude of his potential success. "It stood there as something that was waiting time, and I was in the right place at the right time, ready to do it. I thought it would be right, too, for Britain to try to get this. There was a feeling of patriotism. A new queen had been crowned in 1953, Everest had been climbed. Everything seemed ready in '54."
Bannister's race plan unfolded as if in a dream, his legs impelling him with such urgency that he shouted at Chris Brasher, his initial pacesetter, to speed up.
As he reached the bell, the announcer telling the field that three laps had been done in a shade over three minutes, he recognised that a 59-second final lap would be good enough for glory. While his technique began to desert him, his pace did not,.
A master of self-effacement, Bannister was far prouder of his later neurological work than his athletics career. He preferred to identify his victory over Landy, at the Empire Games in Vancouver three months later, as his defining race. He retained a pang of regret, too, that he did not convert his fourth place in the 1500m at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics into a medal. And yet his status as a pioneer, sealing a distinction that had preoccupied and thwarted generations before, elevated him to a plane far beyond.