Runners live their lives by the stopwatch. Perhaps, in its own way, an accelerated metaphor for the heart-drumming business of life.
Sir Roger Bannister is famous for one specific time measured achievement. The day the clock stopped at 3:59.4. A time immortalised forever in the annals of athletics, sporting, British and even world history.
The mile, long pre-fixed with the word ‘golden’ is still for many the blue-ribband distance of track racing. The thinking man’s discipline beyond the flashbulb and the short, naked, physical dynamism of the 100-metre dash. In one perfect and unforgettable race featuring Bannister at the 1954 Commonwealth Games, even the term ‘golden’ was insufficient and had to give sway to ‘miracle’ instead.
The stopwatch finally clicked on the life of Sir Roger Bannister this weekend. It recorded 88 years, 11 months and 20 days. But, his achievements were such that the arithmetic hardly seems to matter. Cue; “a race well run” and other lazy, clumsy metaphors. Although, in their own way, hardly inappropriate when considered against Bannister’s multiple achievements within his lifetime.
Beyond, running the first sub four minute mile back in the early summer of 1954, he went on to spend the rest of his life focused on the field of neurology where he achieved pioneering research in autonomic failure. In his many interviews he always spoke of his work in this sphere as being significantly more noteworthy and intrinsic to his true self than the short time he spent on the track.
I have never in the past written on athletics. Beyond the four yearly appeal of the Olympics it is a sport that largely passes me by. When it does encroach into my consciousness, it is usually as a footnote or a supporting element to a much wider spectacle. However, there are rare, occasional people that transcend their sport in such a way that even the disinterested cannot disengage from an emotional attachment.
Sir Roger Bannister was one of those people because he was the first. His record stood for only a matter of a few weeks but it doesn’t matter. The current mile record held by Hicham El Guerrouj of 3:43.13 is a full 16 seconds faster. But, again it doesn’t matter and one day it will be surpassed.
Before, Bannister, the experts contended that a four-minute mile was impossible. A fate beyond human endurance and the effort to reach it doomed to disaster or even death. Bannister forever buried that myth and its associated flawed science.
Whatever happens the first will always be the first and impossible to topple from their golden eyrie. Think Neil Armstrong, Sir Edmund Hillary and others. It is not fanciful to include Bannister among their small but illustrious number.
But, more than anything, it was the way in which it was achieved. The remarkable understatement with which the legend was secured by a former Oxford medical student who had started the day sharpening his track spikes at the Royal London Hospital.
The record realised at Oxford’s unassuming little Iffley Road track in an anonymous meet between the University and the British Amateur Athletics Association. The build-up long in the coming as Bannister utilised his medical studies and latest techniques to direct his training schedules.
The use of science still then considered by many in the British establishment as a form of heresy and the antithesis of the Corinthian ‘turn-up and run’ amateurism that was still prevalent. That none of this nearly happened due to high winds and rain – that only dissipated moments before the race – merely add to the legend.
Bannister’s time at the summit was short. Just 46 days later his great rival Australian John Landy surpassed it in Turku, Finland with a time of 3:58. The two met on the track just two months later In the Commonwealth Games held in Vancouver in a race forever remembered as the ‘Miracle Mile’. A race where Landy forged ahead only for Bannister to surge past him on the final bend and take the gold medal, with both runners turning in sub four minute times.
Later that season Bannister won gold in the metric mile at the European Championships in Berne. He retired before the year was out to focus on the serious stuff of continuing his work as a junior doctor.
For me that has always been the essence of Bannister. A specific type of British hero from a specific time and place. Perhaps, one where it is true that we will never see his like again. A man that retired from what was still a wholly amateur sport at the height of his fame to focus on something less glamorous but to him significantly more worthy.
Bannister went on to write over 80 research papers and multiple textbooks focusing on neurology. He was also one of the first campaigners to drive the initiation of testing for anabolic steroids in sport. It was as much for all this as his athletics triumph that he received a Knighthood in 1975.
Bannister was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2011. The irony of an individual that had spent so much of his professional life studying the human brain, ultimately suffering from Parkinson’s was not lost on him. He battled on in good heart until he finally met the finish line surrounded by his family on Saturday.
That it was in Oxford and close to his triumph at Iffley Road, is remarkably poignant. A place where 64 years earlier Norris McWhirter, in his role as stadium announcer read out the following:
“Ladies and gentlemen, here is the result of event nine, the one mile: first, number forty one, R. G. Bannister, Amateur Athletic Association and formerly of Exeter and Merton Colleges, Oxford, with a time which is a new meeting and track record, and which – subject to ratification – will be a new English Native, British National, All-Comers, European, British Empire and World Record. The time was three…”
The rest of McWhirter’s message was lost in the noise of the 3,000 strong crowd. But, you, I, and everybody else already know the rest.