On 6 May 1954, in 0.6 seconds under four minutes, Roger Bannister ran himself into the sporting history books to become the national treasure, an athletics legend who we now recall with awe and admiration.
The attempt had been in doubt until 30 minutes before the start, because of the wind. Then Roger noticed that the flag flying from the nearby church tower had dropped. The threatening wind had eased, and he indicated his willingness to go ahead.
After the enthralling, nail-biting mile race at the Iffley Road track in Oxford, the crowd eagerly awaited the announcement of the result.
The announcer got as far as “winning in a time of three minutes…..!” Nothing more could be heard, as the ecstatic crowd erupted, cheering in the knowledge that athletics history had been made.
With the selfless assistance of close friends Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway, Roger, pale and exhausted, had broken the seemingly impenetrable 4 minute “Barrier” running the mile in the time of 3 minutes 59.4sec.
That magic moment came after meticulous planning, carefully geared training, and Bannister’s confidence, backed by his physiological and psychological knowledge. The Oxford medical student had the armoury to enter the unknown.
Up to that point the race to break the “barrier” had been intensifying, with rivals John Landy of Australia and American Wes Santee edging closer and closer. In fact Landy eclipsed Roger’s time just over a month later when he ran 3:57.9.
The flame that fired Roger’s great ambition was lit, when as a 16 year old, he watched the diminutive Sydney Wooderson, his British record holding predecessor, battling with Arne Andersson, one of the great Swedes at London’s famous old White City Stadium in 1945
From that time on he progressed gradually, until he finally reached his peak of human performance.
He trained meticulously for the 1952 Helsinki Olympic 1500m. His respectable but disappointing fourth place can be directly linked with this for he had prepared specifically for the scheduled two rounds, only to discover a few weeks before the Games that semi-finals had been introduced.
Prior to the epic Oxford run, Roger won the European 1500m in 1954, and then met Landy at the Vancouver Commonwealth Games in what would become known as the “Miracle Mile”. Landy tried to “run the legs off” the rangy Briton, but to no avail, for as he looked over the wrong shoulder approaching the home straight, Bannister swept by for a famous victory in 3:58.8.
His European Championship 1500m victory in Berne that August was his last big race. In it he said that in the final stages, he ”felt like an engine with the supercharger full on”
The following year, Roger was awarded the CBE for services to athletics.
Very few present day athletes would think such a great achievement possible, unless that is, committed full time to the sport, with sponsorship and other funding. He made his mark on the athletics world, a true amateur, with medical studies and sport going hand in hand.
On retiring from the track, Roger started his medical career, which extended over 40 years and saw him become an eminent neurologist. During that time he wrote his noted book “Brain and Bannister’s Clinical Neurology” plus hundreds of academic papers. This aspect of his life he privately considered to be more significant than his achievements on the track.
In 1975, having served as Chairman of the Sports Council his influence motivated local authorities to develop sports facilities throughout the United Kingdom, written hundreds of academic papers and simultaneously pioneered the first drugs testing, Roger was deservedly knighted by Her Majesty The Queen
Sadly in 2011, the great man was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which with his neurological background he wryly described as “Gentle irony”.
In London Olympic year 2012 Sir Roger smilingly acknowledged the throng of admirers who had gathered at Iffley Road, the scene of his sub four minute mile triumph, to cheer him as he covered his leg of the traditional pre-Games Torch relay. A wonderful memory of a truly inspirational yet humble gentleman.
Only last year did this legend in his lifetime receive a further accolade, when he was made a Companion of Honour, bestowed on him by Prince William, The Duke of Cambridge.
Sir Roger passed away at home on 3 March.
He is survived by Moyra, his wife of 63 years, sons Clive and Thurstan and daughters Erin and Charlotte.
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