Roger Bannister, First to Break the 4-Minute Mile Barrier, Dies at 88

The runner redefined what was humanly possible, and dedicated himself to more than just athletics.

Roger Bannister, the British runner who acquired legendary status for being the first person to run a mile [1600m] faster than four minutes in 1954, died on March 3 in Oxford, England. He was 88, and had been slowed by Parkinson’s disease since 2011.Bannister’s 3:59.4 mile, on four laps of the cinder track at Oxford University on May 6, 1954, has become a symbol of human achievement far beyond the annals of sport. The iconic finish-line photo is one of only three sports pictures among the hundred in the millennial book, 100 Photographs that Changed the World. Bannister’s barrier-breaking race seemed at the time to symbolise the world’s emergence from two destructive wars into a new dawn of heroic aspiration, and now stands historically (however irrationally) with the Wright Brothers, the conquest of Everest, and the first man on the moon.

Bannister spent the rest of his life politely denying that his sub-four was so significant, and assiduously created a career that he valued more highly, in medicine and neurological research. He also held influential posts at various times as Chairman of Britain’s Sports Council, President of the International Council for Sport and Recreation, Master of Pembroke College, Oxford, and Director of the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases, London.

As a middle-distance athlete, at a time when competitive opportunities were limited but crowds were large, Bannister was for four years world-class, and in his final year in 1954, unbeatably brilliant. After the four-minute mile, he won the Empire (now Commonwealth) Games one mile at Vancouver in an epic race against Australian John Landy, who weeks later supplanted him as world record holder with 3:57.9, outkicking Landy in 3:58.8. And Bannister ended the season by dominating the talented European 1500 metres in a championship record 3:43.8. He immediately retired from racing to focus on medicine at only 25 years old, less than four months after the run that made him a legend.

Roger Gilbert Bannister was born in 1929, with one older sister, in the London suburb of Harrow, Middlesex. Contrary to some misinformed versions, he did not come from privilege. His parents had moved from the Lancashire cotton mill area, when his father qualified as a civil service clerk and his mother as a home economics teacher.

They instilled in their son a fervent belief in self-improvement and disciplined study. With no family money, Bannister’s education was entirely public-funded at a local elementary school in Harrow, a high school in Bath when his father’s office was moved there on the outbreak of World War II, as a scholar at a London private school, University College School, and on scholarships at Oxford University and St. Mary’s Hospital to complete his medical qualifications.

“I always finished in the last stages of exhaustion, but I refused to let anyone beat me,” he wrote later. That determination returned when he entered Oxford University in 1946 at the young age of 17. He won his first significant race, the mile against Cambridge in March 1947. “I suddenly tapped that hidden source of energy I always suspected I possessed.”

That became the pattern. Bannister trained on low mileages by later standards (although most analyses overlook the base of cross country that was standard through the winter months). He was tall and long-striding, and intensive track repeats guided by the coach Franz Stampfl enhanced his powerful finish.

He usually rose to the big occasion. A star university athlete in the era when they were still the elite, he became a serious international contender on his first overseas opportunity, winning the mile for Oxford/Cambridge against Cornell/Princeton in 1949 with a five-second breakthrough of 4:11.1.

Bannister’s first major race was the European Championship 800 metres in 1950, when he was third. International invitations began to arrive, and he improved his best mile time in New Zealand and Philadelphia. A favourite for the 1952 Olympic 1500 meters in Helsinki, Bannister was upset when a semifinal round was added, and was fourth in the final, in 3:46.0, behind Jose Barthel’s 3:45.2, his only significant failure.

In 1953, Bannister brought his best mile down to 4:03.6 and then 4:02.0. The world record, 4:01.4 by Gunder Hägg in1945, was in sight. So, according to all the sports media, was the mythic, dreamed-of, supposedly impossible four-minute mile. Bannister quietly prepared.

He trained more intensively, ran ¾ mile time trials in under 3:00, and recruited his friends Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway as pace-makers. They had all left university by then, and formed a AAA team for the mile in the annual match against Oxford University. In six dramatic months of assaults on the four-minute barrier in 1953-54, the other main contenders were Wes Santee (USA), who ran 4:02.4, and Landy, 4:02.0. But it was Bannister’s name that echoed around the world on May 6, 1954.

While committing himself to his medical work, “a fascinating life in which a reputation would be created for hard work, and for – one hopes – kindness,” Bannister still contributed in various ways to athletics. He wrote one of the best running books, the memoir First Four Minutes, later reissued as The Four-Minute Mile, a work of craft and colour.

“The sport’s most memorable moment was achieved by someone who was also equal to the literary task of turning it into myth,” a commentator said. He wrote articles for the London Sunday Times and for Sports Illustrated, supplementing his modest income as a beginning physician.

He was a nervous boy, prone to headaches and anxious about wartime bombings – the family house was badly damaged on one occasion. He found his greatest pleasure in long cycling rides, but discovered ability as a runner when he won sprints at elementary school and his high school junior cross country when only 12 or 13.

During compulsory military service, he did research into heat-induced illness. Appointed to head Britain’s Sports Council (1971-74), he initiated a program of building indoor facilities and one of the world’s first schemes for testing for anabolic steroids. He emphasised a “sports for all” philosophy that he later said “may be of more long-term significance than anything else.” He received a knighthood for that work in 1975.

Serious injuries that he suffered as the innocent victim of a car wreck at age 45 ended all running, impaired his mobility, and prompted a change in career. He gave up practice as a clinical neurologist and focused on research into the autonomic nervous system, becoming a leader in that developing field. He moved permanently to Oxford, and in his later years founded a walking group that explored the countryside around Oxford.

Despite a natural reticence, Bannister had to live in the glare of what has been called “the strange light of myth.” He accepted, mostly with grace, the intrusive obligations of fame, giving hundreds of interviews, supplying guru-type pronouncements for quotation, contributing to many publications, and undertaking countless public appearances, including carrying the Olympic torch in 2012 (at age 83) for a few yards on the Oxford track where he gained immortality, now named the “Roger Bannister Running Track”.

Before the Opening Ceremony in London, he was the bookies’ favourite to light the Olympic flame itself, which indicates the reverence in which he was held to the end of his life, despite never winning an Olympic medal. There have been innumerable articles and broadcasts, two TV documentary dramas, and two books about the four-minute mile, the best informed being John Bryant’s 3:59.4: The Quest for the 4 Minute Mile, which was written with Bannister’s co-operation and preface.

Bannister married Moyra Jacobsson, an artist, in 1955. He leaves behind four adult children, and the enduring myth of the runner who redefined the possible.


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