Roger Bannister Dead at 88

He did what many had thought humanly impossible in running a sub-4 minute mile in 1954 and followed that with a brilliant career in medicine.


USA Today (“Roger Bannister, first to run mile in under 4 minutes, dies“):

Roger Bannister, the first runner to break the 4-minute barrier in the mile, has died. He was 88.

Bannister’s family said in a statement that he died peacefully on Saturday in Oxford, the English city where the runner cracked the feat many had thought humanly impossible on a windy afternoon in 1954.

Bannister, who went on to pursue a long and distinguished medical career, had been slowed by Parkinson’s disease in recent years.

He was “surrounded by his family who were as loved by him, as he was loved by them,” the family said in a statement announcing his death on Sunday. “He banked his treasure in the hearts of his friends.”

Helped by two pacemakers, Bannister clocked 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds over four laps at Oxford’s Iffley Road track on May 6, 1954, to break the 4-minute mile – a test of speed and endurance that stands as one of the defining sporting achievements of the 20th century.

“It’s amazing that more people have climbed Mount Everest than have broken the 4-minute mile,” Bannister said in an interview with The Associated Press in 2012.

The enduring image of the lanky Oxford medical student – head tilted back, eyes closed and mouth agape as he strained across the finishing tape – captured the public’s imagination, made him a global celebrity and lifted the spirits of Britons still suffering through postwar austerity.

“It became a symbol of attempting a challenge in the physical world of something hitherto thought impossible,” Bannister said as he approached the 50th anniversary of the feat. “I’d like to see it as a metaphor not only for sport, but for life and seeking challenges.”

He might not have set the milestone but for the disappointment of finishing without a medal in the 1,500 meters, known as the metric mile, in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. Instead of retiring from the sport, he decided to chase the 4-minute mark.

Swedish runner Gundar Haegg’s mile time of 4:01.4 had stood for nine years, but in 1954 Bannister, Australian rival John Landy and others were threatening to break it.

“As it became clear that somebody was going to do it, I felt that I would prefer it to be me,” Bannister told the AP.

He also wanted to deliver something special for his country.

“I thought it would be right for Britain to try to get this,” Bannister said. “There was a feeling of patriotism. Our new queen had been crowned the year before, Everest had been climbed in 1953. Although I tried in 1953, I broke the British record, but not the 4-minute mile, and so everything was ready in 1954.”

I don’t think I knew this; if I did, I’d long since forgotten:

The record lasted just 46 days, as Landy ran 3:57.9 in Turku, Finland, on June 21, 1954. That set the stage for the showdown between Bannister and Landy at the Empire Games, now called the Commonwealth Games, in Vancouver, British Columbia on Aug. 9, 1954.

Landy set a fast pace, leading by as much as 15 yards before Bannister caught up as the bell rang for the final lap.

“Around the last bend, I think the crowd was making so much noise he couldn’t hear whether I was behind, or whether he’d dropped me, and he looked over his left shoulder, and I passed him on his right shoulder,” Bannister said.

Bannister won the race in 3:58.8, with Landy second in 3:59. It was the first time two men had run under 4 minutes in the same race.

Bannister considered that victory even more satisfying than the first 4-minute mile because it came in a competitive race against his greatest rival.

Bannister’s achievement occurred well before I was born but I can’t think of an athletic achievement since that has come anywhere close to capturing the public imagination in the same way. Bob Beamon’s long jump in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics shattered the previous record by absurd lengths and stood for decades; but it was usually attributed to wind and altitude and the long jump just doesn’t have the same resonance as the mile. The Team USA victory over the Soviets in the Lake Placid Olympics in 1980 was probably the biggest sporting feat I remember but it mostly resonated in the United States and, in any event, a team sports victory is a different sort of accomplishment than expanding the limits of human performance.

While of course, the running is what he’s best remembered for, it was by no means his life:

Bannister, who was chosen as Sports Illustrated’s first Sportsman of the Year in 1954, retired from competition and pursued a full-time career in neurology. As chairman of the Sports Council between 1971 and 1974, he developed the first test for anabolic steroids.

“None of my athletics was the greatest achievement,” he said. “My medical work has been my achievement and my family with 14 grandchildren. Those are real achievements.”

Bannister also served as master of Oxford’s Pembroke College from 1985-93.

A truly remarkable life.

FILED UNDER: Obituaries, Sports
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Mikey says:

    Bannister’s achievement occurred well before I was born but I can’t think of an athletic achievement since that has come anywhere close to capturing the public imagination in the same way.

    There’s just something about running fast. Pretty much everyone starts running not long after they start walking, and racing friends might be the first athletic competition a person experiences. So everyone can relate to it in a way they might not to other sports that require extensive training or expensive equipment.




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  2. James Joyner says:

    @Mikey:

    [E]veryone can relate to it in a way they might not to other sports that require extensive training or expensive equipment.

    I think that’s right. And I think it’s also something about the media environment of the time, too. Television was just becoming widespread but we weren’t yet in the era of saturation. So things like this received such universal attention in a way nothing does now.




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  3. JohnMcC says:

    Well this is a setting in which I am absolutely not going to pretend to know more than you or anyone – BUT – as the story of the 4minute mile has been recounted over the years one of the great things is how once it was done, it was done often. It’s been the subject of quite a few motivational speeches; ‘if you BELIEVE you can do it….’

    (Edit): And from everything one could learn about the character of Mr Bannister, you are 100% on it! I once was a consumer of lots of runner’s lit – he was interviewed from time to time – he always seemed like one of the world’s true gentlemen. Alongside Edmond Hillary.




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  4. James Joyner says:

    @JohnMcC: Indeed. It’s also a story of the weird magic we assign to arbitrary numbers. Our units of time are invented as is our sense of roundness of numbers. The history of competitive running is that humans get ever-faster. But “FOUR MINUTES” seemed like an impossible achievement in the way that “FOUR OH TWO POINT THREE” did not.




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  5. Slugger says:

    An amazing life. He achieved a landmark athletic accomplishment and followed that with an outstanding medical career. If a fiction writer created such a biography, we’d disbelieve it.




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  6. Franklin says:

    I hadn’t read about this before, although I’ve attended one of the recent events where a group of runners attempt to break the mile record for the State of Michigan. Unfortunately I missed the one where they succeeded (in fact three of them ended up with a time that would have broken the record, such was the incredible pace of the frontrunners).

    Anyway, next up: the 2-hour marathon. And I don’t mean cheating by following cars with a huge wind-breaking “timing screen”, like that stupid Nike promotional event at Monza.




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  7. Mikey says:

    @Franklin:

    And I don’t mean cheating by following cars with a huge wind-breaking “timing screen”, like that stupid Nike promotional event at Monza.

    I wouldn’t call it “cheating,” it wasn’t going to count as an official record anyway. I thought it was interesting just to see what difference all the stuff that’s not allowed in actual road races would make. In the end, it was a couple of minutes, but even Eliud Kipchoge missed the mark by 25 seconds, and if that guy couldn’t break two hours under those conditions, I’m pretty sure it’s a ways off before someone does in an officially-sanctioned road race.

    But hey, I’ve run six marathons and still haven’t BQ’d, so maybe I need to pick up a pair of Vaporflys…




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  8. Franklin says:

    @Mikey: It’s true they wouldn’t have submitted it for the official record, but if they were trying to prove what difference (if any) that the shoes made, they failed to do that by adding other advantages.

    Personally I’d probably prefer the official record to be without any pacer, but it’s not a terrible rule; IIRC there was at least one case where the pacer would have broke the record if he hadn’t let the other guy by right at the end.

    (Don’t hate me, but I managed to BQ this past Fall on my second marathon. I just barely squeaked in on a flat looped course with perfect running weather; I’m thinking one of those fast guys would have had a chance at the record if they had ran the same event as me.)




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  9. JohnMcC says:

    @Mikey: @Franklin: “BQ” = Boston Qualifier?

    Two prosthetic joints. Have to satisfy myself with very fast walking these days.




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  10. Franklin says:

    Yes, you got it. I actually meant to spell it out for anybody else who might have been reading.

    I’m not 100% sure what’s considered a prosthetic joint, but I had to laugh when a running coach told me he got “two knee replacements at 40,000 miles” (some sort of car analogy there). He eventually got back to running, maybe not as fast as before.




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  11. JohnMcC says:

    @Franklin: Thank you. Told my surgeons that I wanted ‘the F-22 of joints’ – my knee is actually called a ‘triathlon’ – but they still insist I can’t be a runner anymore.

    When I’m walking the dog I get up to a slow jog for a couple of hundred yards just to spite them and DAMN! it feels good. Familiar old swing and sway of hips, shoulders, armswing.

    You guys enjoy.

    (Edit) Maybe it’s pertinent that I am kinda large for a runner – always competed at >200lbs.




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  12. Mikey says:

    @Franklin: I’ve only ever run the Marine Corps Marathon (six times) and it’s probably not the easiest for an older runner to BQ there. It’s very crowded and there are some significant hills in the first few miles. I’ve thought about traveling to one of the races “known” for being an easy BQ, but then I think I’d get a bit more satisfaction out of BQ’ing in the marathon I know and love.




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