At 6.03 pm on 6 May 1954, six runners set off in the mile race during the annual Oxford University versus the AAA race at the University’s Iffley Road track. A little over seven minutes later, with Roger Bannister collapsed into the arms of his fellow Olympian, the Reverend Nick Stacey, the trackside announcer, Norris McWhirter, of Guinness Book of Records fame, announced to the crowd: “The result of event number six, the one mile, winner R. G. Bannister of Exeter and Merton Colleges, in a time which will be a new English record, a new track record, a new British Empire Commonwealth record, a European record, a world record - in three…” The rest of the time could not be heard above the cheering and applause of the crowd, who had witnessed the breaking of the one mile four-minute barrier. McWhirter eventually read out the remainder of the time which was: “Three minutes, 59.4 seconds.”
An hour before the race, the weather was so bad that a record attempt was inconceivable, but the rain stopped, and the wind died down as Bannister decided to go ahead with the record attempt. Joining him in the line-up were Chris Chataway, who would finish runner-up to Bannister, Chris Brasher and Tom Hulatt, (who finished third), all from the AAA, while Alan Gordon and the American George Dole ran for the University team. Chataway and Brasher acted as pacemen for Bannister, who had tactically worked out how he was going to attack the record – and he did that to perfection. With a touch of irony, when Bannister was an Oxford undergraduate, he helped lay the cinder track at Iffley Road.
It was a record that Bannister, the Australian John Landy and American Wes Santee had all been chasing, but it was the British doctor who carved his own piece of track history on that day at Oxford, as he broke Sweden’s Gunder Hägg’s near nine-year-old world record by two seconds. The tea-time news was interrupted by the BBC, and a re-run of the race was played non-stop throughout the evening, it was that memorable. Had Bannister won a gold medal at the 1952 Olympics, however, he may not have attempted the world record because, by his own admission, he probably would have retired after the Helsinki Games had he done so.
Born at Harrow, north London, Bannister’s father hailed from a run-down cotton town near Burnley, Lancashire, before obtaining a post in the Civil Service in London. Roger was evacuated to Bath during World War II and attended the City of Bath Boys’ School. On returning to London, he attended University College School, Hampstead, where he played rugby, rowed, and showed his superiority as a runner. He sat the University entrance examination at the age of 16, and won a medical scholarship at Exeter College, and later Merton College, Oxford. He took a BA in physiology before moving to St Marys’ Hospital, London to finish his clinical studies
Bannister started running seriously at Iffley Road in 1946 when, as an undergraduate, he won the Oxford University Freshman’s Mile in seven seconds under five minutes. He was considered for the 1948 London Olympics, but felt he wasn’t ready to compete at such a level at that time. He won the 800 metres bronze medal at the 1950 European Championships, however, and in 1951 captured the first of four AAA titles, when he won the mile. He won the 880 yards in 1952 and the mile again in 1953 and 1954. In between he could only finish fourth in the 1500 metres at the 1952 Olympics.
Despite being the favourite to win gold at Helsinki, Bannister had done very little training leading up to the Games, but still felt he had the burst of power in his legs to put in his famous final burst to clinch gold. That was until the organisers re-scheduled the event, which meant a heat, semi-final and final on consecutive days, which proved too much for him. Despite being in a good position going into the last bend in the final, Bannister’s legs would just not go, and he finished fourth.
Bannister held his historic world mile record for just 46 days, before John Landy reduced it to 3:57.9 at Turku, Finland on 21 June 1954. The two men then met in the mile at the British Empire & Commonwealth Games just over six weeks later, in a race that had several billings, including the “Mile of the Century”. Landy led with 50 yards to go until Bannister overtook on the outside, while the Australian looked over his shoulder on the inside, and Bannister went on to win the race in which both men beat the four-minute barrier for the second time in their careers.
Bannister returned to Europe and competed in the European Championships at Berne a few weeks later, and won the 1500 metres to become the first Briton to win the Commonwealth-European double in the same year. Despite Britain’s wealth of middle-distance runners over the years, only one other man, Steve Cram (1982 and 1986) had emulated this feat at the time of Bannister’s death in 2018.
Victory in Berne was to be Roger Bannister’s last race, as he could not devote time to training and competitive running due to him being a qualified doctor. He obtained his medical degree in 1955, when he was awarded the CBE, and also published his first book The First Four Minutes. Bannister was soon established in his profession as a consultant physician before he started training in neurology after completing his two years National Service in 1959. He became one of the Britain’s leading neurologists,
After a 12-month scholarship to Harvard University, Bannister returned to London and was appointed consultant neurologist at the Western Ophthalmic and St Mary’s hospitals. He remained there until 1985. During which time he became a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. Between 1985 and his retirement in 1993, he was master of Pembroke College, Oxford.
With his vast knowledge of neurology, Bannister was involved with many leading publications on the subject, including editing Autonomic Failure: A Textbook of Clinical Disorders of the Autonomic Nervous System, the textbook Clinical Neurology for many years, and was also the editor of Brain's Disease of the Nervous System for several editions.
Despite his commitment to medicine, Bannister still found time to stay involved with sport. He became the first chairman of the Sports Council in 1971 and, during his tenure, led a crusade on drug-testing for anabolic steroids. He was also involved in the Sport for All campaign, and was president of the International Council for Sport and Physical Recreation (1976-83). He also managed to write articles for the Sunday Times and the American magazine Sports Illustrated.
Following a car accident in 1974, Bannister broke an ankle which made walking uncomfortable for the rest of his life, and in an interview in 2014 he revealed that he had been suffering from Parkinson’s Disease since 2011 during which he said: “I have seen, and looked after, patients with so many neurological and other disorders that I am not surprised I have acquired an illness.” Which he said was: “A gentle irony.” Bannister was knighted for his services to sport in 1975, and was made a Companion of Honour in the 2017 New Year's Honours. The Iffley Road track at Oxford is now rightly called the Roger Bannister running track in Bannister’s honour.
Personal Bests: 1500 – 3:42.2 (1954); Mile – 3:58.8 (1954).
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