“Records are the bare bones of athletics, like numbers to a mathematician. Unless given a human touch they have no life, no appeal. Statisticians may juggle with them, some perhaps finding in their concentration on record figures a vicarious fulfillment of their own ambition. Like odds quoted on horses, times may tell you something of a man’s chance of winning, but they can tell you nothing of his style or his length of stride, nor can a javelin thrower’s distances tell you of his grace of throw. They can give you no conception of a champion athlete’s supreme integration of movement, his genius at harnessing efficiently power that is partly inborn and partly ingrained by years of training. It is this human touch which makes the difference between the lasting excitement of men running and the temporary thrill of speedway or motor racing.” – Roger Bannister, The Four-Minute Mile
All the tributes we’ve been reading in the news the last few days take us back to that May afternoon in Oxford when Roger Bannister, a 25-year-old medical student at St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London, took the line at the Iffley Road Track and ran a mile in 3:59.4, becoming the first man under four minutes for the distance. It was a well-planned effort, assisted by Bannister’s friends and teammates Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway, who set the pace for the first three laps before Bannister took the lead with 300 yards to go and sprinted for home.
The moment when Bannister crossed the finish line and collapsed into the arms of spectators spilling onto the track has become one of the iconic moments of track and field history. More than just a new record, Bannister’s sub-four minute mile became — like the successful ascent of Mt. Everest — an example of man’s indomitable spirit, and the ability of an individual to surpass the accepted limits of the possible. Although sub-four minute miles are common these days, and thousands have runners over the years have achieved the standard, a sub-four is still the most well-known standard of excellence in Track and Field, and cause for celebration and a kind of immortality whenever some college or high school runner becomes the latest member of the club.
But for all the publicity leading up to and following the first sub-four-minute mile, It seems to me that Bannister’s race was not obviously the greatest moment in Athletics History when it happened. Instead, it grew in stature as time passed, like a mountain receding in the distance as a traveller hikes away. And the reason for this is that Bannister himself, played two roles: first, the athlete and man of the moment, who became the first to do what others had tried and failed for years to accomplish. And second, the public man who embodied the nobility of the effort, a living monument to what the race represented, what it would come to represent as it receded in time and was many times eclipsed by faster runners in the years to come.
Roger Bannister did this by being himself –modest, dignified, gently humorous, articulate – and by writing one of the great works of running literature, “The Four-Minute Mile,” his autobiographical work that describes his early days in running up through his magic year of 1954, and a little ways beyond. The book, which was re-issued on the 50th anniversary of the race at Oxford, is not only a chronicle of that race and Bannister’s preparation for it, it is a statement about the pursuit of athletic achievement and the meaning of that pursuit. It contains this remarkable passage:
“Only in something like running can finality be achieved, the sort of finality that is almost perfection. But it is not the kind of perfection that leaves you with nothing to live for. You are not your own executioner, because sport is not the main aim in life. Yet to achieve perfection in one thing, however small, makes it possible to face uncertainty in the more difficult problems of life.”
Bannister, it must be remembered, had been undone in the 1500m at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki when organizers decided right before the games to add a semi-final heat that meant competitors would have to run three races in three days. It was a schedule for which Bannister was unprepared. His eventual fourth place in the Olympic final in a new British record was considered by many to be an abject failure, and evidence that his training methods (racing infrequently) were all wrong. After the Olympics, Bannister considered retiring, but decided instead to dedicate two more years to running, as much to prove that his approach to training was sound, as to win honors. His athletic legacy was defined by 1954, a year in which he became the first man to run under four-minutes for the mile, beat his great rival John Landy in the “Mile of the Century” at the Empire Games in Vancouver, and won the 1500m at the European Championships. Having achieved his aims, he retired from competitive running at the end of the year, still at the peak of his powers.
In the BBC obituary, there is a small but revealing detail. In 1954 the BBC began awarding its “Sports Personality of the Year,” based on mailed-in votes from its listeners. Roger Bannister did not win that year, the popular honor going to Chris Chataway, who had played such a vital role in the run at Oxford. It seems incredible that Chataway would be recognized instead of Bannister, unless you remember that Bannister’s feat took place in front of perhaps 1200 spectators in an obscure meeting where nothing but history was at stake, and the race was only against the stopwatch. Chataway, on the other had, had won one of the epic races of all time, a televised 5000m race against Vladimir Kuts in front of 40,000 spectators at White City stadium as part of the London vs. Moscow meet. In that race, both men went under the old world record, with Chataway just out-leaning Kuts to win in 13:51.6, instantly becoming a sporting celebrity in his home country.
Bannister was a different kind of celebrity, studious and thoughtful, but aware that others might look to him for inspiration. For the next 60+ years, he accepted that role, patiently answering letters that never stopped appearing in his post, lending his presence and wisdom to formal occasions where his appearance was treasured, pursuing his career as a neurologist without turning his back on his emeritus role in world of International Athletics.
Last year, one of my former student-athletes at Concord Academy took a year away from her undergraduate studies at Williams College to spend a year in a special program at Oxford University. Soon after she arrived, she posted a picture of herself standing next to a tall, slender man with a gentle smile. It seemed that it was a tradition in her program for new students to meet Sir Roger, the man who had run 3:59.4 at the Iffley Road track so many years ago.
There must have been thousands of those photos taken over the decades, but I felt sure that every one of them radiated the same thoughtfulness and generosity of spirit that had over the last half century transformed a simple four circuits of a cindered oval into one of the most famous achievements in the history of sport.