Sixty years on from the day Sir Roger changed athletics

Sir Roger crosses the line to break the four-minute mile for the first time on May 6, 1954

Sir Roger crosses the line to break the four-minute mile for the first time on May 6, 1954

First published in News

Sir Roger Bannister will listen to today’s tributes with his usual cheerfulness, happy to recount again the story of that day: how he had gone to the London hospital where he worked, sharp-ened his spikes in the laboratory before travelling to Oxford, ever fearful that the strong winds would ruin everything.

Oxford University’s vice-chancellor Lord Patten will attend, along with college heads, university luminaries and Sir Roger’s family and friends to remember the events of May 6, 1954.

That was the day the most iconic barrier in world sport was finally broken, when Sir Roger became the first human being to run a mile in under four minutes, crossing the line to enter sporting immortality.

For all his subsequent achievements as a distinguished neurologist and Master of Pembroke College, he has never resented the determination of his countryman to lock him in a moment of time burned into the nation’s consciousness. For three years now he has been suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. A head-on crash in 1975, when his ankle was crushed, stopped him from ever being able to run again.

Oxford Mail:

  • Sir Roger with the Olympic Torch at Iffley Road in 2012

He would never stop trying, wearing orthopaedic supports, soft shoes, always on soft grass: he was still experimenting with Kenyan Masai-type shoes well into his sixties, always to be disappointed.

Now at the age of 85, Parkinson’s Disease makes walking difficult, although his mind remains as sharp as ever.

“I still have a walking group of 11 good friends. They go for a walk every month but these days I only go for the pub lunch afterwards,” he chuckled, when we met at his North Oxford home. Decades of neurological training, clinical work and research at the National Hospital and St Mary’s Hospital in London made him an expert on Parkinson’s many years before he was himself diagnosed with the disease.

“Yes, it is an irony”, he told me. “As a neurologist, I was concerned with the diagnosis, causes and management of Parkinson’s Disease.”

He has written about the condition in the many books and papers he has produced over 30 years that have greatly added to our understanding of degenerative disease and disorders of the autonomic nervous system.

In 2005 the importance of his work was recognised when he was awarded the American Academy of Neurology’s first Lifetime Achievement Award.

But if the celebration of his great sporting achievement is tinged with some sadness this time around, it will be nothing to do with Sir Roger’s own health.

Oxford Mail:

  • Sir Roger talks to pupil Kate Aries at the Oxford Spires Academy launch in 2011

For it will be the first time he has been unable to enjoy the anniversary with the two men, whom he will tell you made everything possible: the two Chrises.

Sir Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher were the remarkable men who acted as Sir Roger’s pace-makers on that famous day, sharing a place that no one had previously ventured as the “Three Musketeers”.

The friendship forged when they were all young runners in the 1950s was cemented by their shared place in sporting history.

“We continued to meet every year on or about May 6, “ said Sir Roger. “We always had our reunion with our wives. It was something that stayed with us. “ Their very first celebration is described in Sir Roger’s newly published autobiography Roger Bannister: Twin Tracks (£20 Robson Press).

“We had an evening of celebration in London, starting with a dinner at the Royal Court Club in Chelsea and ending up with our girlfriends in a nightclub until the early morning, “ he recalls.

“At about 2am we drove off to Fleet Street, where we expected all-night book stands might already have early editions of the papers. Chris B’s driving must have been erratic because a policeman stopped us.

“When Chris wound down the window and stuck his head out, the policeman said, ‘You were driving as though you had lost your way sir?’ Then glancing into the car, he recognised our faces and said, ‘It’s the three record breakers. Well done. Would you mind giving me your autographs.’”

When they opened the papers their achievement was compared to the first ascent of Everest. For many a sub-four minute mile was thought to be beyond any man, “an irksome reminder that man’s striving might be in vain” as Sir Roger puts it.

Oxford Mail:

  • Sir Roger at Pembroke College in 2004 with the pair of shoes that he wore for his record-breaking run

Breaking the four-minute mile was grasped as an alternative to ending his running career in failure, he now readily admits.

In 1953 the great Australian runner John Landy achieved a four minute two second mile, and with Landy about to try again in Europe, there was a feeling of “now or never” when Sir Roger took to the track 60 years ago.

One of the many moments of good fortune on May 6 came when Sir Roger boarded a train at Paddington alone. He found himself in a carriage with the great coach Franz Stampfl.

“Roger, the weather is terrible, but even if it’s as bad as this, I think you are capable of running a mile in good conditions in 3.56, and that margin is still enough to enable you to succeed today,” Stampfl told him. Crucially he was to go on: “If you pass it up today, you may never forgive yourself for the rest of your life. You will feel pain, but what is it? It’s just pain.’’ The book captures the agony and ecstasy as he ran to the line to fulfil his destiny. “I felt at that moment that it was my chance to do one thing supremely well,” he writes. “I drove on, impelled by a combination of fear and pride. The air filled me with the spirit of the track where I had run my first race. The noise in my ears was that of the faithful Oxford crowd.”

Oxford Mail:

  • Sir Roger with his wife Moyra

Sir Roger returned to serve as Master of Pembroke College, a position he held between 1985 and 1993.

He reveals how one of Oxford’s most impressive recent developments in fact resulted from Lady Bannister spotting a ‘for sale’ sign on a garage in Brewer Street, as she headed to an art class.

Realising that any further college expansion would depend on this site, he immediately rang a donor, who bought it together with two houses, which are now the Bannister Graduate Centre.

“I even got our architect to make drawings of a bridge with a classical design to connect the two parts of the college,” he said. Twenty years later the task was completed with more land bought.

Sir Roger’s retirement from running brought only relief to his family, particularly his mother who would repeatedly tell him: “I hope, Roger, all this running doesn’t take time from your medicine.”

“At university we viewed sport as a prelude to the real business of life,” he said. If running was a gift, he never doubted that medicine and neurology was his true vocation.

The autobiography allows him tell his full life story for the first time: his work as a neurologist and the years as first independent chairman of the Sports Council, where he played a pivotal role in starting the boom in multi-facility sports centres and was a key figure in drawing attention to the dangers of drug abuse in sport.

Oxford Mail:

  • Sir Roger before being helped as he recovers after breaking the record

Long before the authorities began to stamp down on the use of performance enhancing drugs, he arranged for a chemist at a London hospital to devise a urinary test, able to detect anabolic steroids to less than one part in a million.

Two of his 14 grandchildren have achieved sporting distinctions, with one representing Britain in the GB under-18 rowing squad, and another part of the British team for paramotoring, a form of powered gliding.

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