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24 March 2018

In Memoriam Sir Roger Bannister

Tag(s): In Memoriam, Sport
The great Sir Roger Bannister died on March 3rd, 2018 aged 88 after suffering from Parkinson’s disease. I generally write my In Memoriam blogs about people I have known. While I never met Sir Roger I did work closely with Chris Brasher who paced Sir Roger in the first two laps of the race for which he is best known, the first four minute mile. On May 6th, 1954 a junior doctor named Roger Bannister aged 24, after working at St Mary’s hospital in Paddington, London, caught a midday train to Oxford for an athletics meeting between Oxford University and the Amateur Athletics Association. Bannister had planned to use this meeting to become the first to break the four minute mile, a target that was also being pursued by his great rivals Wes Santee of the United States and John Landy of Australia.

The weather was terrible with gale force winds. Bannister considered postponing his attempt but his coach Franz Stampfl warned him that this might be his last chance. They went to the Iffley Road track at about 4.30pm for the 6.00pm race. The wind had dropped a little but was still strong. Bannister was undecided but his two pacesetting colleagues Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway pushed him for a decision. Bannister saw that a flag on a nearby church tower was drooping. “Right, we’ll go for it,” he declared. One of the organisers, Norris McWhirter, famous as the founder of the Guinness Book of Records, had tipped off some athletics correspondents and Harold Abrahams, the 1924 100 metres Olympic champion of Chariots of Fire fame was commentating live for BBC radio.

For two laps Brasher set the pace in 1 min 58 seconds. At the halfway stage Chataway took over but only ran 62 seconds in the third lap meaning Bannister had to run the last lap in 59 seconds. He took over with 300 yards to run. The last few yards were agonising and he threw himself across the line and collapsed almost unconscious.

With a sense of drama McWhirter announced the result: “First, Number 41, RG Bannister, Amateur Athletic Association and formerly of Exeter and Merton colleges, in a time which, subject to ratification, is a new track record, British native record, all-comers record, European, British Empire and world record – three minutes….”

The rest was drowned out with the roar of the crowd as this iconic milestone had been achieved. Bannister had broken the record of 4 mins: 01.4 that had stood to a Swedish athlete Gunder Hagg since July 1945. Bannister’s time of 3 mins 59.4 was an outstanding feat, especially when the weather is taken into account and the fact that he was running on a low grade cinder track.  Overnight he became an international celebrity for a record for which he would always be remembered.

That night, back in London, he and his two colleagues walked up Harrow Hill and looked out over the city. He would say later “We didn’t have anything to say to each other. We all knew that the world was at our feet and that we could do anything we wanted in life.”

Chris Brasher went on to win the Gold Medal in the 3,000 metres steeplechase in the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. He helped pioneer the sport of orienteering in Britain and later  co-founded the London Marathon. He had a distinguished career as a journalist and broadcaster. He founded a sportswear business and in 1978 designed the innovative Brasher Boot- a walking boot with the comfort of a running shoe. He personally trialled every design of these boots hiking in the Scottish Highlands. He sold 75% of the business to Pentland where, as Managing Director of International Brands, I worked with him. He remained chairman and I was on the board. We would travel by train from London to Lancaster for a board meeting and regale each other with stories. I invariably found myself crying with laughter.

Chris was awarded the CBE in 1996 and sadly died of pancreatic cancer in 2003.

Chris Chataway came fifth in the 5000 metres in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics behind the great Emil Zatopek, after falling on the last bend. In the 1954 European Athletics Championships he came second in the 5000m behind another great runner from behind the Iron Curtain, Vladimir Kuts, but two weeks later turned the tables at a London v Moscow competition at White City setting a new world record.  Later that year Chataway won the first BBC Sports Personality of the Year award. He went into television and worked as one of Panorama’s most highly regarded reporters. He then went into politics and was elected as Conservative MP for Lewisham North in the 1959 General Election. He became an Education Minister but in a highly marginal seat lost in 1966. He got back in in a by-election in Chichester, a much safer seat. Under Edward Heath he became Minister for Posts and Telecommunications in which post he took charge of introducing commercial radio ending the BBC monopoly.

After the Conservatives defeat in 1974 he retired from politics at the age of 43 and went into business where he had an equally distinguished career in banking. He also became involved extensively in charitable work and under his chairmanship ActionAid grew its annual turnover to £100 million. He was also chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority and in 1995 was knighted for services to aviation. He died, also after fighting cancer for over two years, in 2014 aged 82.

Bannister’s record only stood for 46 days. On June 21 Landy ran 3 min 58 sec. On August 7 the two men faced each other in the mile at the Commonwealth Games in Vancouver. Landy led until the final bend but Bannister caught him and won by five yards, both men under four minutes. Bannister went on to win the 1500m Gold medal in the European Championships in Berne just three weeks later and promptly retired to concentrate on his first love, medicine.

As a young doctor he found it hard to win the respect of his colleagues. “People had difficulty imagining me, a four-minute miler, as a serious physician.” It drove him to work even harder, with obsessive attention to detail. In 1963 he was appointed as a consultant neurologist at St Mary’s and London’s National Hospital, the world’s first neurological hospital, where he remained for the next 25 years.

He founded the pioneering Autonomic Investigation Unit at the National Hospital and was awarded the American Academy of Neurology’s first lifetime achievement award in 2005. He also edited the standard neurological textbook, Brain’s Clinical Neurology, which was later renamed Brain and Bannister’s Clinical Neurology.

He still found time to promote sport and exercise. He helped set up the Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards scheme. He served as the first independent chairman of the Sports Council from 1971 to 1974, and was responsible for a substantial increase in sports facilities, as well as initiating the first tests for anabolic steroids in sports. In 1975 he was knighted for his services to sport. From 1976 to 1983 he was president of the International Council of Sport and Physical Education.

In 1985 he was appointed master of Pembroke College, Oxford. He loved the job and raised £5 million for the construction of the Fulbright building, then the largest new college building in post-war Oxford. He donated his athletic trophies to the college.  But he kept the kangaroo leather running shoes in which he had made history and in 2015 they sold at Christies for £266,500, five times above the estimate. He donated the money to the Autonomic Charitable Trust.

While Bannister loved sport and became world-famous because of it he was infinitely prouder of his work in medicine which he thought far more important. In today’s modern age of overblown so-called professionalism we have lost sight of the Corinthian ideal that you played sport for the love of it and the camaraderie it engendered while earning your living in a recognised profession.

To succeed in modern sport requires an absurd level of concentration on the sport itself and the fitness and dietary regimes that are necessary leaving no time to lead a fulfilling life. Great riches are on offer for the few but at the cost of almost everything else. The British cycling team has won a disproportionate number of Olympic gold medals and Tours de France but seemingly by pushing the boundaries to the very limit, perhaps beyond.  Some world records in the athletics register now seem beyond achievement as they were clearly set when doping of athletes behind the Iron Curtain was routine. The Iron Curtain may have fallen but the doping continues as Russian teams have been banned from recent events.

Bannister once said “It still seems strange to me that the intrinsically simple and unimportant act of placing one foot in the front of the other for 1,760 yards was heralded as such an important sporting achievement. My achievements in neurology were far more important than anything I did as a runner.”

To his friends he was remarkable not for his athleticism or his brilliance as a neurologist but for his civility. But he also had a wicked sense of humour. In the 1950s while representing Oxford University at a meeting in Cambridge he played a trick on the authorities. Undergraduates who ventured outside college walls after dark were obliged to wear academic gowns. A senior don, called a proctor, and two officials, known as bulldogs, would punish any gown-less student they caught with a fine.

Bannister had been apprised of this custom and, after the match was over, he and some colleagues were accosted by the proctor. “Excuse me, sir,” said the proctor. “Are you a member of this university?” Bannister made a run for it, with the bulldogs in pursuit. After about a quarter of a mile, Bannister waited for his pursuers to catch up. “No,” said Bannister, leaving the panting bulldogs in confusion.

One up to Oxford I think.

The BBC also struggled with their headline on their news website :”Bannister’s run on that day will remain timeless.”

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