Roger Bannister, the first man ever to run a mile in under four minutes, has died at the age of 88. I heard the news just after listening to radio reports of the latest in a long line of scandals about doping in sports. Then I read the splendid obit in the New York Times. This is how it begins:
On the morning of May 6, 1954, a Thursday, Roger Bannister, 25, a medical student in London, worked his usual shift at St. Mary’s Hospital and took an early afternoon train to Oxford. He had lunch with some old friends, then met a couple of his track teammates, Christopher Chataway and Chris Brasher. As members of an amateur all-star team, they were preparing to run against Oxford University.
About 1,200 people showed up at Oxford’s unprepossessing Iffley Road track to watch, and though the day was blustery and damp — inauspicious conditions for a record-setting effort — a record is what they saw. Paced by Chataway and Brasher and powered by an explosive kick, his signature, Bannister ran a mile in under four minutes — 3:59.4, to be exact — becoming the first man ever to do so, breaking through a mystical barrier and creating a seminal moment in sports history.
And then, having broken the barrier, what did he do? Why, he ‘retired’ from competitive athletics in order to do something serious. “Now that I am taking up a hospital appointment,” he said in an address to the English Sportswriters Association that December,
I shall have to give up international athletics. I shall not have sufficient time to put up a first-class performance. There would be little satisfaction for me in a second-rate performance, and it would be wrong to give one when representing my country.
He worked as a neurosurgeon for the rest of his life.
It’s impossible to read this and not reflect on how competitive sport has changed in the intervening decades.
Even today, the Pathe news footage of his run is thrilling. May he rest in peace.