“In my day, the Cherwell was always pushing the boundaries and getting banned, is that still true?” Sir Roger inquired with a twinkle as he continued to make conversation on my way to the door. With tongue firmly in cheek I assured him that we were a totally unsullied publication and that he must be thinking of our scabrous rivals, and was gleefully on my way, having just sat down for an afternoon cup of tea (politely refused) with the historical legend, “The Running Doctor”, Sir Roger Bannister.
Sir Roger was quick to make clear to me, however, that his career in neurology was always more important to him than was his running, though he acknowledged that others might see it in a different light. After studying medicine at Exeter College he went on to pursue a specialist career in “one of the more taxing branches” of medicine despite the handicap that came with being heralded a “record breaker”.
“I possibly had to show even more diligence in writing medical papers than otherwise would have been necessary to achieve this”, explained Sir Roger.
Yet “it would be true to say that I have always welcomed challenges”, he continued, and such a mentality has fuelled him through a distinguished lifetime of achievements aside from his sporting career, being appointed Consultant Neurologist to the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases and St Mary’s Hospital, London, and later, in 1985, making a return to Oxford as Master of Pembroke College, a challenge which he “greatly enjoyed”.
As an undergraduate, Sir Roger was President of OUAC and responsible for developing the club. He made a bold but well-reasoned change to the track structure, converting the three-lap-to-a-mile track into “an orthodox 4-lap-to-the-mile track, certainly a requisite for running the four-minute mile”.
While explaining his “grave disappointment” at coming fourth in the Helsinki Olympics, and his subsequent decision not to retire at that point despite the difficulties of combining his medical training with his athletic commitments, the positivism of his actions emerged as, by 1953, it had become clear that the four-minute mile was the next major athletic target.
Scrupulously detailing each aspect of the build-up to his publicly defining moment, his memory was sharp and his approach forthcoming, and it was evident that this time in his life had made a deep impression on him. Conveying the mood of the country at the time, as it made its emergence from “austerity towards a confidence in the new Elizabethan age”, he touched on other important events in the period, namely the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and the conquering of Mt. Everest by a British and Commonwealth team.
Sir Roger had astutely recognized two other athletes in the world as contenders for breaking the four-minute mile, rivals John Landy and Wes Santee, and the mile time was rapidly being whittled down, certain to be breached soon. For this reason he felt he had to take the first opportunity of “a bone-fide athletic meeting to attempt it”. He recalls rubbing graphite onto the spikes of his specially made lightweight running shoes on the morning of the race at St Mary’s Hospital Medical School, although his precise decision to make the record attempt was not quite so preconceived.
“Whether or not it would be possible to break the four minute mile was entirely dependent on weather”, Sir Roger denoted emphatically, and it was only when he noticed the St George’s flag near the Iffley Road track dropping in the wind ten minutes before the race that he confirmed with his increasingly impatient friends and pacemakers, Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway, that he would make the attempt. 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds later he was transformed into an iconic figure of his time and a true legend. Not only had he broken the record; he had charted new territory, and importantly, for himself, “made amends for what I had regarded a disappointing failure for me and for my followers and for the British public in 1952” at the Olympics.
As we moved deeper into the conversation and away from the choice topic of journalists which has surrounded him for most of his life, Sir Roger began to show more of his genteel character, thoughtfully assimilating my prying words and reciprocating with insightful and unstudied acumen.
Addressing the publicly touchy subject of doping in sport, Sir Roger, who initiated the testing of anabolic steroids during his role of Chairman of the Sports Council (now Sport England), admits that the World Authorities “have not moved with the dispatch I would have wished to introduce random testing.”
“I always knew that random testing was necessary”, but he carefully adds, “I am aware of all the difficulties this presents, and the enormous expense”.
However, he remains confident that the expanding precautions set for longer time scales in the hope that more effective tests become available in the future have made it increasingly difficult to “hope to evade detection”. He concludes, “it won’t be easy, but it has to be done”, a mentality somewhat parallel to his own gritty determination, perhaps, and one proven highly successful at that.
It is true that despite a seeming desire to escape the burdens of the sporting domain in order to pursue his medical career, Sir Roger has remained actively involved in the field of sport throughout his later life. He anecdotally recounts his recent visit to the Olympic site with Lord Coe, which left him “most impressed” with its transformation from a previously derelict site into somewhere that will “leave a legacy of facilities…of great benefit to the area of London that has been neglected”. On a bleaker note, citing Minister for the Olympics, Tessa Jowell, he discloses that, should a world financial crisis have been foreseen, the London bid may never have gone ahead. Nonetheless he simply notes that frugality will inevitably play a larger role in the administration, unlike the “lavish expense possible in Beijing”. Perhaps this is a positive however, as it will hone the focus back towards the true enjoyment of sport, without the distracting embellishments that countries like to employ to bolster their authority. It will typify the reserved and gritty English disposition.
Sir Roger carefully weighs up the debate of “pushy parents” determined to use their children as vehicles for success in sport, highlighting the necessity for prudence and self-control. He believes it is important not to deceive children about their true capabilities, wisely commenting, “Children should not prematurely be led to expect they will become champions, nor to be sure, as teenagers, where their eventual talents lie, given that their physique and personality are changing”.
He goes on to acknowledge, however, the value of parental willingness to involve their children in sport. When I pry further into the kind of upbringing that Sir Roger experienced, his eyes momentarily glint and he reveals suspicions of a scheming plan of his father’s to “concentrate” his mind, as he puts it. Not only did his father win a mile race at school, but also as a boy took him to watch what he remembers as a “very inspiring” mile race between then-world record holder Sydney Wooderson and Arne Andersson. Little did he know it that a few years later it would be his name on the record, and he chuckles at the reflection.
Does Sir Roger rue the day professionals took over the sport?
“Society changes with a certain inevitability”, he replies, perceptively. “There are advantages and disadvantages.”
In his characteristically positive manner, Sir Roger chooses to focus on the benefits; he understands the need for the end of the amateur era as, in order to “achieve the current levels of world records, full-time training is necessary, and it is difficult to combine with another career”, something which he has experienced first-hand. He regards it as an advantage that sport in general has become more prevalent recreationally, perhaps stimulated by the “exceptional examples of some professional athletes”, and then reels of numerous statistics related to numbers of competitors in public sporting events, such as the Great North Run (40,000, should you be interested), once again exhibiting the remarkable crispness of a memory more expected in a young graduate than, most tactfully put, an octogenarian. Perhaps that moment 55 years ago is locked within him, perpetuating eternal youth. Clichés aside, Sir Roger gently tries to shatter this illusion for me when I ask if I’ll see him jogging around North Oxford at some point.
“I wouldn’t dignify it with the term ‘jog'” he answers steadily. “I move rather slowly, and avoid the streets, but don’t mind the grass of the parks”.
He may move slowly, but his mind is still quick as a fox. The sub-four minute miler has not lost his edge.