On my birthday in December 2004, I found myself on a research trip to Oxford, England. Over 50 years earlier on May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister for the first time broke the 4-minute mile in a time of 3 minutes 59.4 seconds. Although he had failed to medal in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, placing fourth in the 1,500 meters, a part-time coach convinced the 24-year-old Bannister that he could break the seemingly unbreakable 4-minute barrier two years later.
So Bannister, who had come to Oxford in 1946 to study medicine, remembered that when he arrived at Exeter College the first day, “I dropped my bags and set off for the running track.” “For the first time in the years I spent in Oxford,” Bannister said, “I made the journey across Magdalen Bridge to the Iffley Road track.” It was there on that rainy, windy May 1954 day that Roger Bannister broke through the 4-minute barrier.
Fifty years later, on a cold, stone gray December morning, I laced up my own running shoes and took off from my rooms at Oxford’s Regent’s Park College. I ran down St. Giles Street, turned left on Broad past Blackwell’s Books, the Bodleian Library and the Radcliffe Camera, turning left again onto High Street. I continued on past Magdalen College, the tower and the bridge, and then veered right at a roundabout onto Iffley Road. Just ahead a long wooden wall lined the fields of the Oxford Sport Complex and then a blue sign that announced Bannister’s feat.
I searched for an opening into the complex of playing fields and the track itself, but to no avail. On this Sunday morning, all the gates were locked. Disappointed, I had wanted to at least make one lap around the historic track. I climbed onto a narrow ledge to peer over the wall at the track, and then headed back to my rooms at Regent’s Park.
My 5-mile run lasted about 43:00 minutes, a pace well over twice slower than Bannister’s 3:59.4 five decades earlier. My tortoise-slow pace gave me more time to contemplate the significance of Bannister’s great accomplishment of 1954.
A humble and gracious man, Dr. Bannister would deflect any praise I could direct his way. As John F. Burns wrote for the New York Times, “Anybody who spends a few hours with him now comes away impressed with his insistent self-effacement, perhaps best captured in the words of another famous English athlete, Harold Abrahams, whose exploits in winning the 100-meter gold medal at the Paris Olympics of 1924 were chronicled in the movie “Chariots of Fire.” Writing before Bannister’s failure in Helsinki, Abrahams found Bannister’s demeanor to be his only failing as an athlete. “Modesty in Bannister,” he wrote, “amounts to an almost complete reluctance to acknowledge his greatness.”
Bannister’s “reluctance to acknowledge his greatness” has been even more pronounced in the 58 years since he stunned the sporting world by breaking a barrier that many thought could not be broken. And, of course, today 3:59.4 is not impressive at all, at least among the elite runners of the world. At present, the mile record is 16 seconds faster than Bannister’s mark, set in 1999 by Morocco’s Hicham el-Guerrouj at 3:43.13.
Bannister retired from running the year after he broke the barrier. And since 1955, Dr. Bannister has been recognized as one of England’s greatest neurologists. According to Burns, he led out, with his appointment to the British sports council, initially unsuccessfully, in an effort to test randomly for anabolic steroids – a practice, finally accepted, that resulted in only one Olympic athlete being disqualified for drugs at the recent London Olympics.
Roger Bannister has made his mark. Just don’t ask him about it; or you would never know.
Duane Bolin is Professor Emeritus of History at Murray State University. Contact him at email@example.com. “Home and Away” runs each Tuesday in the Murray Ledger & Times.