The death of Roger Bannister — the first person to run a mile in under four minutes — stirred memories of a bygone era when amateur athletes ruled sports since gone professional.
By John Mehaffey
The timeless magic of the mile, the only non-metric track distance still recognized as an official world record, prompted a spate of nostalgic headlines this month with the death of the first man to run four 440-yard laps in under four minutes.
The death of Roger Bannister stirred memories of an era, long gone, when amateur athletes, many of whom went on to distinguished careers well away from sport, ruled games that since have become the playground of hardened professionals and in some cases craven trainers and hangers-on.
Bannister, a 25-year-old medical student at Oxford University, clocked three minutes 59.4 seconds on May 6, 1954, at Iffley Road to generate unrestrained euphoria in the English press.
“There’s nothing to compare with this since the destruction of the Spanish Armada,” burbled one newspaper.
A chilly spring day
Bannister’s initial goal had been the 1,500 meters gold medal at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. He fitted his training into a lunch break between lectures, aiming to peak on the day of the final after two races in three days.
The late addition of a semi-final scuppered his meticulous plan, and he finished fourth.
The burning sense of unfinished business resulted in Bannister setting a new goal that would ensure him sporting immortality after sustained assaults on the fabled four-minute barrier by Australian John Landy and American Wes Santee.
A chilly spring day was designated for Bannister’s world record attempt. As the runners lined up, Bannister glanced at the flag of St. George on the church steeple overlooking Iffley Road.
It was standing at right angles, indicating a gusting wind that would ruin their attempt to set an even pace around one minute a lap. The runners took their marks, and Bannister looked up again to see if it was worth continuing.
The flag was now fluttering gently and the race was on.
The high point of amateur sport was doomed.
Chris Brasher, the 1956 Olympic steeplechase champion and founder of the London marathon, led the field through the first two laps.
Future government minister Chris Chataway paced the third. Bannister was on his own for the final 300 yards, collapsing over the line into the arms of his supporters. The track announcer confirmed it was a world record, then gave the time. “Three minutes …,” he began.
The high point of amateur sport — when athletes from the privileged West, at least, could pursue their dreams for a few years, then return to normal life — was already doomed.
The Soviet Union and East Germany were using sport as a demonstration of national excellence. Their elite athletes were effectively full-time professionals. In time, all sport became professional, including athletics in the 1980s.
Nostalgia for the days when elite sport could be part of a well-rounded life is not misplaced. Bannister, who became a distinguished neurologist, had no doubt where his priorities lay.
“A medical career,” he said. “Once you have been through a sporting game phase, you realized how insubstantial it it. It’s very fleeting.”
John Mehaffey worked for four decades as a journalist in New Zealand, Australia and Britain, including 33 on the Reuters Sports Desk covering seven summer Olympics plus World Cups and world championships in athletics, soccer, cricket, rugby, amateur boxing and gymnastics. He wrote extensively on sports news including drugs in sport, the readmission of South Africa to international sport and corruption in cricket. He was appointed Chief Sports Reporter in 2001.