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Monday, 9 April 2018

My Heroes (43): Sir Roger Bannister

The passing away of Sir Roger Bannister last month has recalled a time when post-war Britain was very different than it is today. The breaking of the four-minute mile barrier was as much psychological as it was physical. The whole event, which took place at the Iffley Road track in Oxford where Sir Roger was a student doctor, was very low-key in a way that would seem amateurish today. Sir Roger had specifically targeted breaking the four-minute barrier. Seven athletes were scheduled to race but one of the runners forgot his shorts so could not take part in the race! 
The concept of breaking that barrier was challenged by some who said no human could do it. However, Roger Bannister thought "why not, why would the barrier be at exactly four minutes?"
He ran a mile in three minutes and 59.4 seconds and, as if to prove his point, the record was quickly broken again by Australia's John Landy and then many times over the next few months. It seems that once the psychological barrier was broken, it became relatively easier. He had been assisted in his efforts by his two pacemakers, Christopher Chataway and Chris Brasher who both became very successful middle-distance runners themselves.
I love this charming quote from Sir Roger on his retirement: "I'd rather be remembered for my work in neurology than my running. If you offered me the chance to make a great breakthrough in the study of the automatic nerve system, I'd take that over the four minute mile right away. I worked in medicine for sixty years. I ran for about eight."[
I'm listening to Dion singing one of my favourite rock songs, Ruby Baby. Listen here.


Sherry Ellis said...

Let's hope is is remembered for his science work. He sounds like a remarkable man. (Running a mile under four minutes is impressive! I wonder what the record is today.)

bazza said...

Sherry: Hicham El Guerrouj is the current men's record holder with his time of 3:43.13 but the mile is a fairly rare event now. It's mostly about 1500m these days.

Hels said...

I remember Roger Bannister and John Landy very well, but only for their athletics, not for any other work they did. The four minute mile year (1954) was a time of huge national pride.

Rest in peace, Rog.

bazza said...

Hels: As I said in my post, the world was a very different place back then. Post-war Britain was a 'grey' place but some of the memories are good and national pride was desperately needed.

Parnassus said...

Hello Bazza, You picked a good example for a hero. I hadn't heard of him outside of athletics, so I just looked up his medical career, and he was an expert in the nervous system and its automatic responses, a fascinating and important field, whose surface has probably barely been scratched, so Bannister was a trailblazer twice.
P.S. One of his co-authors was Walter Russell Brain, a great name for a neurologist! I wonder if he was related to Dennis Brain, Britain's great French horn player?

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

It's amazing what humans can accomplish once they get past the psychological hurdles they put in their own paths. Roger Bannister's name is known the world over because of busting through that four-minute mark, but his work as a doctor is an even more impressive legacy.

bazza said...

Jim: Bannister was proud of his career in medicine but it says something about public appetites that few know of his real value.
I hope the life of Walter Russell Brain was less tragic than that of Dennis Brain who was a great loss to the world of music.

bazza said...

Susan: Absolutely; it must have been frustrating for him to be less recognised for the great achievement of his long career.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Bazza - I knew Roger Bannister was a doctor ... a specialist - but had forgotten his speciality ... I knew he broke the barrier at Iffley and I know he was the first ... and sad to know he has died ... but he was an amazingly humble man. Thanks for the reminder about him ... yes a hero - cheers Hilary

bazza said...

Hilary: Then we are in complete agreement!