Op-Ed

Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute mile and inspired the world

On May 6, 1954, Britain’s Roger Bannister hit the tape to become the first person to break the 4-minute mile in Oxford, England. His family said Sir Roger Bannister died peacefully in Oxford on March 3 at age 88.
On May 6, 1954, Britain’s Roger Bannister hit the tape to become the first person to break the 4-minute mile in Oxford, England. His family said Sir Roger Bannister died peacefully in Oxford on March 3 at age 88. Associated Press

Have we lost all perspective?

“Hollywood makes a statement with its statuettes,” was the headline on A-1 of the Washington Post last Monday morning. The night before, in typical self-congratulatory fashion, today’s stars of the silver screen plodded through a repetitive ceremony (“but, hey, it’s the 90th anniversary of Oscar!”) that produced record-low ratings and a 20 percent drop in viewers from last year.

And yet, one of our nation’s most celebrated dailies saw fit to cover this annual staged event on its front page rather than give space to one of the most remarkable lives of the past century.

Tucked away on D-1 of the sports section, homage was paid to one of the most towering figures of our time, Dr. Roger Bannister, who accomplished what journalist Tony Kornheiser called the “most important athletic achievement of the 20th century.”

Bannister became the first human being ever to break the 4-minute mile. Other athletic accomplishments are certainly noteworthy and are rightly celebrated. However, what Sir Roger did on that raw and blustery day in Oxford is all the more remarkable given his background and the circumstances.

But Bannister was more than just a runner.

A medical student in London, Bannister completed his usual shift on May 6, 1954, at St. Mary’s Hospital and boarded the train bound for Oxford at Paddington Station. After lunch with some friends, he headed to the cinder track at Iffley Road to strap on what fellow runner Lord Sebastian Coe described as “leather shoes in which the spikes alone probably weighed more than the tissue-thin shoes today.”

Paced by his running teammates, Christopher Chataway and Chris Brasher, Bannister bested the elements and did what many thought was humanly impossible. He covered the mile distance in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds.

I’ve had the good fortune to see the actual stopwatch, frozen — as it were — in time at the Iffley Road Sports Complex, just up from the Magdalen College Bridge, where Bannister forever changed the way we view physical and mental limitations.

As a graduate student at Oxford in 1991, some of the most memorable experiences I enjoyed were to hear lectures given by two remarkable individuals: Bannister and Sir Edmund Hillary, one of the first climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest. I recall both speaking about their life-altering accomplishments, but what impressed me the most was how each used their celebrity and fame to bless the lives of others.

Hillary, known as “Burra Sahib” or “Big Man” by the people of Nepal for his 6-foot-2 inch frame, spent his post-Everest life building schools, water systems, roads and hospitals through the Himalayan Trust.

Bannister, at the height of his fame and athletic prowess, retired from competitive running in the same year as his record-setting feat in order to focus on medicine. He became staff neurologist at London’s National Hospital in 1963 and worked there, and at St. Mary’s, for 20 years, focusing his research and teaching on degenerative disease and disorders of the autonomic nervous system. He would later serve as master (equivalent of president) of Oxford’s Pembroke College for nearly a decade.

Contrast the condemnations directed at some within the Hollywood establishment — and rightfully so — who have used their power and position for years to abuse others for their own gain with the tributes paid to Bannister on his passing.

Women’s marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe said: “We have lost one of the true pioneers, trailblazers and iconic inspirations of our sport. Sir Roger Bannister showed that barriers are there to be broken and there are no limits.”

Olympic Gold medalist Sebastian Coe observed: “His achievement transcended sport, let alone athletics. It was a moment in history that lifted the heart of a nation and boosted morale in a world that was still at a low ebb after the war.”

The unfortunate passing of a true iconic figure like Sir Roger Bannister gives us all a moment to reflect on what we value as a society and to whom we look for inspiration.

Michael T. Benson is president and professor of government at Eastern Kentucky University.

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