With this week marking the beginning of the latest Olympic Games in Rio, there may be no better time to commemorate the life of one of Harrow’s most famous sportsmen. Sir Roger Gilbert Bannister, CBE has become world-renown for his feats in the athletic world, and his story is equally well-known – but as someone not attached to the famous school, Bannister is in a number of ways the most significant ordinary Harrow resident to have emerged in modern times. So with the country’s current champions vying for medals in the next few weeks, let us look back on the story of Harrow’s champion, and the winding path he took to greatness.
Born in March 1929, Bannister grew up in the period between the two cataclysmic world wars that would define the century – which would, later, come to impact on his record-breaking achievements in the sporting world. Attending Vaughan Primary School in West Harrow, Bannister’s talent for running emerged from an early age. Whilst reflecting on his childhood, Bannister is claimed to have said that he “just ran anywhere and everywhere – never because it was an end in itself, but because it was easier for me to run than to walk.” During this time, he won for himself a number of medals – in one instance winning his school’s cross-country meet for three years in a row.
However, despite this early childhood, which seemingly would have paved the way for an immediate career in athletics, Bannister’s entry into the world of running was a rather slow one. Following his time at Vaughan, Bannister went on to study at City of Bath Boys’ School and University College School in London, and from there entered the University of Oxford’s medical school, and St. Mary’s Medical School at what is now Imperial College London. It was only in 1946, age 17, that Bannister settled on becoming a runner.
Despite his lighter training regime, Bannister showed promise early on – completing a mile in 1947 in just 4:24.6. This achievement saw him identified as an Olympic “possible” in 1948, but Bannister decided to decline the offer, feeling that he was not yet ready to compete at such level just yet. All the same, that year’s Olympics served only to further fuel his athletic ambitions. In the aftermath, Bannister focused his efforts on becoming a great miler, setting his sights on the 1952 Olympics at Helsinki.
However, when 1952 and the Helsinki games finally rolled around, they did not go according to Bannister’s plans. Though ten days before the Olympic final Bannister had run three-quarters of a mile in just under three minutes, which had given him the confidence of being finally ready for the Olympic-level competition, the announcement that there would be semi-finals for the 1500 metres was disheartening for him. Bannister knew that such a race favoured runners with a much deeper training regime than what he practiced, and in the ensuing semi-final, he came fifth – which, whilst still qualifying him, saw him doubting his entire running career.
Yet Bannister’s failure here – or relative failure, anyway – was to prove highly formative. Eventually resolving to continue his career in running, Bannister decided on a new goal in the aftermath of Helsinki: to be the first man to run a mile in under four minutes – something widely thought impossible at the time.
Committing himself to an intensified training regime with a focus on intervals, Bannister made to achieve this goal in May 1954 at the meet between British AAA and Oxford University. Though the rainy and windy conditions of the day had made for considerable uncertainty – least of all from Bannister himself – Bannister ultimately emerged victorious, completing the mile in 3 minutes and 59 seconds, a feat that caused such an applause that the announcer was drowned out, and the exact time in seconds with him.
Yet Bannister, the record that Bannister did set here was beaten shortly after. Just 46 days after Bannister’s run, John Landy, a Finnish athlete, completed a mile in 3:58 – one second faster than Bannister.
This, however, was to be only the start – there was to be a second round. Later in 1954, the two rivals met in Vancouver at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games. In what was known as ‘The Miracle Mile,’ the two sportsmen took to the track and raced each other and the clock – with Landy leading for most of the race, even building a ten yard lead in the third lap. As the race neared its end, it seemed certain that Landy would emerge triumphant. Yet on the final bend, Bannister made what was to be his final try at passing Landy. As Landy turned to see his rival’s position, Bannister managed to bolt past him and into the final stretch.
His Finnish rival never regained the lead, crossing the line with a time of 3:59.6, while Bannister completed the mile in 3:58.8. To this day, the record remains just 3:53.14 – not far off Bannister’s initial record breaking run here.
His victory in Vancouver was the crowning success of his athletic career, and one that he, quite rightly, chose to finish on. In the wake of his numerous successes and feats, Bannister returned to the field of medicine, becoming a neurologist and making as many breakthroughs here as he had in the athletic world. Indeed, in an interview on the 50th Anniversary of his sub-four minute mile, Bannister suggested that, despite his popular reputation, he considered his work in neurology to have been the source of his greatest achievements.
Nevertheless, whether for his work in neurology or his feats in athletics, Roger Bannister remains one of Harrow’s greatest residents. His successes can continue to be seen in the local area – perhaps most notably in the Bannister Outdoor Sports Centre in Hatch End – and with the country’s latest sportspeople taking to the stage in the next few weeks, it may be worthwhile to remember the feats of one who came from our very own borough.
If you’d like to know more of Bannister’s story, and particularly how it fitted into the wider post-war context of the 1940s and ‘50s, there is also a BBC documentary recently aired that is worth checking out. Called Roger Bannister: Everest on the Track – you can catch it on BBC iPlayer before it expires at the end of this month.
Written by Harry Turner.
Image Credit: The Sunday Times