A column by Mark Tucker – Runner’s Tribe
When mentioning Roger Bannister most people immediately think of the mile. When mentioning the mile most people immediately think of the almost mythical four-minute barrier and Roger Bannister being the first man to break it. However, there was a lot more to the man, and there is a lot more to the event. But first…
Once upon a time I experienced my own Bannister moment with Bannister himself in attendance. Except that I missed the win and was fifty years too late in breaking a significant barrier. On the 5th of June, 2004, in Tullamore, Ireland, I first broke four minutes for the mile running 3.59.87 when coming third to the eventual winner, Irishman, James Nolan (3.58.45) and fellow Australian, Michael Power (3.58.93). I knew the history, I knew the significance, and I was pumped!
But when I first crossed the line I was unsure. I knew it was close. So I waited for the announcement of the times and places. I jogged around. I hoped. I prayed… Finally, in that wonderful Irish accent, I found out my fate. And it wasn’t the announcement of “three…” and the crowd going wild (although it was just as magical for me). “Not one, not two, but three, three men under four minutes for the mile!…”
Like most elite runners who focus on the 1500m/mile at some point in their careers, the sub four-minute mile was something I valued highly, and so I felt a surreal joy and relief when it was confirmed I had finally broken it. The surreal part came from Roger Bannister being in attendance, invited to the meet as part of the 50th anniversary of his famous milestone. I still think about how lucky I was to have the man who epitomised the mile and sub four-minutes being present for my first time under the magical barrier, even though I lived on the other side of the world.
As you do, Nolan, Power and I chatted to Roger Bannister as we waited for the presentation ceremony to start… I was in athletics heaven!.. And the only line I now remember is when he asked us how much we weighed and, converting kilograms to pounds, I gave him my weight and got the response, “that’s quite big for a miler!” (of course said in a friendly banter-type way for anyone about to reach for the politically correct handbook!). An iconic, highly accomplished and intelligent man and all I can now recall from our conversation is some throwaway line. As Ned Kelly said, “such is life”…
I still rate breaking the four-minute mile and getting to meet Roger Bannister in my top two or three career highlights, which also includes another mile race – winning the 2005 John Walker night of miles, held at Ericcson park in Auckland, in a pb time of 3.58.37, in front of the great man himself, the 1976 Olympic 1500m gold medallist and the first man to ever break 3.50 for the mile (you’re probably wondering who I will name drop next!). On that night I was also lucky enough to meet, and briefly chat to, Walker when he presented the top three placegetters with our awards. Fortunately, I remembered something more substantial from our conversation than I did with Bannister, with Walker very generously saying that it looked like I could eventually run much quicker in the mile… alas I never did but I will always remember those words and the great privilege I had of meeting him…
But back to Bannister…
“I came from such a simple origin, without any great privilege, and I would say I also wanted to make a mark. It wasn’t until I was about 15 that I appeared in a race.”
World famous and synonymous with the four-minute mile, the great Sir Roger Bannister hardly needs an introduction. The first, and probably the last athlete, who will ever break such a significant and much publicised barrier in athletics – when athletics mattered in the public’s mind and was arguably at its height in terms of spectator numbers and interest – Roger Bannister, on May 6, 1954, ran 3:59.4 at Oxford’s Iffley road track to become the first man ever to break four-minutes for the mile. Of course many have done so since (although much less than the number of people who have climbed Mount Everest) but he will always be the first.
But if you had asked him, before his recent passing at the age of 88, what he was proudest of, he would have almost certainly cited his forty-plus-year medical career, where he became a prominent neurologist and Master of Pembroke college at Oxford University. A highly accomplished practitioner he also published more than eighty academic papers, mostly focused on the autonomic nervous system, cardiovascular physiology, and multiple system atrophy.
“I had always wanted to become a neurologist, which is one of the most demanding vocations in medicine. Where do you stop, after all, with the brain? How does it function? What are its limits? The work seems unending”
Nevertheless, it is athletics where he first reached worldwide recognition. As well as the first sub four-minute mile, Bannister also achieved a 4th placing in the 1952 Olympic Games 1500m in Helsinki, won the 1954 European Championships 1500m, and was victorious in the 1954 ‘mile of the century’ at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver beating one of Australia’s own running icons, John Landy, the second man to ever break four- minutes for the mile.
But despite all of his other athletic accomplishments, along with his substantial contribution to medicine, Roger Bannister will most likely be primarily remembered as the sub-four-minute miler – an immortal, a great, an icon – the first.
“It stood there as something that was waiting to be done. And I was in the right place at the right time and was ready to do it. My attitude was that it can be done, and it will be done soon, and I’d rather it were done here.”
A refreshingly practical attitude from a most intelligent, generous, and humble man who certainly made his mark on the world.
RIP Roger Bannister
About the Author-
Mark Tucker has represented Australian numerous times through World XC, to the World Championships Marathon (2009). Tucker was known for is mental and physical toughness in training and races. In 2002 Tucker finished 4th at the NCAA National XC individual race representing Butler University. He has broken the 4-minute mile with 3:58.37 in Auckland. He is now a proud father and an integral part of the Runner’s Tribe team.