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The 4 minute magician

Remembering the legendary 4 minute mile runner, Sir Roger Bannister, Capt Seshadri writes a small tribute to the magical athlete.

RIP Sir Roger Gilbert Bannister, CH, CBE

(23 March 1929 – 3 March 2018)

In today’s extremely competitive sporting world, where records are shattered by the hour, where equipment, gear, facilities, training and diet are dictated by precise science and technology, one record, set nearly six and a half decades ago, still holds relevance and reverence. The four minute mile.

This story, of a doctor and academician with remarkable athletic prowess, begins in 1946 when, at the age of 17, Roger Bannister ran a mile in 4:24:6. An athlete who had started without spikes, had never run on a track and had trained only thrice a week and that too in half hour sessions. Moving forward to 1950, he improved his mile timing to 4:13 and also competed in the 880 yard and 800 metre races, but finishing behind the winner. The young Roger soon realised that if he were to win, he would have to take his training more seriously.

Under the tutelage of coach Franz Stampfl, he combined interval training with block periodisation, fell running and anaerobics. However, being a medical student, his busy schedule at class left him little time for training, very often restricted to 30 to 40 minutes a day, using his lunch break to run. Still, this focus paid rich dividends with a win in a mile race on July 14, 1951 at the AAA Championships in White City, where he raced away towards the tape, watched and cheered by a crowd of 47,000, finishing in 4:07:8.

The 1952 Olympics were a disappointment; in fact, Roger actually contemplated giving up. A new thought then occurred; that of completing the mile in under 4 minutes. While many were dreaming about this and several runners were making unsuccessful attempts, some even reaching as close as 4:02, Bannister intensified his training schedule by including hard intervals.

It was a cloudy day on the 6th of May, 1954, with a forecast of rain and a wind driving across at 40 kmph. This practising doctor, who had been working at the hospital all morning, was seriously considering dropping out of the race that was to happen between the British AAA and Oxford University at the Iffey Road track in Oxford. A track that was soon destined to be recorded in the annals of running history. While the wind finally dropped to a mere breeze, the 3,000 spectators lined the track with bated breath. Roger, having completed his assigned duties at the hospital, picked up his spikes and rubbed graphite on the soles to prevent accumulation of ash from the cinder track. Taking the train from Paddington, he arrived at Oxford, nervous and full of trepidation.

The race finally boiled down to six competitors. BBC Radio provided a live broadcast, anchored by ‘Chariots of Fire’ famed Harold Abrahams. The starting whistle blew sharp at 6:00 pm and the race was on. The first lap was taken in 58 seconds and the lead runner went past the half mile mark in 1:58. With 275 yards to go Roger, realising that his dream was within reach, put in a tremendous kick that saw him running the final lap in under 59 seconds. The roar of the crowd drowned out the announcer’s voice after the words: ladies and gentlemen, first, number 41, RG Bannister with a new meet and track record. A new English native, British National, All-comers, European, British Empire and World record of 3 minutes… the rest was lost in the cheering. The mile had been run in 3:59:4.

On the 50th anniversary of that glorious achievement, the now knighted Sir Roger, in an interview, conceded that the sub 4 minute run was not the most important achievement of his life. Bannister, the neurologist, saw his life’s work with patients in the world of medicine as having given him far greater satisfaction. As the first Chairman of the Sports Council, he used his influence to usher in funding for sports centres and facilities, and as a doctor he was responsible to initiate testing for the use of anabolic steroids and performance enhancing drugs. Roger Bannister was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2011. And on March 3, 2018, the world bid goodbye to this extraordinary athlete and compassionate healer.

Six feet below, but forever under four minutes.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Capt Seshadri Sreenivasan is a former armed forces officer with over 30 years experience in marketing. He also a consulting editor with a leading publishing house. He is a co-author of the best selling biography of astronaut Sunita Williams.

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