Why Roger Bannister Matters

Sir Roger Bannister in 2004, holding the stop watch used to time his record-setting race in 1954. (David Bebber/Reuters)
His four-minute mile conquered nature itself.

‘They shall run and not grow weary,” the prophet Isaiah writes, and indeed not growing weary is the whole game. Sprinter Justin Gatlin recently ran 100 meters in 9.92 seconds. Were he to sustain that pace over the course of a mile, he would run it in just under two minutes and 40 seconds. At the peak of his powers, Usain Bolt could have knocked five seconds off that. The hitch, of course, is that maintaining such speed is a physiological impossibility. To beat four minutes requires one to pull back on the throttle but to make up for that loss with the kind of endurance most humans will never sniff. In 1954, no one on Earth could do it. Not even Roger Bannister.

Until one day, miraculously, he could.

Conditions on that May Thursday were “exceedingly unfavorable,” according to understated post-race coverage in the New York Times. Bannister, a 25-year-old medical student and part-time runner, had arrived at Oxford’s Iffley Road track only to be greeted by cross-winds exceeding 15 miles per hour. Nevertheless, he pulled on a pair of spiked shoes, took his place at the line, and, buoyed by the pacing work of two fellow amateurs, proceeded to make history in the presence of an increasingly raucous crowd. “Comes a moment when you have to accept the weather and have an all-out effort,” Bannister would later tell reporters. “I decided today was the day.”

There had, of course, been other days, and many other runners. Gunder Hägg, a lanky Swede eventually banned from competitive racing for accepting illicit payments (let us not say that the problems of our age are unique), had posted a 4:01.4 at Malmö in 1945. Australia’s John Landy and America’s Wes Santee were known to be close to the four-minute threshold themselves. Bannister had approached the mark on more than one occasion. Yet a popular myth had taken hold: that the time being pursued might be physically unattainable — that the human heart would explode if made to work at such a pace. In a sport that sees records smashed monthly, Hägg’s time had stood for nine years. Perhaps the four-minute mile, like the two-hour marathon today, really was the uncrossable line.

Certainly the spectators at Iffley Road believed as much. Though their cheers increased dramatically after three laps (remarkably, a live announcer relayed Bannister’s times for runners and onlookers alike to hear), it was only when the Englishman began to “break away” — to surge past his pacing partner with 300 yards remaining — that those gathered seemed to understand that the goal might finally be reached. Screaming into the wind as they watched the last straightaway — Bannister in his runner’s whites, alone in space, sprinting toward history — the crowd sounded exactly like what they were: Twelve hundred fanatics assembled to see a man doing the very thing he was born for. And doing it better than anyone else ever had.

Recalling that May afternoon decades later, Bannister remarked that he “was at the point of collapse at the time of the finish.” Indeed, to watch the race now is to see a man not simply fall into friends’ waiting arms but disintegrate into them. Yet Bannister understood even in the moment of his triumph that the stakes of his run were not merely personal. “In those days we were quite patriotic,” he would later tell a documentarian. “It was the year after the new queen had been crowned, and it was the year after Everest had been climbed.” The United Kingdom hadn’t yet come out of its post-war malaise (war-era food rationing would not fully end for another two months), and Bannister was determined that Britain should “try to get this.”

That Bannister should think in such terms — should want the prize for England rather than see it go to Sri Lanka or Mexico or Morocco (from which the current mile record-holder, Hicham El Guerrouj, hails) — says much about the era in which he lived, and perhaps something irreducible about human nature, as well, however frequently our betters try to talk us out of national identity. (Yes, watch the video, if only to contextualize Michael Brendan Dougherty’s merciless takedown of the anti-nationalists.) So, too, however, does Bannister’s public doggedness in pursuit of the impossible illustrate something essential about sport itself — something lost when athletes begin to compete in the “wokeness” stakes as vigorously as they clash on the court or field.

‘The earth seemed to move with me,’ Bannister said of his astonishing run. ‘I found a new source of power and beauty, a source I never knew existed.’

That something, sacrificed every time LeBron James pushes gun control, Serena Williams complains about the gender “pay gap,” or figure skater Adam Rippon publicly castigates Mike Pence, is the potential of sport to unify, however briefly, a fractured and fractious culture. To transcend the day’s partisan scheming and offer a moment in time that really is for everyone. Englishmen present at Oxford that May afternoon were neither Tory nor Labour but Britons. Americans can for a moment be simply Americans when their best athletes put their heads down, go their hardest, and leave the politics to the politicians.

Of course, no sports figure has an obligation to remain above the fray, and Shakespeare was right to say that “a still and quiet conscience” is “a peace above all earthly dignities.” Yet athletes are perhaps the last remaining figures (teachers and first responders having largely slipped their moorings and floated into the sea of activism) who can soar above the daily noise. What they do in the arena — what Bannister did — belongs to another realm altogether, one whose context is ultimately, and blessedly, physical.

Which is what makes Roger Bannister not just great but essential. A man who honed his body, set his will where he would, and defeated nature itself. “The earth seemed to move with me,” Bannister said of his astonishing run. “I found a new source of power and beauty, a source I never knew existed.”

And all who were watching found it with him.

Roger Bannister, dead at 88, has run from this world to the next. Swiftly.

Graham Hillard teaches English and creative writing at Trevecca Nazarene University.

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