The story of runner Roger Bannister, the 'Greatest Living Englishman'

Updated: March 7, 2018, 4:30 PM ET
By Ian Chadband | Special to ESPN

The world said a sad, sober farewell to Sir Roger Bannister on Sunday without overdone fuss and fanfare, just the way the great man would have liked it. In Britain, the tributes to the runner who had arguably owned the fabled title of "GLE" -- Greatest Living Englishman -- were genuine, deep and affectionate, seeming to tell not so much of the passing of a legend as of an era.

"The last of the gentleman athletes" one newspaper story tagged him fondly alongside bigger banner headlines bemoaning a 21st century British sporting knight embroiled in a messy doping controversy. It was as though a younger generation agonising over cyclist Bradley Wiggins was simultaneously being introduced to a long-forgotten but still spotless national monument.

In Birmingham, England, on the final day of the World Indoor Championships -- the same day it was announced that Bannister had succumbed to Parkinson's disease -- organisers hastily arranged a screening of the grainy footage of that exhausted 25-year-old medical student, eyes closed and mouth agape, breaking the four-minute mile barrier at Oxford's Iffley Road track on the grey, golden evening of May 6, 1954.

This, one of the greatest sports stories, had unfolded at a meet between Oxford University and Amateur Athletic Association. "Three minutes, 59.4 seconds," the announcer, famously, had tried to tell the crowd but they only heard the word "three" before drowning him out.

The applause after the screening in Birmingham was sustained and heartfelt, with an image long imprinted on a nation's consciousness given this fresh airing. Wasn't everything simpler and more unsullied then, many wondered, even if that was probably all a great illusion.

Then down on the track, an Ethiopian boy Samuel Tefera won the 1500 metres, only to be asked afterward about Bannister. "Who?" the 18-year-old's blank expression implied. Suddenly, we were reminded we were dealing in sporting pre-history here.

Roger Bannister crosses the line to break the four-minute milePhoto by Norman Potter/Central Press/Getty ImagesOn May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister, a 25-year-old medical student, ran a sub-four-minute mile. His record of 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds stood for 46 days.

Bannister would have chuckled. "Why should a boy know anything about an old man like me?" this self-effacing charmer would doubtless have shrugged.

After all, he never cared to look back even though for most of his 88 years of extraordinary achievement as ground-breaking neurologist, scholar, academic, drug-testing pioneer, sports administrator and athlete, he was implored to recount just those 3 minutes 59.4 seconds of it. A good day, he would say, was when the subject didn't come up; although he was always unfailingly polite in relating it.

Perhaps that was because he understood instinctively, for all his modesty, that his tale would always retain the power to inspire.

This proud father of four -- and grandfather of 14 -- had once told me on the eve of his 80th birthday at his Oxford home that he never stopped feeling lucky to have been "the right man at the right time in the right race" but that he had also learned to appreciate its symbolic and long-lasting significance, even if it never did cease to amaze him. "It's a small part of my life, and the importance of the things I've done are centred on medicine and neurology. So in that sense, the achievement is overrated," he said. "But for most people, it's all they know me for and I can see why."

He transported me back to the early 1950s when a world, and particularly the British nation, waking from war was spreading its wings, embarking on new challenges, discovery and exploration, looking out for fresh adventurers. "There was a general mood of optimism, of looking to the future in the country," he said. "We'd just had the Festival of Britain [in 1951], Everest had been conquered and we had had the coronation of the new young Queen [in 1953].

"Now we, as athletes, were seeing if we could lift spirits, too, and out there, the public's imagination was caught by this international race to be the first to break a barrier that still some felt was unbreakable and that we could actually be risking our lives to achieve." As a man of logic, he said, he always felt this illogical.

Fairfax Media/Fairfax Media via Getty ImagesAt the Commonwealth Games in 1954, the race between Bannister and Australian John Landy would go down in history as the 'Miracle Mile.' Each runner clocked sub-four-minute miles, which had never happened before in competition. Bannister came in first.

Yet how had the sub-four-minute mile grown into this mythical, beastly barrier? "Partly it was the historical nature of the quest: It had been talked of as a physical barrier for a long time. I don't know why, maybe it was this simple arithmetical, symmetrical statement of even-paced, one-minute laps for four laps," Bannister said.

He also found some element of humour in the idea that a student like he was, on the diet of "pilchards, stew and very feeble training of about three quarters of an hour a day" amid his intense medical studies, should prove the ground-breaker.

In terms of his training, Bannister was no great revolutionary. He did only what he felt was enough to beat his main rival in the race to becoming the first sub-four-minute miler, the Australian John Landy, who actually supplanted Bannister's new landmark in Finland 46 days later.

Yet Bannister then defeated his great rival in the "Miracle Mile" race, an epic showdown between the two sub-four minute men at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver later in 1954, a feat he actually considered greater than his Iffley Road monument.

Roger BannisterMJ Kim/Getty ImagesBannister died March 3 at his home in Oxford, England, after a battle with Parkinson's disease.

"I'd always been brought up believing winning Olympic titles was more important than breaking world records," he explained. Indeed, if he had won the Olympic 1500m title in Helsinki in 1952 (instead, he finished fourth), he may not have attempted his sub-four-minute quest at all.

Bannister had in his running days felt the perfect athlete ought not to be a slave to potential overtraining, ought to savour the odd cigarette and a few drinks and needed a balance of enjoyment and escape to go with the exertion. "Ultimately, it was just sport," said Bannister, who never lost his love of running after he had retired at the end of 1954.

Yet where an old Corinthian did revolutionise sport was in showing how the mind could make anything possible. "Roger Bannister is the best example of someone doing something where your brain says, 'no,' but your heart says 'yes, you can,'" said IAAF president Sebastian Coe, who followed in Bannister's lead as a world mile record holder himself.

That will be Bannister's lasting legacy, why he will remain relevant in the world of sports. You could still feel it there among the international athletics community on Sunday as athletes from different generations, from Britain's current best woman miler Laura Muir to America's sprint legend Michael Johnson, all related how, to them, that first four-minute mile stood unrivalled as the symbol of the impossible being made possible.

Yes, young Tefera did not know of Bannister, but there were plenty around ready to explain. Just like Noureddine Morceli and Hicham El Guerrouj, the most recent African holders of the mile record for whom a reverential respect for Bannister and his achievement grew, the youngster -- and generations to follow -- will learn to appreciate how one man's heart changed a mindset.

Ian Chadband

Special to ESPN.com

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