Medstars’ Heroes | Sir Roger Bannister -The Neurologist | First Athlete to Break the 4-Minute Mile

The neurologist that went the extra mile

Sir Roger Bannister was an athlete, record-breaker and neurologist who became a national hero through his tenacious sporting efforts and immense willpower.

1952 Olympics Games

Roger Bannister entered the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki withwith one purpose: to win a gold medal. Despite concerns about his fitness, Roger entered the 1500 metre race as clear favourite. The starting gun fired and after three and three-quarter laps of the track, he finished fourth setting a new British record. Although the result seems admirable, Roger was heartbroken. He knew Helsinki would be his last Olympic Games and having entered the race as clear favourite, he felt as though his dream had shattered. However, Roger later said that had he won a gold medal in Finland, he would have retired athletics there and then. With the Olympics now out of the question, Roger set his sights on a new target: the four-minute mile.

The four-minute mile

There was a lot of talk about whether a four-minute mile was humanly possible. This didn’t make sense to Roger Bannister. He had often said that he could see no rational reason why man could run a mile in four minutes and three, two or one seconds, but not under four minutes. Many had come close. The record time had been held by Swedish athlete, Gunder Haegg, at four minutes 1.4 seconds. The Australian champion, John Landy, who later became Roger’s fiercest rival, had run the mile in four minutes and two seconds on three occasions. Landy stated that a figurative “wall” stopped anyone from crossing the line under four minutes. A wall that stood no chance against the drive of Roger Bannister.

Roger broke the four-minute mile on May 6th 1954 in a race at Illfley Road sports ground, Oxford. He went into the race with minimal training. His training regime was homemade, crafted from his knowledge of physiology and restricted by full-time studying. As he crossed the finish line victorious, a chaotic crowd swarmed him. Barely able to stand, Roger later commented saying he temporarily lost sight from exhaustion, giving everything to achieve his goal. The timekeeper Norris McWhirter began to read out the results: a new Iffley Road record, a new British record, a new European record, and so on. The only statistic Roger Bannister was waiting for, the only statistic the world was waiting for, was the race time. McWhirter read: “3 minutes and…” the celebrations drowned out the rest of time; it wasn’t important.

Before that day, people believed it simply wasn’t possible to run a four-minute mile; man was biologically unable. Since 1954 over 20,000 people have achieved the feat, including athletes as young as sixteen years old. But what changed? Is it just a case of better training and nutritional development? Or perhaps something more.

Roger’s record was beaten just 46 days later by John Landy, the same athlete who proposed the four-minute “wall”. Landy recorded an astonishing time of three minutes and fifty eight seconds. As an athlete Landy hadn’t changed. It could be that witnessing Roger Bannister make the impossible possible influenced his endeavours to become a champion far more than any additional training or dietary regime.

The Miracle Mile

Roger Bannister and John Landy finally came face-to-face at the Vancouver Empire Games in August 1954. Their race became known as the ‘Miracle Mile’ and remains one of the most famous in the history of modern athletics. Both men broke the four minute mark in the race with Roger famously overtaking John Landy late on the final lap. It would prove to be Roger’s best ever time, finishing in just less than three minutes and fifty nine seconds. The commentator during the race believed he was watching “the only men in the world who will ever break the four-minute mile,”  and this was common belief for many people. In an interview in 2004 Roger said he considered winning the ‘Miracle Mile’ to be highlight of his athletics career.

Dr Roger Bannister – Neurologist

On the day he broke the four-minute mile, Roger worked his usual shift at St Mary’s Hospital, where he was studying medicine. His medical career was by far and large his greatest ambition. People who knew him often said that he saw running as more of a hobby than a career.

Roger’s medical path started at Oxford University where he read medicine before going on to St Mary’s Hospital Medical School. He became a qualified physician within ten years of studying at St Mary’s. He went on to become a leading neurologist and later the Master of Pembroke College, Oxford. Roger’s achievements in neurology and research into the nervous system are the proudest of his life.

He wrote and edited many crucial texts in the field of neurology throughout his career. Roger received the AAN Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005 for his contribution to neurology. In an interview he says the award is his most important “because it’s about my life as a whole and medicine, which are more important to me than whatever I did as a runner until I was age 25”. Roger spent the last seven years of his life managing Parkinson’s disease, referring to the diagnosis as a “gentle irony” due to its neurological nature.

Roger became the first chairman of the Sports Council in 1971 and pioneered research on drug-testing in athletics. He received a knighthood in 1975 and was made a Companion of Honour in the 2017 New Year’s Honours.

Sir Roger Bannister’s disregard for the word ‘impossible’ has inspired the lives of many. His achievements in athletics and neurology will forever be remembered.

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