July 27, 2012 / 6:27 PM / 8 years ago

Bannister says owes famous record to Olympic failure

LONDON (Reuters) - Roger Bannister, the British athlete who shot to fame in 1954 by running the first sub-four-minute mile, says he would have retired two years earlier had he won a gold medal at the Helsinki Olympics.

Roger Bannister (L) passes the Olympic flame to torchbearer Nicola Byrom during the London 2012 Olympic Games torch relay at the Iffley Road Stadium in Oxford, southern England in a July 10, 2012 file photo. REUTERS/LOCOG/Pool/files

In an exclusive interview with Reuters, Bannister explains how the event that turned him into one of the most famous men in sport came only after Olympic failure.

“Sport was a very prominent part of Oxford in those days, so, once there, I thought I would see how far I could go as a runner,” said Bannister of his youth over a crackling phone line.

From those unassuming beginnings, Bannister would go on to make one of the most famous contributions to the history of sport.

The fact that his later career in medicine was always his priority arguably makes his sporting achievements even more extraordinary.


Bannister kept a very light training schedule, even by the standards of the time, training 45 minutes a day, five days a week. He found he could race rarely but always be fast.

By the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, he was working long night shifts yet looking to finish his running career with a bang.

But the addition of semi-finals forced athletes to run three days in a row, rather than having a day of rest in the middle as before.

Unprepared, Bannister finished fourth.

“I wasn’t trained for that degree of repeated performance,” he says with the faintest traces of a sigh.

“Big disappointment to me, big disappointment to the British public and much criticism from the British press.”

“Had I won the gold medal, I would have retired.”

By the spring of 1954, Bannister had turned 25 and American David Wes Santee and Australian John Landy were both getting dangerously close to breaking the four-minute mile record he had set his sights on.

If Bannister was going to do it first, he would have to move fast.

He took the first possible opportunity to race, a May 6 meeting between the Amateur Athletic Association and Oxford University at the Iffley Road track in Oxford.

It was only when a church flag stopped fluttering that Bannister decided the wind, which had been blowing hard, had dropped enough for him to attempt the record.

Fellow British athletes Christopher Chataway and Christopher Brasher did the pace making, and Bannister completed his last quarter of a mile in less than a minute, giving him a total time of 3 minutes 59.4 seconds, and a new world record.

In a sign of his enduring fame almost 60 years on, he emerged as a late joint favourite to light the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremony of the London Games on Friday.


All great athletes have their inspirations. For Bannister, it was Sydney Wooderson, aka “The Mighty Atom”, one of England’s most celebrated runners of the 1930s and 40s.

Just after the end of World War Two, Wooderson agreed to race Swede Arne Andersson. Sitting with his father in west London’s White City stadium, since demolished, Bannister was transfixed.

“There weren’t any races until this ‘45 one,” says Bannister. “So that was inspiring. And the fact that Wooderson was very short and Andersson was 6”3, that contrast in shape and size, on top of the gallantry of Wooderson made a vivid impression on me.”

He was asked to be an Olympic possible just two years later, but, aged 18, he didn’t feel he was ready.

“Despite the fact that if I had agreed, I would have had food parcels, which in the days of rationing was a very attractive proposition,” he added.

Despite not competing he did play a small role, however. He says as the 1948 Olympics opening ceremony was set to begin, the Union flag had gone missing. It was the quick-limbed 19-year-old Bannister who was sent to commandeer one for British athletes to carry in the procession into the stadium.


Bannister went on to dedicate his life to medicine, becoming a distinguished neurologist and author of several textbooks.

Yet his firm belief in sport remained, and he continued to contribute to the British sporting world.

“I just believe in activity and recreation,” he says in a gruff but emphatic voice. “But you have to have wide participation for individuals to appreciate that they may have particular talents.”

He led the charge for a test for anabolic steroids to be devised that is still in use today. He was also behind the building of numerous multi-purpose indoor sports centres, a trend which he says was quite different from anything before.

His love of sport remained a big part of who he was, and two weeks ago he carried the Olympic flame around the Iffley Road track.

The 83-year-old lives with his wife Moyra just a 30-minute walk from the track that has since been named after him.

“I’m an enthusiast,” he says regarding the Olympics. “I’ve been at eight Games and written about a lot of them. I believe the Olympic movement can take the kind of stresses and strains that are part of any human activity.”

“They will inspire another generation of young people to think they are capable of following in the triumphs of those they’ve witnessed, and some of them will.”

Reporting by Venetia Rainey; editing by Jason Neely

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