Roger Bannister and the four-minute mile

Roger Bannister and the four-minute mile

On 6 May 1954 at Iffley Road athletics track in Oxford, in front of 3,000 spectators, a 25-year-old medical student broke a barrier that was once thought impenetrable – he ran the first recorded sub-four-minute mile. Remarkably, he had attained this record with minimal training, while practising as a junior doctor. The record – three minutes 59.4 seconds – lasted for just 46 days, but no matter, Roger Bannister was the first man to achieve this astonishing goal.

When we consider the full-time dedication and professionalism that goes into training elite athletes today, it is remarkable that Bannister began his record-breaking day at a hospital in London, where he sharpened his racing spikes and rubbed graphite on them so they would not pick up too much cinder ash.

He then took a train to Oxford, worried about the wet, rainy conditions. However, with the help of two other distinguished athletes – Christopher Chataway and Chris Brasher – who acted as pacemakers, and in spite of the poor conditions, Bannister came through as the first in the record books to crack the four-minute mile.

After a few more races, and still only in his mid-twenties, Bannister retired from athletics and went on to become an internationally renowned neurologist and the Master of Pembroke College at Oxford University. When asked whether the four-minute mile was his proudest achievement, he said that he actually felt more proud of his contribution to academic medicine through research into the responses of the nervous system.

Bannister received many honours for his achievements in sports and medicine. He was knighted in the 1975 New Year Honours, and appointed Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour (CH) in 2017 for services to sport.

However, he remained a man of the people, a caring, compassionate doctor of medicine, and also a follower of Jesus Christ.
Although raised a Unitarian, he came to know Christ personally through his friendship with the Rev John Stott, the world renowned evangelical Rector of All Souls Church in Langham Place, London.

It was Stott who baptised Roger into the Anglican communion. Sir Roger’s daughter, Rev Charlotte Bannister-Parker, an associate priest at the Oxford University Church of St Mary the Virgin, relates: “John became a friend and baptised my father at All Souls. Both of his great running companions of the track and dear friends, Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher, were his sponsors.”

Sir Roger was a lifelong church-going Christian. Rev Charlotte says that she read prayers, psalms, and hymns with her father at his bedside shortly before he died. She adds: “All his life, my father attended church. He said it brought him peace, especially in his hectic years as a junior doctor and young father. In his later years, he thought deeply about faith, science, and philosophy.”

Sir Roger retired as Master of Pembroke College in 1993, but he continued to attend the University Church in Oxford. He died in 2018 aged 88.

From Heroes of the Faith issue #45

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