Roger Bannister’s Forgotten Legacy

Famed British neurosurgeon and Oxford laureate Roger Bannister passed away this week, causing barely a ripple across the Pond here in the United States. But in his home country Bannister was a towering giant, and not just for his prowess with the scalpel. Bannister, for the briefest period in 1954, was the fastest middle distance runner in the world. He broke what was then thought to be an impossible record–the four minute time barrier in the mile distance, achieving the feat in 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds. Despite the fact that the previous world record, 4:01.4 (run by Sweden’s Gunder Hagg at the end of WWII) stood for nine years, Bannister’s record lasted less than seven weeks. Bannister’s unique achievement faded into history as he took on the mantel of a accomplished medical doctor and faster human beings ran the mile in ever shorter times. The current record stands at 3:43.13.

The Olympics never included the mile distance as a medal event, and its popularity in the United States and Britain, the last bastions for the distance, faded in favor of the French 1500 meter race (the so-called “metric mile”). Thus the mile’s relevance has declined substantially since Bannister’s feat. Nevertheless most middle distance runners prize the mile event over that of the 1500 meter event, and some have called for the the mile to regain its place in the running pantheon next to the marathon (26.2 miles)–the other non-metric event still included in the Olympics and world running.

Bannister stayed aloof of the fray and concentrated on medicine. Although he served as the chairman of Britain’s Sports council for three years in the 1970’s (being knighted for his efforts), he practiced medicine for four decades, publishing dozens of papers on neurology and physiology. He retired in 1993 and lived quietly with his wife near the track he set his famous record. Walking had become difficult (he sustained a running career-ending auto accident in 1975) and he used a wheelchair and crutches late in life. He was eventually diagnosed, ironically, with a neurological disease (Parkinson’s), which slowed him further. He died peacefully at age 88, outlasting his two pace runners on that famous day, Chris Brasher (aged 74; 2003), and Chris Chataway (aged 82; 2014).


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