Sir Roger Bannister 1929-2018

The time of 3 minutes 59.4 seconds is legendary not only in Britain but throughout the sporting world. It was the time Sir Roger Bannister recorded when famously he became the first person to break the four-minute mile barrier in the late afternoon at Iffley Road Sports Ground in Oxford on 6th May 1954. It was simply one of the great global sporting achievements of the twentieth century that went far beyond Athletics.

It’s no wonder that Lord Sebastian Coe, who later went on to break the world mile record himself, said,

This is a day of intense sadness both for our nation and for all of us in athletics…There is not a single athlete of my generation who was not inspired by Roger and his achievements both on and off the track.

Along with the whole world of Athletics, everyone connected with Harrow Athletics Club and the Harrow Half Marathon, mourns his death at the age of 88.  We treasure the connections he had with Harrow and how his achievements encouraged and motivated runners of all ages. 

Sir Roger was born in Harrow in 1929, lived in Butler Road and was a pupil at Vaughan Primary School. Sir Roger was a member of the school running team and that athletics and sporting tradition goes on. Vaughan is a lead school for PE in Harrow and every year has its annual sports day at the Bannister track in Hatch End. Later on, he lived in Whitmore Road, overlooking the grounds of Harrow School, and trained locally.  

He went on to study medicine at Oxford and saw running as something to be done in his spare time. Nevertheless, he was selected for the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki where he came fourth in the 1500 metres, breaking the British record. He then focused on becoming the first person to break the four-minute mile. After coming close several times, he finally achieved that goal in May 1954 with the help of another two Athletics legends – Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway.

The Australian John Landy broke his record in June that year and they went on to race each other in early August at the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver in what was dubbed ‘The Miracle Mile’. It was an epic contest with Bannister narrowly beating his rival to take the gold medal. Later that month, he won ‘the Metric Mile’ at the European Championships in Bern. By the end of that year, he’d retired to concentrate on his medical career and he later became a consultant neurologist.

In 2011, he was diagnosed with the neurological disorder Parkinson’s disease. He subsequently told the BBC:

I have seen, and looked after, patients with so many neurological and other disorders that I am not surprised I have acquired an illness…It’s in the nature of things, there’s a gentle irony to it.”

I rang him last year as we were planning the Harrow Half Marathon. We wanted him to lend his name to the Family Mile we were staging alongside the main race and spoke briefly. He sounded frail but said, “I can’t stop you” with what I sensed was a twinkle in his voice. I think he was pleased that another generation would benefit from his sporting legacy and that the foundations of a stellar athletics career that were laid over eighty years ago had not been forgotten.

Dave Gordon

March 4th 2018

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