On the morning of May 6, 1954, a Thursday, Roger Bannister, 25, a medical student in London, worked his usual shift at St. Mary’s Hospital and took an early afternoon train to Oxford. He had lunch with some old friends, then met a couple of his track teammates, Christopher Chataway and Chris Brasher. As members of an amateur all-star team, they were preparing to run against Oxford University.
About 1,200 people showed up at Oxford’s unprepossessing Iffley Road track to watch, and though the day was blustery and damp — inauspicious conditions for a record-setting effort — a record is what they saw. Paced by Chataway and Brasher and powered by an explosive kick, his signature, Bannister ran a mile in under four minutes — 3:59.4, to be exact — becoming the first man ever to do so, breaking through a mystical barrier and creating a seminal moment in sports history.
Bannister’s feat was trumpeted on front pages around the world. He had reached “one of man’s hitherto unattainable goals,” The New York Times declared. His name, like those of Babe Ruth, Bobby Jones and Jesse Owens, became synonymous with singular athletic achievement.
Then, astonishingly — at least from the vantage point of the 21st century — Bannister, at the height of his athletic career, retired from competitive running later that year, to concentrate on medicine. After a long career as a neurologist, both in research and clinical practice, Bannister, who was knighted in 1975, died on Saturday in Oxford, his family confirmed in a statement on Sunday, as did various British athetics organizations. He was 88.
Tall and lanky with a long, forceful stride and a blond head that usually bobbed above his competitors’ in a race, Bannister was a gentleman athlete with a philosophical turn of mind. He was a quiet, unassuming champion, a character of a type that has seemingly vanished in the modern era of sports celebrity. Sports Illustrated called him “among the most private of public men, inexhaustibly polite, cheerfully distant, open and complex.”
Roger Gilbert Bannister was born on March 23, 1929, in the London suburb of Harrow. His father, a civil servant, had been a runner, of sorts; he won his school mile, Bannister wrote in his memoir, “and promptly fainted afterwards — as so many runners did in those days.” Young Roger ran, too, both for the thrill of it, he wrote, and out of fear, to steer clear of bullies and in response to air-raid sirens.