On the Death of Roger Bannister



BANNISTER DIED RECENTLY AT THE AGE OF 88. I don’t recall if in 1954 I was mindful of the headline that Roger Bannister was the first human to break the 4-minute mile barrier. But by 1960, when I entered high school, I certainly was. By then Irishman Ron Delaney had won the 1500m race at the Olympics in Melbourne and Aussie Herb Elliot won the same race in Rome, the site that featured a marathon won by a barefooted Ethiopian. ABC’s new sport series Wide World of Sports brought all of this to the forefront of my consciousness.

In 1960 I was a skinny 105 pounds, totally unsuited for participation in football and basketball. I ran cross-country as a preparation for joining the swim team. It turned out that I was blessed with a good cardio-vascular system, slow twitch muscle fibers, a high waist. I did pretty well.

My high school running career coincided with and was inspired by the emergence of Jim Ryan, a Kansas schoolboy who would run three sub-four minute miles prior to entering the University of Kansas. He participated in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, pushed the world record to 3:51 in 1967, and finished a respectable second at the 1968 games in Mexico City. He was victim of two related factors: the high altitude in Mexico City and the emergence of the African middle-distance runner. The winner, Kip Keino, had trained at altitude all his life and sprinted to a 30-yard victory. Keino’s victory marked the end of a string of 1500m victories by runners from Anglophone countries and the arrival of Kenya, Algeria, and Ethiopia as cradles of world-class distance runners.

I was also inspired by a local hero, Tom O’Hara, a tough Southside Irish kid who prepped at St. Ignatius and then went on to Loyola University. A better indoor than outdoor runner, he qualified for the ‘64 games but didn’t advance to the finals.

My high school and college career also coincided with the emergence of the running shoe and accessory industry. Abebe Bikila’s shoeless marathon victory did not dissuade Oregon coach Bill Bowerman and entrepreneur Phil Knight from developing a training shoe for distance runners. From a rubber compound poured into a waffle iron in Bowerman’s garage an empire was born. I was on the cutting edge of the revolution. I purchased from Chernin’s on Maxwell Street the first pair of imported Adidas training flats to be worn in my high school. For under $15.

So amidst the running revolution, Roger Bannister’s name faded. He may have been the first, but he was not the best; he only broke four minutes one other time and never won an Olympic medal.

One can make the case that Bannister was one of the last of the amateurs. As a medical student he had little time to practice; he certainly didn’t put in the mileage required of middle distance runners who are gold medal aspirants today. Running was something that he did on the side; he trained at lunch time. And he had no difficulty stepping out of the athletic spotlight. He became a well-respected neurologist and medical school administrator at Oxford. He ranked his research into nervous system responses as a more important accomplishment than record breaking mile. It’s hard to think of another runner with as glorious a post-competition career as Sir Roger Bannister’s.

The modesty of Bannister’s preparation can be appreciated if measured against the enormity of the recent Nike-financed project to break the two-hour marathon barrier, captured in the documentary Breaking2. Assembling a team of sports physiologists, nutritionists, shoe engineers, and three world class marathoners, Nike mounted a costly assault over half a year to lower the world record by more than two minutes. The effort failed: Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge fell 26 seconds short. But all involved were left with the conviction that the goal was achievable over the next five years.

As a college runner, I ran a 4:09 mile at an Illinois state intercollegiate meet. (I finished third.) I was happy that I had accomplished a personal goal of running better than 4:10. But then a quick comparison dispirited me. Had I been in the race in which Ryan lowered the record to 3:51, I would have been at the top of the last turn with the long finishing strait-away ahead when Ryan broke the tape.

I have great respect for the athletic and professional career of Bannister and look back fondly on my own track and cross country accomplishments, yet I see myself not as a record breaker but more as John Landy, Bannister’s colleague who was one of two pacesetters in Bannister’s epic run, a footnote in the history of the formative years of distance running.




About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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