There is a physics sort-of-joke that Einstein got the Nobel as a consolation prize, because he won it for the photoelectric effect, a footnote compared to his mind-bending theory of relativity. Sir Roger Bannister, who died Saturday at the age of 88, was the Einstein of sports.
On May 6, 1954, Bannister ran the first sub-four minute mile in human history, at the Iffley Road track in Oxford. He was knighted in 1975, but it was not for the historic feat of his feet, which, along with the ascent of Mt. Everest helped psychologically rebuild postwar Britain. Nor was it for his neurology research, which earned the American Academy of Neurology’s lifetime achievement award. His “Sir” wasn’t conferred for his time as master of Oxford University’s Pembroke College either, nor for his work with the British Sports Medicine Society, creating a sports medicine specialty for doctors. Like Einstein, Bannister could have received his country’s highest honor for myriad accomplishments, but it was for his leadership as the first chairman of the British Sports Council, where he spearheaded the Sport for All campaign that spread participation across Britain. He was particularly proud of new indoor facilities, he told me in 2011, because of Britain’s “pretty bad climate of rain and cold.”
Even had he lived in 16th century Florence, Bannister would have stood out as a Renaissance man. He represented, as Tom Ratcliffe, co-director of the 2016 film Bannister: Everest on the Track, put it, “a disappearing ideal.” His preparation for the sub-four mile comprised interval training at lunch breaks or when he was supposed to be in obstetrics lectures. Prior to the race, he spent five days hiking in the Lake District, and returned “raring to run.” He set the record, and swiftly wrote a bewilderingly eloquent book about it. “I felt like an exploded flashlight with no will to live,” he wrote. Later that year, at 25, he retired from running.
After I wrote about him in 2011, Bannister stayed in touch. On occasion, I got an early morning call: “Hello! It’s Sir Roger! I have three things to tell you….” Always quick, wide-ranging and delightful. He told me he would not have been an elite athlete today, and was concerned about how exclusionary competitive sports had become, both to more participants and to diverse interests. He insisted he was most proud of his neurology research. But toward the end, he increasingly emphasized the sub-four mile.
When I asked him about the mythology that he was told a man’s legs would fail before breaking four, as if it were a magical barrier, he ribbed me. “Nobody that was credible to me ever said that,” he said. “It was only journalists.” But it was a magical barrier, and he was the magician for the job. College kids regularly break four now, just as seasonal climbers summit Everest. Bannister’s 3:59.4 will forever stand as the symbol of a breakthrough that rendered normal what briefly felt impossible, which is the best kind of breakthrough one can make, on the track or off.