Sir Roger’s Remarkable Run

Among my most treasured possessions is a kindly worded hand-written note on personal stationery from Sir Roger Bannister, known in the small confines of my professional world mainly as one of the UK’s most respected neurologists. But of course the larger world knows him better for his extraordinary athletic achievement 58 years ago today. Here is a wonderful reflection on the moment by the great man himself:

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

13 thoughts on “Sir Roger’s Remarkable Run”

  1. The clip says “Only one man will be remembered”, and that may be so.

    But two other distinguished men and great runners acted as Bannister’s pacemakers. Chris Brasher went on to win a gold medal in the steeplechase at the Melbourne Olypmics. Brasher later became an early entrepreneur to take advantage of the growing market for sportswear, and also founded the London Marathon. Chris Chataway for a time held the 5000 metres world record, and competed in the Olympics (alas he fell in the 5000 metres when running second, came fifth and missed a medal). Chataway became a Conservative MP.

    And, even for a possible Trivia question, Bannister’s great rival, Australian John Landy should not be forgotten. Landy was the second man to break four minutes. In a famous showdown at the Vancouver Commonwealth Games in 1954, Landy was running into the line as leader. But he glanced over his shoulder to see where Bannister was. Alas, wrong shoulder! Bannister sped past him on the other side and won. Landy became Governor of Victoria.

    Oddly enough, neither Landy nor Bannister ever won Olympic medals.

    1. Toby: Agreed on all points, and here is one other fun bit of trivia. Bannister’s historic race was called by Norris McWhirter, who with his twin brother Ross (later murdered by the IRA) went on to produce the Guiness Book of World Records. Expecting the record, he rehearsed a dramatic, tantalizing announcement the night before which is now famous, and which is drowned out by the crowd the moment the word “Three” is heard at the actual event:

      As a result of Event Four, the one mile, the winner was R.G. Bannister of Exeter and Merton Colleges, in a time which, subject to ratification, is a track record, an English native record, a United Kingdom record, a European record, in a time of three minutes…

      And as long as I am on trivia run: Norris McWhirter ran for Parliament in 1964, failing to unseat Eric Lubbock, about whom I wrote here

  2. What a lovely post. Sir Roger looks very fit and happy. And thus inspired, I’m going to go swim a mile in the hope that when I am Sir Roger’s age, I will be cheerful and remember where to find my personal stationery.

  3. Should I find it weird that the two most famous neurologists ever are famous for something other than neurology(Freud being the other one)?

  4. Very nice post.

    I remember Bannister’s achievement, and I remember Landy as well.

    There was a time when milers – none of that metric nonsense – enjoyed great prestige in sports. Another celebrated one I recall was the Australian, Herb Elliott, who came along a little later.

    1. I can beat my national drum here and point out that it was a little known Irish runner, Ronnie Delaney, who took gold, beating a field that included Landy in the Melbourne 1500m Olympic final.

      The 1950s and early 1960s were a great era of middle distance runners from English-speaking countries – not only Bannister and Landy, but also Delaney, Elliott, Ron Clark (Aus) and Peter Snell (NZ). Jim Ryun is the only US runner I can remember from the 1960s who held the world mile record for a while. Then came a period of African (mainly Kenyan) dominance before there was a huge Anglo revival with John Walker (NZ), Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram in the late 1970s – 1980s.

      Now the African countries are back dominating – the mile record is held by Hicham El-Guerrouj (Morocco).

  5. “none of that metric nonsense”
    Bannister is a hero in the English-speaking world because of the coincidence of the mile and the 4:00 mark. Running in the 1500 m (= 0.93 miles) in the 1952 Olympics, Bannister finished fourth.

    1. Because the mile is a completely arbitrary distance, whereas 1500 meters – indeed, the entire metric system – is divinely ordained.

      1. Byomotov: How pleasant, I can warm my morning coffee over the smoking remains of Bloix’s snark…

        1. My point is that with minor exceptions only the English-speaking world cares about the mile. The Olympics doesn’t have a mile race, and until the 1980’s the Olympics were the world championships for track and field. So most of the great runners never seriously ran the mile. If the Olympics had had a mile distance, the 4:00 mark would likely have been broken years earlier.

          Bannister and Landy were great runners but they were never the best in the world. Bannister’s achievement is an entirely arbitrary event. His time was two seconds faster than the prior record-holders, and 1.4 seconds slower than the next, and he held the record for all of 46 days.

          We remember Bannister, not because he was the greatest middle-distance runner of his generation – he wasn’t even the best miler – but because he was first to best the 4 minute mark. That mark has a hold on the imagination for two reasons: (i) because it’s a round number, and (ii) because the prior record had stood for nine years, creating an unreasonable belief that a time of 4:00 or better was unachievable.

      2. The unit set by God appears to be the Planck length, but since it’s 1.616×10^−35 m, you need 10^20 of them to span an hydrogen nucleus and it doesn’t look a good candidate for athletics. Especially as you have to measure in Planck units of time (5.3912×10^−44 seconds) or fractions of the speed of light.
        Have you noticed that metric plumbing fittings are really imperial ones in disguise?

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