A Professor’s Journal: A very modest man

On my birthday in December 2004, I found myself on a research trip to Oxford, England.

More than 50 years earlier on May 6, 1954 Roger Bannister, for the first time, broke the 4-minute mile in a time of 3:59.4. Although he had failed to medal in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, placing fourth in the 1,500 meters, a part-time coach convinced the 24-year-old Bannister that he could break the seemingly unbreakable 4-minute barrier two years later.

So, Bannister, who had come to Oxford in 1946 to study medicine, remembered that when he arrived at Exeter College the first day, “I dropped my bags and set off for the running track … For the first time in the years I spent in Oxford,” Bannister said, “I made the journey across Magdalen Bridge to the Iffley Road track.” It was there on that rainy, windy May 1954 day that Roger Bannister broke through the 4-minute barrier.

Fifty years later, on a cold stone gray December morning, I laced up my own running shoes and took off from my rooms at Oxford’s Regent’s Park College.

My five-mile run lasted about 43 minutes, a pace well over twice slower than Bannister’s 3:59.4, 50 years before. My tortoise-slow pace gave me more time to contemplate the significance of Bannister’s great accomplishment.

I tried to call Sir Roger Bannister on the telephone both times I went to Oxford where he still lives. His number is listed in the Oxford telephone book. The telephone rings and rings, but he is always out. But if I had been able to contact him, I can just imagine how the interview would have gone.

A humble and gracious man, Dr. Bannister would have deflected any praise I would have directed his way. As John F. Burns wrote for The New York Times, “Anybody who spends a few hours with him now comes away impressed with his insistent self-effacement, perhaps best captured in the words of another famous English athlete, Harold Abrahams, whose exploits in winning the 100-meter gold medal at the Paris Olympics of 1924 were chronicled in the movie ‘Chariots of Fire.’ Writing before Bannister’s failure in Helsinki, Abrahams found Bannister’s demeanor to be his only failing as an athlete. ‘Modesty in Bannister,’ he wrote, ‘amounts to an almost complete reluctance to acknowledge his greatness.’”

Bannister’s “reluctance to acknowledge his greatness” has been even more pronounced in the 58 years since he stunned the sporting world by breaking a barrier that many thought could not be broken. And, of course, today 3:59.4 is not impressive at all, at least among the elite runners of the world. At present, the mile record is 16 seconds faster than Bannister’s mark, set in 1999 by Morocco’s Hicham el-Guerrouj at 3:43.13.

Bannister retired from running the year after he broke the barrier. According to Burns, with his appointment to the British sports council, initially unsuccessfully, in an effort to test randomly for steroids, a practice that resulted in only one Olympic athlete being disqualified for drugs at the London Olympics.

Roger Bannister made his mark. Just don’t ask him about it; or you would never know.

Column by Duane Bolin, professor of history.