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Sir Roger Bannister
Sir Roger Bannister
Profile of Sir Roger Bannister Biography of Sir Roger Bannister Interview with Sir Roger Bannister Sir Roger Bannister Photo Gallery

Sir Roger Bannister Interview

Track and Field Legend

June 7, 2002
Dublin, Ireland

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  Sir Roger Bannister

(Sir Roger Bannister was first interviewed by the American Academy of Achievement on October 27, 2000 in London, England and again on June 7, 2002 in Dublin, Ireland. The following transcript draws on both interviews.)

Let's talk about your famous race on May 6, 1954, when you broke the four-minute barrier. What went through your mind as you began the race? Did you feel "I can do this?"

Sir Roger Bannister: Having made the decision, I felt relatively calm, but of course, quite a lot of adrenaline. I had to try to ensure that the early pace was correct. Brasher went into the lead. I was a bit worried that he wasn't going fast enough, but I had done nothing for five days. I hadn't trained. I just rested. So, I felt very full of running. In the first lap I was following him and I said, "Faster, faster." You know, an order. In fact, he was going absolutely the right pace. It was just that I was so full of running that I didn't feel that I was running fast. He ran the first lap very correctly in .58. He took us to the half mile in two minutes. Then Chataway took over and he passed the three-quarter mile in three minutes, exactly as planned. Then I knew that we were then slowing down, inevitably and I had to do the last lap in under 60 seconds and that was quite fast. I overtook Chataway at the end of the last bend, overtook him, and then just had to run as fast as I could to the finish.

Sir Roger Bannister Interview Photo

Did you know immediately that you had done it?

Sir Roger Bannister: I knew I was very close. But, you get very tired and there was a certain amount of pain and you slow up. You think you are going faster, but your legs are so tired that you are in fact slowing. I did collapse at the end. I think partly because if you don't keep on running, keep your blood circulating, then you get a kind of failure. The muscles stop pumping the blood back and you get dizzy. I did lose my sight for a bit because I was crowded in. Everybody rushed on to the track. It was not a very well organized meeting. It was a very informal meeting. Then a couple of minutes later the announcement came, and was made by a friend of mine called Norris McWhirter, who later became the editor of the Guinness Book of Records, a person who was very punctilious in the management of facts and information. He made the announcement. "As a result of Event Four, the One Mile, was the winner 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..." Then the whole of the track exploded and nobody heard the rest of the announcement. So, that was it.

Sir Roger Bannister Interview Photo

That number three was the important part. While you were running that race, did you feel you had it?

Sir Roger Bannister: Yes. It was a great moment to do something, and I raced supremely well. I felt I was as well fitted to do it as I had ever been, and as perhaps I might ever be. You know, I might have pulled a muscle a week before. I actually went climbing three weeks before, because I was feeling fed up with running. Chris Brasher was a climber, we went off quite crazily and went climbing in Wales. I could easily have sprained an ankle. But it nevertheless released some kind of energy that was getting jaded, so that I could come back and go on improving up to the event.

Let us build back up to the magic moment. Was excitement building towards that moment? What was the discourse about the mile in the time leading up to the point where you made your great achievement?

Sir Roger Bannister: The reason sport is attractive to many of the general public, not to some intellectuals, is that it's filled with reversals. What you think may happen doesn't happen. A champion is beaten, an unknown becomes a champion, and I had set my mind on winning the 1,500 meters gold medal in Helsinki in 1952. My ambition was always to do, say, what Lovelock had done, and win a gold medal. And, it all came disastrously wrong when I came fourth instead of winning. The reasons why I came fourth are unimportant. I mean, it was a reorganization of the pattern of the races and my very slender training let me down. I did not have the capacity to recover quickly, but still it doesn't matter. Instead of retiring in order to devote myself to medicine, I decided to go on for another two years while I was still a student, working clinically in London, and I did that.

The targets that would have justified this failure, as I saw it, were the Commonwealth Games, or Empire Games as they were then called. \This was a race in Vancouver against John Landy or Oliver Reynolds. Landy was the most famous then, the man to beat.

The target of the four minute mile then came into view. It was talked about in the '30s and the Swedes got very close, but it had just taken us after the war to gradually come down to a time closer and in '53, which was the year, if you remember, when Everest was climbed by a British Commonwealth team, I ran 4:03 and I felt the next year it should be possible. It was my last year anyway, and so I trained hard through the winter with two friends, Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher, Brasher from Cambridge, Chataway from Oxford, and they helped with the pace making and really made it possible because you could only break a time really by running evenly. It's a question of spreading the available energy, aerobic and anaerobic, evenly over four minutes. If you run one part very much too fast, you pay a price. If you run another part more slowly your overall time is slower. So that was really the secret.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Chris Brasher led for two laps, Chris Chataway led for one lap and a bit more, and then I took over.

There was a fair amount of doubt about whether any human being could do this. Was that in the air? Did it affect you one way or the other?

Sir Roger Bannister: Yes, it was in the air.

John Landy, my rival, ran 4:02 three or four times, and he used the phrase, "It's like a wall." Now logically, I could not understand, as a physiologist, why a human being can run a mile in four minutes and two seconds, and four minutes and one second, and why somebody else won't inevitably come along, train a little better, know that there's a target to be beaten, and beat it. So that was my mental approach to it. It was just fortunate for me that the pathway of record breaking, which continues in all aspects of athletics, had just reached this magical critical four minutes: four laps of one minute each, on a quarter-mile track. That was really the reason why it had conspired to become a possible barrier, physical or psychological. It wasn't, in my view, physical, but it did become to some extent psychological. And it was really an example -- I don't know whether the word paradigm is correct -- paradigm of human achievement in a purely athletic sense. What limits are there to what the body can do?

[ Key to Success ] Vision

So it acquired this aura, perhaps unjustifiably.

Sir Roger Bannister Interview Photo
Sir Roger Bannister Interview Photo

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