Roger Bannister: Legend's rounded life gives perspective to first four-minute mile

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How's this for serendipity? Near Oxford station I ask a policeman how long it will take me to walk to a particular road in the city. The road is where Sir Roger Bannister lives. "It's about a mile from here," says the policeman. "It'll take you about 20 minutes, depending on how fast you are." I can't resist telling him who it is I'm going to see. "Ah," he says. "Then you ought to do it in four minutes."

How's this for serendipity? Near Oxford station I ask a policeman how long it will take me to walk to a particular road in the city. The road is where Sir Roger Bannister lives. "It's about a mile from here," says the policeman. "It'll take you about 20 minutes, depending on how fast you are." I can't resist telling him who it is I'm going to see. "Ah," he says. "Then you ought to do it in four minutes."

As I make my way there, I wonder whether to recount this exchange to Bannister. I decide against. It will be 50 years on Thursday since he became the first man in history to run a mile in less than four minutes, and in half a century he's probably heard more than enough four-minute mile-related levity, not least the apocryphal story that his wife Moyra, knowing little about athletics, thought when she met him that his unique achievement was running four miles in a minute.

As it turns out, it is Moyra, Lady Bannister, who welcomes me to their handsome North Oxford flat. There has been a slight misunderstanding, and Sir Roger has just gone to meet someone else at Iffley Road, the track where, on 6 May 1954 - a Thursday, as it will be this year - he metamorphosed from athlete to legend.

The happy consequence of this misunderstanding is that I get to spend 45 minutes in the effervescent company of Lady Bannister, who would have a fascinating life-story even had she never met the first four-minute miler.

Her father was a great Swedish economist who rose to become president of the International Monetary Fund; on the wall there is a framed letter from President John F Kennedy, expressing condolences on her father's death.

Her maternal uncle was Lieutenant-General Sir Archibald Nye, who became Churchill's assistant chief of staff during World War Two. "But I don't want to sound boasty-toasty," she says.

Eventually, Bannister returns. "How much did I miss you by," he asks, shaking my hand. "Three minutes," says his wife. "Ah," he says, with twinkling eyes. "A lot can happen in three minutes. Almost as much as can happen in four." Clearly, I needn't have worried about reporting my banter with the policeman.

He ushers me to an elegant table where we sit facing each other on straight-backed chairs, the polite formality that I would expect from a former Master of Pembroke College, Oxford.

That's the thing about Bannister; in a way it is ironic that he is world famous for an achievement that took him 3min 59.4sec, because he has spent years of his life working with huge distinction in other areas.

He was the first president of the Sports Council, and encouraged the construction of sports centres all over Britain. He helped to develop a test to determine whether athletes had taken anabolic steroids, the very test that did for Ben Johnson. And, away from sport, he was a leading neurologist, who conducted pioneering research into diseases of the autonomic nervous system. Indeed, his definitive textbook on the subject is still in print.

Lady Bannister has already told me that his late parents derived much less satisfaction from his exploits in athletics, which rather bemused them, than from his medical achievements. I think he feels the same. He would greatly prefer to be remembered for his work in neurology than for the four-minute mile, not that there's the slightest chance of it, and not that he minds talking about that eventful May evening long ago.

During our hour-long conversation there are two phone calls from newspapers requesting interviews, and he says a cheerful yes to both. I have read four other interviews in the past week alone. This might, in fact, be the least exclusive interview I have ever done.

But that doesn't matter, because he has lots to talk about. He is tricky to interview insofar that just as you think you have nailed him down on athletics, he veers off towards neurology, or the Sports Council, or drug-taking, or his golf handicap, or Ellen MacArthur: he was a keen sailor until he ended up in a dinghy in a shipping lane in the English Channel, and realised that his ambition had exceeded his ability. Eventually, like the dinghy, I just go with the flow.

After all, most of us know what happened on that windy Thursday at Iffley Road, when Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway acted as pacemakers, with Norris McWhirter on the stopwatch. But that was only the beginning of a dramatic summer. Bannister's record lasted just 46 days, until his great Australian rival John Landy ran a 3min 58sec mile. When the two met in the Empire Games later that summer in Vancouver, Bannister won. He had decided that his four-minute mile would count for nothing if he failed to beat Landy. There was a ruthless competitor underneath the genteel exterior.

All this is chronicled in his excellent book, The First Four Minutes, which first came out in 1955 but has been re-published with an added chapter. In the new chapter, he records that a 4min 12.75sec mile was run in 1886 by another Englishman, WG George, and that a Victorian journalist wrote, "it is doubtful whether this record will ever be broken".

His own record has now been broken countless times. Fourteen other men, including Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram, have subsequently held the world mile record. Is there an impenetrable time barrier for the mile, does he think, through which no human being will ever burst?

"I think it will go on being broken until it gets down to 3:30. Since I did it, it has gone down a third of a second a year, on average. It is now down to 3:43. But, without cheating with drugs, I don't think anyone will ever beat 3:30."

Since he mentions cheating, it occurs to me that there must have been cheats around in 1954. Not using drugs, but in some other way. It is often presented as an era of unblemished integrity, yet human nature has always sought to steal an advantage, by fair means or foul. For example, if Chariots of Fire is to be believed, there were some who considered it cheating when Harold Abrahams, later Bannister's friend and mentor, decided to employ a professional coach in the run-up to the 1924 Olympics.

"Yes, Sam Mussabini. That's true. And of course there has always been corruption. There was corruption in ancient Greece. I doubt whether there is any activity, whether the stock exchange or whatever, where there isn't the temptation to cheat. But when 12 guineas was the maximum prize for winning anything... it wasn't like now when you can win £1m for winning a grand prix. I think 1954 was a naïve period, which preceded a period of increasing intensity. Tommy Simpson, the cyclist, was among the first to use drugs, at the same time as the Californian body-building movement. Then it was taken up by East Germany, when corrupt doctors were harnessed by the state. A very sad episode."

At the peak of his athletic career, by contrast, far from straining themselves to the limit, he and his friends believed in "the 1930s notion of staleness. We were obsessed by it. The belief that you could train too hard.

"And I think time has proved us correct, in a sense. I trained on grass, and the softness of grass meant I didn't pull muscles, or get the kind of injuries that athletes now get all the time. It has reached the point now at four hours [of hard training] when immunoglobulins measured in the saliva are shown to decline. In other words, there is a lower resistance to infection if you perpetually expose yourself to high levels of physical exhaustion through training."

Which is why some Premier League footballers seem to cry off matches with flu and stomach bugs every other week? "Exactly." Nevertheless, despite Bannister's conviction that in some ways things were better 50 years ago, he is far from being a stuffy old reactionary.

"In 1954 there were 150 men who were well enough prepared to run in the only marathon in the year," he says. "Now there are 32,000 in the London marathon alone, and 40,000 in the Great North Run. Many of them don't run as fast as one would like, but they run. In the 1950s it was regarded as a rather eccentric activity."

A road accident in 1975, in which he badly fractured an ankle, put paid to Bannister's own running. But, in his 76th year, he seems remarkably sprightly. He is kept on his toes, too, by 14 grandchildren, one of whom was heard to boast to a schoolfriend that his grandpa had once run a mile in four seconds - an impressive variation on his wife's supposed misconception of four miles in a minute.

Assuming the four-second mile to be unachievable even in an aircraft, I wonder what are the areas of human endeavour where he would most like to see new records established?

Of course, there are fewer mountains to climb than there were in 1954, almost literally so. Less than a year before Bannister broke the four-minute mile, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had reached the summit of Everest. The highest mountain scaled, the fastest mile run, a new, young monarch; and now the Queen is an old lady, boys of 17 have run a sub-four-minute mile, and 30-odd people have climbed Everest in a day. But still there must be record attempts which exhilarate him?

"Well, it is certainly becoming more difficult to find something that nobody else has ever done. Some verge on the absurd, such as getting a number of people into a telephone box or a Mini, or eating the most jellied eels in two minutes. And some verge on the dangerous, like Tanya Streeter diving 400 metres on one breath.

"Then I see Ranulph Fiennes walking over both poles backwards and forwards, losing a couple of toes, running seven marathons in seven days. I suppose Jules Verne started it all with Around The World In Eighty Days.

"It's amusing, and shows a basic aspect of human personality, the need to test ourselves. That's why, evolutionally, the chimpanzees never stood a chance."

I gently remind him that he hasn't quite answered my question. Which are the records that most captivate one of sport's greatest record-breakers? "Ah, well, individuals who keep sailing round the world faster and faster, that seems to me heroic. [Sir Francis] Chichester took 200 days or something, and now we have a young woman [MacArthur] who does it in less than 100, sick and weeping with broken masts and so on. Heroic. Quite heroic."

Fifty years ago next Thursday, he was the one being lionised as a hero. But his fame became a burden as he tried to develop his career as a doctor. To his wife's indignation, he refused invitations galore to Covent Garden, Wimbledon and the like, because he shuddered at the thought that some other doctor might say "where's Bannister?" and another might roll his eyes and say "at the opera, again". So, in order to be taken seriously as a doctor, he became almost manically preoccupied with his job.

He gave up competitive running after the Empire Games of 1954, which makes me wonder whether there is anyone else on earth quite so famous for something they retired from half a century ago? Unfortunately, when I get home, I find that Bannister's claims to fame do not greatly impress my nine-year-old son. "He was the first man in the world to run a mile in less than four minutes," I explain. "And he was an important doctor. And he helped build lots of sports centres."

"Oh," says Joseph. "And did he invent the banister too?"

Roger Bannister life and times

1929 Born 23 March in Harrow

1939 Family moves to Bath

1946 Obtains a scholarship to study medicine at Oxford University, aged 17.

1948 Declines to take part in the Olympic Games in London, preferring to concentrate on training and medical studies.

1951 Captures the British title in the mile.

1952 Endures the scorn of the British media after finishing fourth in the 1500m at the Helsinki Olympics.

1954 Makes history by becoming first man to run the mile in under four minutes. Bannister's time of 3min 59.4sec is broken within a month by Australian John Landy.

1954 Beats Landy in "The Mile of the Century" race; awarded the Silver Pears trophy.

1955 Autobiography First Four Minutes is published.

1971 Becomes Chairman of the Sports Council of Great Britain

1975 Is awarded a knighthood

1975 Breaks ankle in a serious motoring accident.

1976 Named President of the International Council for Sport and Physical Recreation.

1990 Becomes Chairman of the journal Clinical Autonomic Research.