Athletics great Bannister a true all-rounder


London (AFP)

British athletics great Roger Bannister, whose death aged 88 was announced on Sunday, may have achieved sporting immortality by becoming the first man to run a mile in under four minutes yet he did not consider this to be his greatest athletics achievement and was arguably prouder of his career as a neurologist.

But it is hard to exaggerate the landmark significance to athletics when, more than 60 years ago, Bannister ran a mile (1.6 kilometres) in a time of three minutes 59.4 seconds on the old cinder surface at Oxford University's Iffley Road athletics track.

Bannister's death was announced while the World Indoor Championships were taking place in Birmingham, where Sebastian Coe, the IAAF president and himself one of Britain's greatest athletes, having won two Olympic 1500 metres gold medals in the 1980s, summed up his importance to the sport.

"On 6 May 1954 Roger made the impossible possible," Coe said. "Just one year after the coronation of the young Queen Elizabeth II and the conquering of Everest he ran the first sub four-minute mile on 6 May 1954 with the help of Christopher Chataway and Chris Brasher.

"The world?s best runners, such as Paavo Nurmi, Jack Lovelock, Arne Andersson, Gunder Hagg and Bannister's personal hero Sydney Wooderson had been seriously attempting the four minute mile for a quarter of a century.

"It was as much a psychological as it was a physical barrier and Bannister?s success allowed mankind to enter a new world filled with possibilities," added Coe of a record that since 1999 has been held by Morocco's Hicham El Guerrouj with a time of 3:43.13.

"Bannister's achievement was a moment in history that lifted the hearts of a nation and boosted the morale of a world still at a low ebb after the war. We have all lost a giant and for many a deep close friendship."

Born in Harrow, northwest London, on March 23, 1929, Bannister finished fourth in the 1952 Olympic 1500m, having travelled to Helsinki with hopes of a medal.

- 'Vancouver the pinnacle' -

The Oxford University medical student turned his sporting focus to becoming the first man to run a mile in under four minutes, with the closest anyone had then got to the mark a time of 4.01.4 by Sweden's Gunder Hagg in 1945.

But with close friends Brasher and Chataway, both world-class athletes in their own right, acting as pacemakers, Bannister made history at Iffley Road in 1954.

On the final half-lap, he went to the front and kicked clear before collapsing as he crossed the line. But he had, as Coe said, "made the impossible, possible".

Weeks later, Bannister lost the record to John Landy.

But he had his revenge over his Australian rival when he beat him that August in the Commonwealth Games final in Vancouver, Bannister overtaking on the final bend in a race dubbed the 'Miracle Mile'.

"Vancouver was the pinnacle of my athletics career. It is very difficult to break records during Olympic competition, but winning races was better than holding world records," said Bannister in 2014.

1954 also saw Bannister win gold at the European Championships in Bern before he retired from the track to concentrate on his medical career.

He went on to become Master (head) of Pembroke College, one of the constituent colleges that make up Oxford University and enjoyed a career as a world-renowned neurologist, with Bannister saying there was "gentle irony" when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease -- a condition that progressively damages part of the brain over time -- in 2011.

He was knighted in 1975, becoming known as 'Sir Roger' and he helped to develop the first tests for anabolic steroids as part of the campaign against drugs in sport.

Bannister is survived by his wife Moyra, whom he married in 1955, sons Clive and Thurstan and his daughters Erin and Charlotte.