Sir Roger Bannister: Obituary

‘He made the impossible possible.’ Lord Sebastian Coe

Roger Bannister was not only a famous sportsman, but also a distinguished neurologist, specialising in rare but debilitating diseases such as multiple system atrophy (MSA) a disorder characterised by progressive degeneration of the autonomic nervous system, as well as Parkinson’s disease. 

Famously, one spring evening in Oxford in 1954 Roger Bannister became an athlete of world renown, establishing himself as the most celebrated British sportsman of the post war period, when he ran a mile in under four minutes.

‘We have lost a giant’: the athletics world hailed Sir Roger Bannister

Runners in Europe, the US and Australia had whittled down their mile times as the world record assumed an ever-increasing importance. But nobody came really close to the four-minute mark; indeed, no one seriously threatened the world record of 4 minutes 1.4 seconds set in 1945 by the Swede Gunder Hägg. Expectations of a four-minute mile were intense, and Bannister knew he had to move fast to achieve this goal. With two friends providing an elite pacemaking squad – Chataway, who later that summer took the 5000m world record, and Chris Brasher, who won an Olympic gold medal in the steeplechase two years later – Bannister had planned an even-paced three-and-a-quarter-lap schedule that would leave him to capitalise on his speed and strength in the final 350 or so yards.

On that record-breaking evening the plan worked spectacularly well. Brasher led for the first two laps, Chataway for the third, and a little more. Bannister needed to run the final quarter-mile in 59 seconds. At the finish he and the excited crowd were delighted to hear Norris McWhirter announce over the public address: ‘a track record, English Native record, British National, British All-Comers, European, British Empire and World record; the time: three minutes, 59.4 seconds.’

After retiring as an athlete, Bannister became a renowned consultant neurologist at St Mary’s Hospital and the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases, Queen’s Square, caring for patients, as well as researching and writing, among other things, the definitive textbook on autonomic failure. He was also elected as the first chairman of the Sports Council, where he led the ‘Sport for All’ campaign that expanded access to sport across Britain.

He was knighted in 1975, and a decade later became Master of Pembroke College at Oxford University. Unaffiliated to any political party, and with a fondness for royalty, Bannister was always his own man. He summed up his own achievements succinctly: ‘Sport and medicine have a vital and expanding role in improving the lives of individuals around the world. They are the twin tracks which have run through my life.’ Sir Roger Bannister died on the 3rd March 2018.

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