Sir Roger Bannister, athlete

Sir Roger Bannister, who has died at 88, gave sport one of its most cherished moments by running the first sub-four-minute mile, made medical breakthroughs as a distinguished neurologist and served as the first chairman of the Sports Council.

Sir Roger Bannister
Sir Roger Bannister

He was one of Great Britain’s best-loved and most-respected sporting figures, best remembered for his feat one spring day in Oxford in 1954 when he conquered a challenge widely regarded at the time as beyond the limit of human endurance.

That race on May 6 when Bannister, then a 25-year-old medical student, ran the mile in three minutes 59.4 seconds wrote his name into the record books.

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Bannister, though, was prouder of his British Empire and Commonwealth Games gold medal from the same year, when he defeated Australia’s John Landy in a race dubbed the ‘Miracle Mile’, while he viewed his academic achievements in neurology as greater than his exploits on the track.

Born in Harrow in north-west London on March 23, 1929 and educated at City of Bath Boys’ School, Bannister opted not to compete at the 1948 Olympics in London as he felt he was not ready.

He went to Helsinki four years later with hopes of a medal, but could only finish fourth over 1500 metres, despite clocking a then British record of 3mins 46.30secs.

A medical student at Oxford and a member of Exeter and Merton Colleges, Bannister turned his attention to becoming the first man to run the mile in under four minutes.

It was such a symbolic mark - four minutes for four laps - but attempts to break it were defied time after time. The closest anyone had managed was 4.01.4 from Sweden’s Gunder Hagg in 1945.

The race which would make Bannister a national hero took place in front of an expectant 3,000-strong crowd at Oxford University’s Iffley Road cinder track.

He was supported by pacemakers Sir Christopher Chataway and Chris Brasher, the trio racing for the Amateur Athletic Association against three athletes from Oxford University.

Brasher led them through the first quarter mile in 57.3 and halfway in 1:58. As the leader began to feel the strain, Chataway moved to the front and kept up the pace to go through the three-quarter mile mark in three minutes 0.4 seconds.

With little more than half a lap remaining Bannister burst past Chataway and kicked for the line, using the last of his energy to run through it before falling into the arms of his friend, the Rev Nicholas Stacey.

The result came from stadium announcer Norris McWhirter, who said: “Result of Event Eight: One mile. First, R G Bannister of Exeter and Merton Colleges, in a time which, subject to ratification, is a new track record, British native record, British all-comers record, European record, Commonwealth record and world record - three minutes...”

The roars of the crowd drowned out the rest of the time.

The Iffley Road track is now named after Bannister and a blue plaque commemorates his performance.

Forty-six days later Bannister lost the record to Landy and never got it back.

But he exacted revenge in August that year when he beat his great rival, who had been favourite, to Commonwealth gold over the distance in Vancouver, overtaking Landy on the final bend as the Australian looked round to check where he was and holding on to take the title. He came home in 3:58.8, his personal best.

Bannister also won 1500m gold that year at the European Championships in Berne before hanging up his spikes to focus on his medical career.

He trained at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford - the same location where he died on Saturday surrounded by his family.

He continued, though, to run recreationally until a car accident in 1975 in which he suffered a badly broken ankle.

Bannister’s interest in neurology, a field he described as “one of the most demanding” in medicine, was one of the main reasons for calling time on his track career.

He was fascinated by the complexities of the brain and admitted there was a “gentle irony” when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2011.

He combined a career in research with a clinical practice in neurology, specialising in the autonomic nervous system.

He was honoured in 2005 with the American Academy of Neurology’s first Lifetime Achievement Award.

Bannister, who was knighted in 1975, also served as chairman of the Sports Council between 1971 and 1974.

He campaigned against drugs in sport and was responsible for helping develop the first tests for anabolic steroids. He also fought for increased funding for sports centres.

He later went on to become a Master of Pembroke College, Oxford from 1985 to 1993.

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