A month or so ago I wrote to Sir Roger Bannister as my uncle Paul had passed away and was at Exeter College Oxford at the same time as Sir Roger. He wrote back by return of post saying he remembered my uncle as a spirited member of college. When I spoke of this to family and friends there was some doubt, given his age, whether he did. The recollection was confirmed a few days ago when I received a further letter from Sir Roger enclosing a handwritten letter from my uncle dated 6th May 1954, the day he broke the four minute mile, congratulating him on his achievement.
Yesterday, after he left a message on my mobile to do, so I called him. I mentioned my interest in athletics of the forties and fifties. Athletes like Gunnar Hagg broke more world records in a shorter space of time than Seb Coe; Arne Arnsesen, his great rival; and Emil Zatopek, who won the Olympic marathon on the first occasion he ran the race.
When in Vancouver a few years ago, I visited their sports museum and there saw the clip below when Bannister went head to head with John Landy in the Empire Games held in that city in 1954. These were the only two athletes to have run the mile in under four minutes. As Roger said, if Landy had won the “Miracle Mile” – as the race became known – he would be the more remembered. The generosity and mutual respect in the interview after is all the more significant in an age when confrontation is prevalent. I’m rather dreading the Premier season for the endless spats between rival managers and the blanket coverage this receives.
Sir Roger was a genuine amateur and there were no drugs to bedevil and besmirch his sport then. He has said his neurological work was somethng of which he was prouder than his record-breaking and he added a distinguished academic career to his athletic and medical one as he became Master of Pembroke College. The conversation lasted 10 minutes but I will never forget it.