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The Story of Roger Bannister

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Mental strength and resolve are often the most important factors while testing the limits of human performance. For many years, “experts” said that running a mile (one mile is around 1,609 meters) in under four minutes was impossible. Then on 6 May 1954 an amateur runner and young medical student, Roger Bannister, did what was thought unattainable, and ran the mile in under four minutes.

As a child, Bannister loved running. He said, “I just ran anywhere and everywhere—never because it was an end in itself, but because it was easier for me to run than to walk!”. As a medical student, Bannister did not have much time for training and so every day, he spent most of his lunchtime at a nearby park practising his running. 

It took Bannister 8 years of hard training, including many failures, to achieve his record. In 1952, two years before he broke the four-minute barrier, Bannister was selected to represent Great Britain in the 1,500-meter race in the Helsinki Olympics. He was the favourite to win but did not have the professional training and stamina to run multiple races, the heats and semifinals, before the final where he came only fourth. Bannister was devastated but this failure only increased his resolve to try again. He made it his aim to run a four-minute mile. 

It was only after Bannister’s sub-four-minute mile run that many other runners also ran the mile in under four minutes. (Today the world record time for running the mile is 3 minutes 43.13 seconds.)  What Bannister did was to break the self-imposed barrier in the minds of all runners. Bannister said, “People said there may be a barrier, you can’t keep on running faster. Is four minutes the barrier? It did not make sense to me that there was a barrier. It was more psychological to me.”  

There are many other such examples, not just in sport, when an “unreachable” task is accomplished by one exceptional person. Immediately after that others realized that these challenges can be overcome. The lesson, of course, is that when you hear the words “impossible”, remember Bannister’s “four-minute mile” and work to achieve what others think cannot be done.

Bannister ran in an era of amateur sport. Bannister’s focus was on studying medicine and training for running races was always a part-time effort. In fact, on the day he broke the record Bannister had to first finish his rounds at St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School. He then took a train from London to Oxford and nearly did not start the race. He decided to run only twenty minutes before the race began. 

Modern professional athletes have no other work to distract them from their sports, but also, unlike Bannister, they often have no skills or professions to be involved in after they retire at young ages. Bannister had his medical profession and research to sustain him for his entire life.

Bannister specialized in the study of the human brain and nervous system and published over 80 medical papers. Bannister said that “It is the brain, not the heart or lungs that is the critical organ.”

Despite his great achievement in running the first four-minute mile, on his accomplishments, Bannister said, “None of my athletics was the greatest achievement. My medical work has been my achievement and my family with 14 grandchildren. Those are real achievements.”

© Kaikhushru Taraporevala

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