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  • The Life and Times of Roger Bannister: An Appreciation


    Roger Bannister in 2003 at the launch of the bid for London 2012. (ATR)
    Michael Pirrie is an international Olympic and major events communications advisor and commentator who was executive adviser to London 2012 Olympic Games chairman Seb Coe, and liaised with Sir Roger on various activities during the bid and preparations for the London 2012 Olympic Games.

    (ATR) In 2003 I found myself compiling a list of British sporting greats to garner support for the bid to bring the Olympic Games to London in 2012.

    Sir Roger Bannister, 50 years removed from the great race that ended with the first sub-four minute mile, was at the top of the list.

    We were preparing to launch the Olympic Games Bid in 2003, and wanted the endorsement of athletes who we thought could unite support behind the effort.

    While a number of contemporary Olympians had offered their services in return for appearance money or support fees, Bannister’s deep humility prevented him from putting his name forward at all.

    But when approached, Sir Roger gave unwavering support for the London 2012 Olympic Games, yet he never asked to be rewarded in any way. Even so, Bannister’s support was priceless, and brought enormous credibility to London’s Olympic bid.

    Nor did Bannister seek any publicity or recognition for his roles in London 2012 or ask for a contract, as many others also did. A gentleman’s agreement was sufficient for this gentleman giant of 20th century sport.

    Sir Roger assisted London’s Olympic bid behind the scenes in ways that did not require the public spotlight that he found tiresome and unhelpful, but which so many have sought through an Olympic association.

    As arguably the most distinguished and respected of Britain’s living sporting greats at the time, Bannister’s association with the bid helped to bring the Games back to the UK capital in 2012. A rising star when London last held the Games -- the 1948 post war Olympics -- Bannister did not believe he was ready to compete.

    Bannister belongs in the pantheon of sporting legends, alongside Jesse Owens, Usain Bolt and Muhammad Ali. But unlike the golden Olympic trio, Bannister never won an Olympic medal.

    Bannister’s athletic achievements were so extraordinary that he transcended the Olympics - he used his defeat at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki as the motivation to break the supposedly impossible four-minute mile. He retired from competition before the next Summer Olympic Games in Melbourne in 1956.

    While Bannister never medaled, his career included many Olympic connections. Six years ago he carried the London 2012 Olympic torch on the track in Oxford where the mile record was broken. Click here to see a photo gallery from the day,

    The four-minute barrier was thought to have been so improbable that Bannister’s race was often described as ‘the Everest of Sport.’ In reality, it was more like the ‘Moon Landing of Sport.’

    Bannister’s run was the human equivalent of breaking
    Bannister at the torch relay stop in 2012 at Oxford. (ATR)
    the sound barrier or travelling at the speed of sound in terms of the scale of the challenge and the global noise and conversation his run created.

    Bannister’s milestone shaped the future direction of athletics and became a new metaphor for human achievement.

    Bannister generated unprecedented global attention and interest in athletics and helped to elevate sport to new levels on the international agenda.

    The record-breaking run also focused new attention on international athletes and major sporting events like the Olympic Games.

    Bannister also helped to turn the 1500 meters – the old mile – into a premier Olympic event – and paved the way for new generations of middle distance runners and rivals, including Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett, Herb Elliot, John Landy and many others.

    A new sports marketing arms race dawned as athletes and nations raced each other like never before to set new records in previously unthinkable times and follow in Bannister’s footsteps.

    Bannister changed everything, as rapidly growing television and radio audiences tuned in to follow the fortunes of a new generation of post World War 11 athletes who captivated and inspired with feats of endurance, speed and courage.

    Bannister’s race against the Australian middle distance champion Landy at the 1954 Vancouver Empire (Commonwealth) Games was even described as the “Race of the Century”, which Bannister won.

    After also winning the European championships, Bannister did the unthinkable again, this time retiring at his peak to escape the expectations of fleeting fame. He put his energies into a pursuit that he believed would enable him to make a greater contribution to society: neurology.

    He proved success is possible without doping or cheating. Bannister demonstrated that the human body can achieve extraordinary things on and off the sporting field, without performance enhancing substances.

    Even in the post Bannister era where we no longer turn to sport for inspiration following a never-ending series of scandals, he leaves a towering legacy. It’s a message of redemption and direction for current athletes and federations. It’s a message of hope for young people and future generations.

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