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Sir Roger Bannister
Sir Roger Bannister
Profile of Sir Roger Bannister Biography of Sir Roger Bannister Interview with Sir Roger Bannister Sir Roger Bannister Photo Gallery

Sir Roger Bannister Interview (page: 4 / 8)

Track and Field Legend

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  Sir Roger Bannister

When did you first become serious about running? Was there a moment when you first became seriously interested?

Sir Roger Bannister: Running was something I wanted to do at school, so I became a champion at school. Then my father, when I was 16, took me to watch an athletic event. There are two parts to running. There is the simple enjoyment as you run through the countryside, a pure pleasure without any target. This meeting showed me a kind of forum in which success could be crystallized; those who were watching, applauded, and there was a gladiatorial interplay between the athletes. I watched an English runner called Sidney Wooderson, who had held the world record for the mile, and it had always been a British preoccupation to hold this mile record. There were a series of English runners who had held it. I watched him after the end of the war in 1945, running against the world record holders from Sweden, like Andersson. And, he was not in the same league, but he came up and challenged the world record holder on the last bend. The challenge was easily fought off by the Swede, but there was a feeling of courage that he showed in tackling the Swede, who looked physically much stronger, more elegant, and more powerful; Wooderson was a rather small man. But this exchange, this battle was, I think, the thing which led me to go on from simple running for pleasure to running with this target of records, Olympic Games and other events in mind.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

Did you have a role model or a hero in medicine or in athletics when you were growing up?

Sir Roger Bannister: I read lots of books about medicine when I was 14, 15, 16 . I suppose Nobel laureates and Madame Curie and Pasteur were the role models, if you like, but I also had athletic ambitions and the role model for my athletic ambitions was Sidney Wooderson, who had held the world record for the mile just before the war. My father had never had a chance to become a runner, and although he didn't make a great deal of it, he did take me at the to the White City stadium to watch this race in which Wooderson was running against the great Swedish runners. Wooderson didn't win but it was inspiring to see this runner, much shorter than the Swedes, come up and challenge the Swedes, who had had all the benefits of peace time during the war: better food, no rationing. He challenged them and ran very movingly. That, if you like, was the moment when I said, "Well, that would be something I should like to do."

Were your parents athletic at all? Did they show any talent for that?

Sir Roger Bannister: Athletics is a luxury. My father won the mile race at Cone Secondary School. He never did it afterwards, and never, as far as I was aware, directed me to do this. Perhaps when he took me to watch this meeting there was some idea in his mind, but he didn't push me into it.

What is the physiology of a runner? Are there specific attributes of the body? Is this something that can be trained, or is it something innate in a certain kind of body?

Sir Roger Bannister: Essentially, muscles contain two sorts of fiber. They are called simply fast-twitch and slow-twitch fibers. And we have a mixture of them and that's genetic. But you can, by training, alter the balance of some of the intermediate fibers, make more fast ones or make more slow ones, according to the training you do. So the sprinters have more fast-twitch fibers and concentrate on developing them. Distance runners have more slow-twitch fibers. And obviously I was born with more slow-twitch fibers, but the whole of my training was developing these fibers.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Sir Roger Bannister Interview Photo
To move oxygen to the muscles is what enables them to release energy to run or anything else. If you are running for 20 seconds there is no time for any oxygen to get from the outside air through your lungs to the muscles. So you're entirely dependent on what's called anaerobic breakdown of energy without the presence of air and oxygen. That's why you feel breathless at the end of it and you just cannot go at that speed for longer than 15 seconds.

These other fibers are very efficient. They contract more slowly but they can go on contracting because the air is provided. The mile requires about 50 percent of the energy to be anaerobic, 50 percent aerobic. So you've got a balance between the two, and that's why it's a fascinating race. You may see people sprinting at the end of it if they've got energy to do so. As the distance increases, the need for anaerobic fibers, fast twitch fibers, gets less and less.

I found longer races boring. I found the mile just perfect. But my introduction to track racing was through the background of enjoying cross-country running, which is not a sport perhaps as popular in America, in the United States, as it is in England. But cross-country running -- steeple chasing is what it's called informally -- is very popular. I enjoyed doing that and I was quite good at that, but I wasn't quite as good as I proved to be as a miler.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

You wrote in your book that as a child in school you had some fear of not belonging unless you commanded some respect in athletics. Is that so?

Sir Roger Bannister: I think that is a universal adolescent feeling, trying to find your place.

The adolescent who is perfectly adjusted to his environment, I've yet to meet. Now, with grandchildren who are going through adolescence, I see it so clearly. I was lonely in the sense that we lived in a suburban street and my parents -- having come from Lancashire, which is the north of England -- didn't automatically fit in with the people who were southerners. I'll put it that way, and they were quite self-contained people themselves. They were quite interested in self-improvement and education. So, I think I was perhaps set on this rather more lonely track.

Sir Roger Bannister Interview Photo
I didn't have any difficulty finding and having friends. I suppose the real opening for me was passing into Oxford, which was then and still is, with Cambridge, our major universities with only a relatively small intake. There were competitive exams in order to achieve that. My concentration was really on getting to university and becoming a doctor. Nothing deflected me from taking my work seriously. I think my parents let me know that they expected it of me, that school marks were important. They certainly laughed at jokes, but there was an underlying seriousness and purpose. Achievement was something which came by hard work. My father and my mother had not been to a university. In their generation, probably two or three percent of the population went to university. It's now rising in this country, 40 percent, it may be even higher in the United States. So in order to go to university, as they had never been themselves, they assumed that it was a rather serious trial. If school studies were not taken seriously, then you were unlikely to get to university. That was a kind of watershed. You either go to university or you don't. The object was to get to Oxford rather than other universities. That itself was quite a hurdle.

That must have looked like an outside chance. Did you see your plan fulfilling itself as you were going through school?

Sir Roger Bannister: I think so. In English schools you have a major examination when you are 14 or 15. I took it rather early, at 14, and I did do the best of my school in these examinations, so that was a good start. Because the war was ending, I managed to transfer to a more established school in London, which gave me a better chance of getting to Oxford. I was then being prepared for the leaving examinations, which are taken at 17 or 18. I was already accelerated, but I didn't feel I was getting on with things. I was impatient, so I actually went to Cambridge when I was 16 for a scholarship examination. Very young. And they said, "Well, we'll have you in a year's time. Postpone it a year." I was sufficiently impatient to then go to Oxford, and Oxford said, "We'll take you straight away." So that's actually the reason why I went to Oxford rather than Cambridge.

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