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If you like Roger Bannister's story, you might also like:
Tenley Albright,
Ben Carson,
Edmund Hillary,
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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: 5 / 8)

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  Sir Roger Bannister

So you started at Oxford at 16. What did you study?

Sir Roger Bannister Interview Photo
Sir Roger Bannister: Medicine, of course. I toyed, as most 16 or 17-year-olds do, with the idea of psychology, but I found that unsatisfactory. It was very experimental psychology, dealing with rats solving mazes, and matters of statistics. I turned quite swiftly into physiology, which had a firm basis, and I did a research degree after my ordinary degree, an M.Sc. degree in physiology of exercise and breathing. While I was in Oxford the medicine came first, but I also, as was not uncommon then, got what's called my "Blue" for winning the mile race against Cambridge. I became president of the Athletic Club and was involved in building a new track. Students play a large part in the administration of sports in Oxford. I took a team of Oxford and Cambridge athletes to Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Cornell. I had my first exposure to the wonders of the United States, coming from an austere Britain to a luxurious United States.

About what time was this?

Sir Roger Bannister: This would be 1949. I have been coming back to the United States ever since, and later spent a year of training as a neurologist at Harvard.

How did you do as a group of young athletes in the United States in 1949?

Sir Roger Bannister: We didn't win the heavy field events. We won some of the sprints, and we won the mile. So it was very interesting. A wonderful opportunity. You must remember...

At that stage people had very rarely flown, and in a way one of the incentives to be a world athlete was that it gave me the freedom to travel. In those austerity days I think the amount that could be spent on foreign travel because our currencies were denuded after fighting the war, were 25 pounds. So, you can't have much of a foreign holiday on 25 pounds. So really it was the entrée to world travel as an athlete which was most important.

It may be hard for young Europeans or Americans to imagine the austerity of postwar Britain. What were the limitations? When you were at Oxford was money scarce ? Were things unavailable?

Sir Roger Bannister: Oh yes.

We had a ration of cheese and meat and so on. We took into breakfast in the college our own rations on a little plate. It was quite serious. I mean, winning a war, America and Britain and so on, winning the World War, it was a very difficult time and the government of the day chose to tax heavily in order to start social services, but decided to keep on these restrictions, and they went on for nine years after the war. But I think if you are young, and I didn't come from an affluent home, I was never really expecting affluence. I mean, food was very simple. I can't remember -- people didn't go out to meals and so on, and restaurants, you know. Life was very simple. My parents had come from the North of England, which is a fairly rugged, bleak, hard-working part of England, and so there was not the expectation of luxury.

What was it like, for a young man of your background, finally entering Oxford? How did it feel?

Sir Roger Bannister: I went up at the age of 17, was much younger than most. This provided another reason why I wanted to run because only ten percent of the places in Oxford in 1946 were open to students from school because there was a backlog of five years of ex-servicemen who deserved places and from their scholastic record would have gained places, but they went to the war. Some of those, of course, never returned from the war. They were killed. Some of them were wounded and disabled. But there was I, an innocent, fresh-faced youth of 17, coming to terms with these ex-servicemen. They were kind to us. They didn't rub in the privations and sufferings that they had gone through. But if some of us school boys were able to show some abilities in areas in which we were competing against them, then they had a sudden respect for us. So, I think that was the additional motivation.

Was your athleticism a means of social acceptance?

Sir Roger Bannister Interview Photo
Sir Roger Bannister: I would say that my athleticism was really the core to social acceptance, because in those days the overwhelming number of students came from more of a public school background than I did. I actually arrived in Oxford in 1946, when a large number of ex-servicemen came back. They had deferred entry to university in order to fight during the war. So there were only a few of us, perhaps 10 percent of us, with awards, who were accepted for medicine to come up and be integrated into this group of men. They were almost exclusively men; there were women's colleges but they were only a fifth of the total of Oxford. We were alongside veterans who wore medals and had been injured. Some of them had been promoted to senior ranks by of losses on the battlefield. So it was a very strange time. We had nothing in common with them except sport, and if we happened to be good at sport then they would pay a little more attention. They were very kind, they never made us feel inferior in that sense.

Sir Roger Bannister Interview Photo
So there was the social situation, to which I had to make a fairly major adjustment. Money was tight, but I also had to make the sporting adjustment. It would not have been true in rowing, in which you had to be bigger and heavier and stronger. It wouldn't have been true in rugby, but in athletics it was possible to be recognized. I was even made president of the club, although I was probably one of the youngest members of the club. That really opened up so many doors and made me feel much more at ease, having duties such as fall on a president of a club, traveling with them and helping to organize events. Eventually we rebuilt an old three-lap-to-the-mile trail in Oxford. So all these things happened and made Oxford a wonderful turning point. Irrespective of the firm basis of scientific medicine which it gave me, it changed my life totally.

Oxford was an intriguing place. You had a whole range of talents of people who were trying to be good at things. Kenneth Tynan was acting. There were politicians like Rhys Morgan, and others who were debating. Everybody took part in sport then, except a few dilettantes who abhorred exercise, or pretended to. The academic programs were organized so that there weren't fixed lectures in the afternoons. As a medical student, we had more classes and lectures than other people. But Oxford has a series of 25 different colleges, and in the afternoons each college would have teams for every sport and they would compete in inter-college for cups and prizes.

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