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If you like Roger Bannister's story, you might also like:
Tenley Albright,
Ben Carson,
Edmund Hillary,
Richard Leakey,
Oliver Sacks,
Herschel Walker
and Chuck Yeager

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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: 7 / 8)

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  Sir Roger Bannister

In 1947, you ran the mile in a minute and a half, 4:30.8. At that point, did you think about breaking the four-minute mile?

Sir Roger Bannister: Well, it was talked about.

There was one journalist who said eventually the four-minute mile will be broken, and everybody thought it was a pretty eccentric view, because there was a long way to go. But to me, at that stage, I was only looking ahead to becoming an international. I was immediately involved in the management of the Oxford athletics, became the Secretary and then the President. I declined the invitation to compete in the London Olympics. In those days, I didn't train very much. We didn't really know how to train in modern terms. There was this thing called "burning yourself out." I didn't want to burn myself out at 18, and I had a notion that if I looked after myself, trained carefully, I would go on improving, not by training two to three hours a day, but by training three quarters of an hour a day. It seemed to me logical that you could go on improving, and you didn't have to spend all day running.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

You didn't have a coach? Is that right?

Sir Roger Bannister: There was a coach, but I fell out with him. He said, "You do this." And I said, "Why do I do this?" He said, "Well, you do this because I'm the coach and I tell you to do it." He'd make me do a timed trial and he would be holding a watch and I would say, "What time did I do?" He would say, "Oh, don't worry about that." So, although he had been quite well known -- he was actually the coach to someone called, Jack Lovelock who won the Olympic 1500 meters in Berlin in 1936 -- but I suppose I was always independent. I felt about running that it was my task to find out what suited me and what didn't suit me, how much training could I do and then improve my performance, and not let my performance go down because I was training too hard. These were things which seemed to me so individual that nobody else was going to understand me to this degree.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

What was the name of the coach?

Sir Roger Bannister: His name was Burt Thomas. He had a waistcoat, a suit and a bowler hat. Really archaic. If you are doing a technical event like high jumping, or hurdling, putting the shot, you have to have a coach. We had coaches. But in Oxford it was actually the most senior athlete whose job it was to teach the others. It was as informal as that. Later it became more professional. That was the reason why I pursued a rather lonely furrow.

I made the decision that I wouldn't compete in the Olympic Games and I reached a position in which I was being criticized in the press for not racing often enough. They said, "Here's this chap. We think he's good. We want to see him." I said, "Well, no. I run if I want to run. There is nobody paying me to run. If I think that five races a year is the right for me, and if I feel that I'll work up towards a peak in the middle of the season, that's what I'm going to do."

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

I pursued this kind of approach with a lot of press criticism, and eventually they said, "If he wins the gold medal in Helsinki in 1952, he will be right. He's done the right thing."

Just three weeks before the Helsinki Olympics -- the management of the events in the Olympic Games was left to local (Helsinki in this case) organizers. It was said afterwards that there had been a rather deliberate attempt because I was the favorite, to change the program. They had three races on three successive days, which were unnecessary. Previous there had always been the heats, a day's rest or two day's rest, and a final. And that was what I was planning for and I could have coped with it. But by the third day of these successive races, I knew in my heart that it was a virtually impossible task for me. Of course, with that frame of mind too, it did prove impossible. I came fourth. No British gold medals in the Helsinki Olympics except for a horse called Fox Hunter who won an equestrian event. Disaster! Criticism for Bannister. "We told him he should train differently and now it is proved." If I had won the gold medal, I would probably have retired because Olympic gold medals, 1500 meters, there was nothing higher and I would just have gone on with my work. But, I felt angry with the press, angry at myself, angry with the organizers of the event and thought about it. I knew that I could go on for two more years when the equivalent of an Olympic prize would have been the European championships and the Commonwealth games. That would have meant most of the great runners, not unfortunately, the American runners. The rest of the world would have been represented. So after thought, I decided it would be possible to work and go on training. It proved difficult.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

Did that that defeat help? Was it an inspiration in some ways?

Sir Roger Bannister Interview Photo
Sir Roger Bannister: Yes, I'm sure it was. I think that an adverse experience is very formative. It's painful. You are very young, and you are projected on television around the world, when most people looking at it have no idea what the risks are of not winning. I chose athletics partly because there was fewer attendant risks of not winning than there are in other sports. You are dependent on yourself, which removed one element of doubt. Most other sports are based on chance. Their attraction is that you really don't know who is going to win.

Yours was as public a defeat as one can imagine. Most teenagers and people in their early 20s don't have their early failures blasted all over the world news.

Sir Roger Bannister: It's a defeat and a kind of humiliation. I had to get over it and prove to myself, if not to other people, that that was not the best I could do.

You were very well versed in the makeup of the human body. What's the connection between that and your feat, if there is one? When you broke the record you were already very close to getting your medical degree.

Sir Roger Bannister: Yes, six weeks later.

I had a common sense knowledge about what was needed. As a scientist, and I was a physiologist and did some research before I went on to my clinical training, trial and error. That's what science is. To me, running was an experiment. Here were muscles. Here was a heart. Here were lungs. To what extent can this bit of machinery be trained to do a very specific, skilled task? I knew that the training had to fit the event. How do you manage to release physical and nervous energy over four minutes? Running marathons wasn't going to help. Running seven miles wasn't going to help. So that was really the only part in which my medical training helped me. It was a matter of applying logic to the problem.

They say pitching is largely in the mind. It's a very interesting paradox that what seems to the world to be the athletic feat of the century is also a very logical, rational, well thought-out, not just physical feat.

All sporting events are more mental than physical. You have to train the physical aspects for years. But eventually, even in the more complex movements, which have my respect, those who can pitch and bat or play golf and so on, the basis of it is laid down in the brain and the real question is whether the brain can be allowed to do its bit without being interfered with by psychological factors. The other aspect of the brain is that it must be positive. I suppose these two are connected. But, the brain has to have some overall image of what is being achieved. I did have the feeling that -- in a sense -- looking down on myself doing it. I mean being outside of my body in some kind of way. I think this experience has been described by others.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

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