Monday, March 05, 2018

Roger Bannister, 1929-2018.

On May 6, 1954 I was eight years and not quite two months old. My parents and I were preparing for a European vacation before returning to the U.S., as my father's tour of duty in England was ending. The next day, I looked at a newspaper and saw a photo of man with long, flowing hair running toward a finish line alone. The headline said he was Roger Bannister, and that he was first (since records had been kept) to run a mile in less than four minutes.

I knew roughly how long a mile is; I'd been told that it was a mile from the railroad station to the paper mill in my mother's hometown, Tyrone, Pennsylvania, where she and I had sojourned with my grandmother for several months before joining my father in England. It wasn't a great distance to walk; I'd done it once. It did seem to me a long way to run. Like most kids, I ran a lot, but in short bursts, either playing tag or what we call soccer and my English schoolmates called football.

For some reason that image of Bannister running alone to the finish line remained engraved in my memory. As I grew older, I began running on my own. In my senior year of high school, I would run in the morning before breakfast and in the evening after supper, following a course through our neighborhood that may have been a good half mile. Looking back, I regret not having tried out for my school's track team. At the time, I was shy about pitting myself against competition, fearing I might not be as good as I hoped.

Roger Bannister, since 1975 Sir Roger, died Saturday at the age of 88. His New York Times obituary tells much that I didn't know about his later life. When he broke the record, he was a medical student. Not long after, he left competitive running to devote himself to a successful medical career. He didn't entirely leave the world of sports, serving for three years as chairman of the British Sports Council and for seven as president of the International Council of Sport Science and Physical Recreation. For three years, he was head of Pembroke College, Oxford.