07/30/2012 07:28 am ET | Updated Sep 29, 2012

Sir Roger Bannister On The Olympics And Oxford's Runners

Watching opening ceremonies for the London Olympics, I was delighted to see the great Sir Roger Bannister present. Bannister was an Olympian in 1952, but he didn't win the gold you might expect from the first man to run a four-minute mile. In fact, he's pretty sure his Olympic-sized disappointment was the reason he pursued the supposedly impossible mark.

"I failed, came in fourth in the 1,500 meters," Bannister told me. "Very disappointed is an understatement. But if I had gotten a gold medal, I probably would have retired and never pursued the four-minute mile."

It only took him two years.

Bannister, now 83, disappeared from track shortly after his record run. Upon graduating from medical school at Oxford, he devoted his life to medicine, initially in private practice as a neurologist and later as a researcher. A near-fatal car accident in 1975 kept Bannister from running again, but didn't leave him bitter.

He still has a house in Oxford -- just a mile from where he ran his most famous race and where I interviewed him for my book The Right Stuff: Interviews with Icons of the 1960s.

Jim Clash: What's today's equivalent of the four-minute mile?

Sir Roger Bannister: I should think a two-hour marathon. They're under two hours, five minutes now. The rate of improvement possible is greater the longer the distance because it involves improving oxygen uptake, which just means more training. But whether people will look at two hours in the same light as the four-minute mile, I don't know. We'll have to wait and see. It's part of man's incessant search for some niche that will, for a while, ensure him a certain degree of permanence or fame.

JC: In 1954, what was it about four minutes, anyway?

SRB: The world record was four minutes, 1.4 seconds, held by Sweden's Gunder Haegg. It had been stuck there for nine years. It didn't seem logical to me, as a physiologist/doctor, that if you could run a mile in four minutes, one and a bit seconds, you couldn't break four minutes. But it had become a psychological as well as a physical barrier. In fact Australian John Landy, having done four minutes, two seconds, three times, is reported to have commented, "It's like a wall." I just couldn't see the psychological side.

JC: Take us back to Oxford on May 6, 1954.

SRB: I went to do my rounds at the hospital in the morning. I also sharpened my spikes and put graphite on them. There are many things beyond your control, like weather. It was raining, with high winds, and that adds about four seconds to your time. So you do the things you can. We were then running on rough cinder tracks made out of disused ash from power stations. Your spikes would accumulate bits of this grit and, at the end of the race, were heavier than at the beginning. You're talking maybe half a second. So why have a heavier shoe?

JC: As you crossed the finish line, what were your emotions?

SRB: I felt exultation. Whatever the result, it was over. It's rather like a theatrical production. I felt like an exploded flashbulb, without the will to live or die. Then you've got to wait, and there was such a crowd. It was totally disorganized, as university sport then was -- 1,100 people crowded into the center of the track. I couldn't wind down. If you can't wind down, your blood pressure suddenly drops. I did a momentary blackout. It was only a matter of seconds, but it was adequate proof I'd done the best I could. About the time I was coming around, the announcer said, "The results of event No. 6 in the match between Oxford University and the Amateur Athletic Association: First, R.G. Bannister in a time which, subject to ratification, is a track record, English record, British native record, all-comers record, European record, world record. And the time is three minutes..." That was when everything exploded.

JC: Are you upset by the commercialism of sports today?

SRB: It's difficult to know how appalled to be about something about which we can do nothing. What I would say is that you can't control change. The real point is how many more young people now take part in sport. If, as a result of sponsorship, television and continuing high prestige for the Olympics, there are 10 million Chinese athletes -- where in the past nobody had ever heard of a Chinese athlete -- that's good, and who am I to say that the few athletes at the top who get salaries of millions of dollars don't deserve them?

JC: How do you feel about drug use in athletics? You were one of the pioneers of Olympic drug testing.

SRB: I've always been against any chemical method of enhancing performance. In the late 1960s through the early 1980s, the Communist bloc women held every record for middle-distance races. They broke the record for 800 meters at 1:53.3 in 1983; now they're doing only 1:58. This is evidence that drug testing is working -- that nobody in certain events has been able to replicate performances at the height of the drug regime. I'd spoken to the East German minister of labor and sport. He denied any drug use but said, "We do give medical advice to heighten potential." I later realized that, of course, was a code for a secret operation. It was absolutely appalling.