Roger Bannister, 1954 Sportsman of the Year
by Liz Colville
On May 6, 1954, British medical student Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile barrier in the Oxford v. British A.A.A. race. For his time of 3 min., 59.4 sec., he received Sports Illustrated's first Sportsman of the Year Award. At the time, he explained how he had achieved his record-breaking feat: “It’s the ability to take more out of yourself than you've got.”
A 1954 Time magazine article reported that Bannister and his coach considered postponing the barrier-breaking attempt on that rainy, windy day: “[W]e discussed how much was physical and how much was psychological motivation.” In the end, he decided to run; as he approached the wire, Bannister told Time later, "I wasn't thinking about anything in particular … I saw the tape faintly ahead, put everything into getting there and that was the last I knew about it."
The Internet Archive offers a video clip of key portions of the record-breaking race.
As is often the case with highly successful people, it was failure that drove Bannister to his stunning achievement. The BBC reports that Bannister had planned to win a gold medal in the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, and then retire to concentrate on his medical career. However, at the end of the race Bannister grew tired and missed his chance for the medal stand. The BBC called it a “watershed moment”; Bannister became determined to break the four-minute barrier and attain the fame that eluded him in Helsinki.
Fifty years later, Bannister explained to the Associated Press his determination to break the record in the wake of his Olympic failure: “I thought: Well, I can't leave on this sour note, feeling failure, disappointment, letting people down—letting the country down.”
Obviously, Bannister more than managed to end his running career on a high point. As the 50th anniversary of the record-breaking feat approached in 2004, Frank Deford wrote: “In a way, Roger Bannister was the last hero in sport.”
Bannister went on to become a highly regarded neurologist in England; he published a textbook on the autonomic nervous system, and established a medical research society. He also became chairman of the British Sports Council, and aided London’s successful bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics. In 2007, Bannister explained to a British journal for medical students that his running exploits initially held back his medical career. Academics, he said, “can't believe that somebody could get involved so deeply in something so trivial and unintellectual that they could consider a serious career in medicine.”
Sir Roger Bannister (he was knighted in 1975) conducted a pair of extensive interviews with the Academy of Achievement in 2000 and 2002, covering most of the events of his life.