On Sunday British sport lost one of its icons. Roger Bannister, the first man to break the four-minute mile mark, passed away at the age of 88. His sporting milestone earned him immortality in the world of athletics, but it wasn’t his only significant contribution.
Bannister’s perception of life as an athlete was a stark contrast to those of the present day. For him, running had to fit around his educational commitments. He studied medicine at Oxford University before attending St Mary’s college. It was at Oxford where he started to participate in athletics.
"As soon as I ceased to be a student, I always knew I would stop being an athlete." He once said.
Once writing that the ideal athlete would be one that enjoyed a few drinks and the odd cigarette, Bannister’s historic race took place on May 6th, 1954. At the Iffley Road sports ground in front of an estimated 3000 spectators, he achieved what some considered unthinkable at the time. Running a mile in a time of 3:59.4.
Almost 74 years have passed since the run, but it’s legacy continues. In 2016 a poll of 2000 people voted it the sixth greatest moment in the history of sport. In reality, his world record for the mile only lasted for 46 days. That run is what Bannister is forever known for, but he also paid a crucial role in another area of sport. The fight against doping.
In 1971 Bannister was appointed the chairman of the British Sports Council (known today as UK Sport). During his three-year role, he gathered a group of chemists to develop the first ever test for anabolic steroids. It was a landmark occasion in the fight against doping, especially considering the era. During the 1970s and 1980s, there was high speculation that Soviet and East German governments were supplying their athletes with illegal drugs. Accusations that have been proven true in recent years.
“I foresaw the problems in the 1970s and arranged for the group of chemists to detect the first radioimmunoassay test for anabolic steroids,” Bannister told The Washington Post in 2014. “The only problem was it took a long time for the Olympic and other authorities to introduce it on a random basis. I foresaw it being necessary.”
Throughout his life, he was against the used of illegal drugs in sport. His stance stems from a highly successful career in neurology, where he received acclaim for his research into the autonomic nervous system. Despite his position, Bannister was never naive. Once writing that in the fight against doping is one where the ‘chemists are still ahead of the testers.’
“There will always be a battle against the use of performance enhancing drugs at the Olympics or in international competition. Drugs are taken in training as well as competition, hence the vital importance of out-of-season testing.” He wrote into his 2004 autobiography Twin Tracks.
“Testing centres are now under the supervision of the World-Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Sadly, the chemists are still ahead of the testers.”
A year prior to his death, Bannister said that doping is sport is one that brought him ‘extreme sadness.’ At this year’s Winter Olympics, the Russian delegation was banned from the games following historical doping. Some of their athletes were allowed to compete under the name ‘Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR).’
"I'm only sorry in some aspects that there are problems with drugs and that is something which is an extreme sadness to me," He told ITV in 2017. .
"I hope that Wada (World Anti-Doping Agency) and Usada (US Anti-Doping Agency) will be successful in bringing this to an end."
As a icon in the world of sport, some wonder if Bannister’s four-minute mile record or his anti-doping incentive should be his legacy. Then again, if you asked him, he would have said neither.
"My medical work has been my achievement and my family with 14 grandchildren. Those are real achievements."
It is for this reason why Roger Bannister was one of a kind.