The former British athlete Sir Roger Bannister is best known as being the first athlete to run a sub 4-minute mile.
His remarkable achievement took place in the middle of his tough medical studies and with the bare minimum of training, just 30 minutes per day, giving us an idea of what an outstanding athlete he really was. We can only imagine what great things he could have accomplished if he had stayed in athletics.
At the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Bannister set a new British record in the 1500 metres. He was fourth, but all the runners in the race had broken the previous Olympic record. Bannister would likely have won if he had been a full-time athlete with a stronger training regime, but he refused to postpone his medical training which he saw as his real ‘calling’ in life.
Being just one place off the medals at the Olympics gave Sir Roger the confidence that he could still run a sub 4-minute mile. His opportunity came on 6th May 1954 at Iffley Road track in Oxford, UK. Accompanied by fellow Olympic athletes Chris Chattaway and Chris Brasher as pacemakers, Bannister won the mile race in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds. Roger Bannister’s record was just point six of a second below 4 minutes, and it lasted just 46 days before being beaten by Australian John Landy on 21st June 1954 at an international meeting at Turku, Finland. Despite Landy’s record being a full two seconds under four minutes and lasting for over three years, Roger Bannister is still the name everybody remembers because his record came first.
Still only in his mid twenties, Bannister retired from athletics and went on to become an internationally renowned neurologist and the Master of Pembroke College at Oxford University. When asked whether the 4-minute mile was his proudest achievement, he said that he actually felt more proud of his contribution to academic medicine through research into the responses of the nervous system. Roger was a man of the people, a caring, compassionate doctor of medicine, and a follower of Jesus Christ.
Although a lifelong churchgoer, Roger’s parents were Unitarians, not Trinitarian Christians. The Christian Church across the world has, from its inception, always believed that God is three-in-one, consisting of God the Father, God the Son (Jesus Christ), and God the Holy Spirit. The early Christian Church, basing their doctrine on the words and ministry of Jesus Christ, and of the first Disciples, came up with the word ‘Trinity’ to describe very simply the belief in God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The early church Council of Nicea agreed on a wording to describe Christian beliefs in the Godhead. They stated,
”We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; And in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets…” (Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed.)
So, although Sir Roger had been raised in the Unitarian tradition by his parents, he became friends with the Rev John Stott, the world renowned evangelical Rector of All Souls’ church in Langham Place, London. Through this friendship, and their regular discussion together, Roger realised that his understanding of the Christian faith had been incomplete. He came to embrace the Trinitarian doctrine of the universal Christian church and personally accepted Jesus Christ as his Saviour, his Lord, and his God. Sir Roger realised that this is what the New Testament teaches and he chose to be baptised into the Anglican Church by his good friend and mentor John Stott. Sir Roger’s daughter, Rev Charlotte Bannister-Parker, an associate priest at the Oxford University Church of St Mary the Virgin, relates;
“John became a friend and baptised my father at All Souls’. Both of his great running companions of the track and dear friends Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher were his sponsors.”
Sir Roger was a lifelong church-going Christian. Rev Charlotte says that she read prayers, psalms, and hymns with her father at his bedside shortly before he died. She adds,
“All his life, my father attended church. He said it brought him peace, especially in his hectic years as a junior doctor and young father. In his later years, he thought deeply about faith, science, and philosophy.”
Sir Roger retired as Master of Pembroke College in 1993, but he continued to attend the University Church in Oxford. He died in 2018 aged 88.
Story by Ralph Burden
Photo: Roger Bannister running the first sub 4-minute mile on 6th May 1954, Iffley Road track stadium, Oxford, UK. Photo attribution: Creative Commons Share Alike 2.0 Generic.