The story of the 'Greatest Living Englishman'

From ESPN - March 7, 2018

The world said a sad, sober farewell to Sir Roger Bannister on Sunday without overdone fuss and fanfare, just the way the great man would have liked it. In Britain, the tributes to the runner who had arguably owned the fabled title of "GLE" -- Greatest Living Englishman -- were genuine, deep and affectionate, seeming to tell not so much of the passing of a legend as of an era.

"The last of the gentleman athletes" one newspaper story tagged him fondly alongside bigger banner headlines bemoaning a 21st century British sporting knight embroiled in a messy doping controversy. It was as though a younger generation agonising over cyclist Bradley Wiggins was simultaneously being introduced to a long-forgotten but still spotless national monument.

In Birmingham, England, on the final day of the World Indoor Championships -- the same day it was announced that Bannister had succumbed to Parkinson's disease -- organisers hastily arranged a screening of the grainy footage of that exhausted 25-year-old medical student, eyes closed and mouth agape, breaking the four-minute mile barrier at Oxford's Iffley Road track on the grey, golden evening of May 6, 1954.

This, one of the greatest sports stories, had unfolded at a meet between Oxford University and Amateur Athletic Association. "Three minutes, 59.4 seconds," the announcer, famously, had tried to tell the crowd but they only heard the word "three" before drowning him out.

The applause after the screening in Birmingham was sustained and heartfelt, with an image long imprinted on a nation's consciousness given this fresh airing. Was not everything simpler and more unsullied then, many wondered, even if that was probably all a great illusion.

Then down on the track, an Ethiopian boy Samuel Tefera won the 1500 metres, only to be asked afterward about Bannister. "Who?" the 18-year-old's blank expression implied. Suddenly, we were reminded we were dealing in sporting pre-history here.

Bannister would have chuckled. "Why should a boy know anything about an old man like me?" this self-effacing charmer would doubtless have shrugged.

After all, he never cared to look back even though for most of his 88 years of extraordinary achievement as ground-breaking neurologist, scholar, academic, drug-testing pioneer, sports administrator and athlete, he was implored to recount just those 3 minutes 59.4 seconds of it. A good day, he would say, was when the subject did not come up; although he was always unfailingly polite in relating it.

Perhaps that was because he understood instinctively, for all his modesty, that his tale would always retain the power to inspire.

This proud father of four -- and grandfather of 14 -- had once told me on the eve of his 80th birthday at his Oxford home that he never stopped feeling lucky to have been "the right man at the right time in the right race" but that he had also learned to appreciate its symbolic and long-lasting significance, even if it never did cease to amaze him. "It's a small part of my life, and the importance of the things I have done are centred on medicine and neurology. So in that sense, the achievement is overrated," he said. "But for most people, it's all they know me for and I can see why."

He transported me back to the early 1950s when a world, and particularly the British nation, waking from war was spreading its wings, embarking on new challenges, discovery and exploration, looking out for fresh adventurers. "There was a general mood of optimism, of looking to the future in the country," he said. "We'd just had the Festival of Britain [in 1951], Everest had been conquered and we had had the coronation of the new young Queen [in 1953].


Continue reading at ESPN »