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Barrier breaker

Editorial |

Time, inevitably, will re-write sports’ record books. Yet there are some feats that retain an aura that will outlive entries in any ledger of accomplishment: not merely because they were firsts but because they signified the demolition of the mental barriers that existed around them at a specific point in time.

For that reason, the “Ascent of Everest” and the earliest men to reach the North and South Poles will retain their special place in history’s golden annals. To that list must be added the name of Dr Roger Bannister who broke physical and psychological fetters way back in 1954 to clock the maiden sub-four-minute mile.

True that contemporary middle-distance runners consistently return much-improved timings, but few of them will be remembered with as much awe as Bannister who died last week at the age of 88.

That athletes as accomplished as Paula Radcliife, Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett and Stephen Cramm followed British prime minister Theresa May in hailing Dr Bannister as an icon was no surprise.

He had, unostentatiously, blazed a trail that inspired runners across the globe but also, in a very British context, had injected hope into a nation still recovering from a war whose victory had actually shattered the lives of its people.

The coronation of Elizabeth had been cause for celebration for some, John Hunt’s Commonwealth team’s scaling Everest was a trifle negated by its summiteers hailing from Nepal and New Zealand ~ but Bannister and his pace-makers were all natives.

It was a typical English morning when medical-student Bannister took the train from London to Oxford. When he got to the athletics-arena a flag on the nearby church suggested that the wind was too strong to try for the record that day.

The shadows were beginning to lengthen when the flag hung limp, so on to the cinder track ~ a far-cry from contemporary synthetic surfaces ~ went Bannister and his mates.

The medico had slogged for that day, a sixth place in the 1500 metres at the Olympic Games in Helsinki two years earlier weighed heavily on his mind, training was impacted by his serious medical studies.

And so he gave it his all. And shocked the moderate gathering into disbelief when the time-keeper announced “3:59.4”. Shattered forever was what in contemporary jargon would be dubbed a glass ceiling.

As Bannister has expected, it was only a matter of weeks before Australian rival John Landy set the pace for even better timings, but nothing ~ nothing ~ will ever diminish the Good Doctor’s glory although he himself later declared that his contribution to medical science actually meant more than his breaking the four-minute barrier.

But, wait a minute, the Indian star triple-jumper at the London Olympics (1948), Henry Rebello, some 50 years thereafter recalled that his idol had ever been Roger Bannister.