Roger Bannister’s historic milestone transcends sport

In this file photo taken on May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister, is supported by officials after becoming the first man to run the mile in under four minutes (3 minutes 59.4 seconds) at the Iffley Road track in Oxford, west of London. — AFP photo

KUCHING: Tributes continue to pour as the sporting world mourns the passing of Roger Bannister, the first man to run the mile in under four minutes. Bannister created history when he clocked 3min 59.4secs in the 1-mile race at the Iffley Road track in Oxford, England on May 6, 1954.

Yet it is worth reflection that one of history’s most famous sportsmen never won an Olympic medal. And his world record of 3:59.4 was actually broken within weeks. It is significant that he said that he felt a greater sense of achievement when he beat Australian rival John Landy to win the 1-mile race at the 1954 Commonwealth Games.

Chroniclers of that first ever sub 4-minute mile then and since would agree with him. To them, that singular moment in 1954 when Bannister froze the stopwatch at 3:59.4 meant much, much more than an athlete’s victory, a gold medal, a world record or a world title.

Modern sport is essentially about results and achievements – time, distance, number of victories, years as reigning champion. They measure greatness. The greater athletes break records. And the greatest among them break or overcome physical, psychological, cultural and “impossible” barriers.

Who was Sarawak’s first Olympian? Who is Malaysia’s first female Olympic medalist? Who is the first gymnast to perform a perfect 10? Who is the first man to run the 100 metres in under 10secs?

Pierre de Coubertin instilled that spirit when he established the motto of the Olympic Games as ‘Citius, Altius, Fortius’ (Latin for Faster, Higher, Stronger). The true athlete strives to overcome his limitations.

As track and field grew into a global sport from the turn of the 20th century it was the 1-mile race that captured the imagination of most sports fans and observers outside sport. That event was viewed as the most basic test of physical endurance and will power.

It also gave rise to the myth that it was “impossible” for a human being to run the distance in under 4 minutes. As the years and decades rolled on, the interest grew in intensity as the world’s best milers got closer and closer to but seemingly unable to dip under 4 minutes. And there were many sceptics who argued that the 4-minute barrier represented the limit of human performance.

That was the true significance of Roger Bannister’s 3min 59.4sec. He was the first athlete to make the breakthrough. He proved that the “impossible” was possible. Scientists and optimists have celebrated since that afternoon in 1954 that we should never be too eager to place a limit to the possibilities of human capacity and the human spirit. In ‘one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’ fashion, Roger Bannister’s sub 4-minute milestone was and still remains an achievement in the field of human endeavour.

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