Thursday, May 1, 2014

Vol. 4 No. 34 Bannister's Early Career

Roger Bannister's 60th anniversary of running the first four minute mile is rapidly approaching (May 6, 2014), so it is more than appropriate that some of our space is devoted to that monumental event.    It is also good news to announce that Jeremy Mosher and Tom Ratcliffe's attempt to raise funding to put finishing touches their documentary "Bannister, Everest on the Track"    was a success.

Shortly after mentioning Jeremy and Tom's film on this blog  (Vol. 4 No. 23), I was fortunate enough to find a copy of Sir Roger's biography "First Four Minutes"  Putnam, London, October 1955 the same year of his historic race.  My copy is the second edition, although it was printed in the same month October, 1955 as the first edition, evidencing the unexpected popularity of the book.   I'm a slow reader so I haven't even made it to Bannister's unsuccessful Olympic 1500 meters in 1952, when he was the consensus favorite of the British press.     I would like to share a few ideas and quotes from those early days of his career just after World War II that I think are revealing and some others that are astute and still appropriate in today's world of college track and field.  Bannister had made several trips to the US to compete on the former colony's soil.  One was a victory in the Ben Franklin Mile in the Penn Relays 1951 in  4:08, and the other visit was to compete in a series of Oxford-Cambridge meets against the Ivy League schools in the East a stay that lasted two months.  They ran at Princeton, Yale, and Harvard.  He spent time in America with friends and some family members living here and formed some interesting opinions about his American cousins.
Winning the Ben Franklin Mile at Penn Relays 1951
The most intriguing bit of information in the first half of the book was the role Bannister played in his undergraduate years at Exeter College of the Oxford University.  Sport seems to have been a huge part of the undergraduate life at the college, and very little is ever mentioned of study.  I later discovered that the word 'study'  is not a term he uses,  instead it is reference to 'work' that means study.  Still there is very little mention of 'work' in his text.    Teams were self managed by the athletes and Bannister rose quickly to a position of leadership against his will or intention, first as secretary of the athletics club then president.  Training was sporadic by today's terms, meets were arranged by the club,  travel expenses seemed to be allocated as needed from an unnamed source.  There may have been a faculty or administrative advisor, but there was little mention of coaching having an effect  on Bannister.  He felt that the coach Bill Thomas, operated on intuition, and Bannister wanted reasoning.   Some trips were quite rowdy, resulting in undergrad behavior that would make headlines today for wanton theft and property destruction that was mitigated by monies being paid out of club funds for damage done.  Names were taken but never a charge was leveled on an Oxford undergrad.    Bannister doesn't claim to be part of the misbehavior, but he was certainly privy to it.   Actually he seemed to be somewhat withdrawn and shy.   I must confess that I have sometimes wished that Chris Chataway had been the first sub four runner, as he had a much more interesting and colorful personality and was certainly willing to kick up his heels in public over the years.    Nevertheless Bannister was more the cold calculator of what it would take to achieve his goals.

From 1948 he was one of the top three or four  milers in England running about 4:11.   And he might have made the British Olympic team had he been a bit more confident and vociferous in self promotion.  He felt he was too young and not ready to compete at that level in 1948, and was made an aid to the British track team's manager.    How many youngsters today would be that introspective?

Another interesting proof of Bannister's ability to see the future and make good decisions lies in the development of the Iffley Road track where he would set his sub four record.   When he became president of the athletics club, the track where they practiced was built around a soccer pitch.  The rules of soccer field dimensions were such that a track around a full sized soccer field would have to be a third of a mile to accomodate the soccer field.  Bannister was able to convince the soccer team as well as the university to reduce the size of the field in order to surround it with a 440 yard track.   He described the old track as somewhat undulating to the point that it dipped down on the backstretch and runners literally disappeared from view to spectators, then reappeared going into the second turn.  It's not clear whether the old track was turf or cinders. But one picture seems to convey that it was cinder.    And even more unique, at Oxford they ran practiced and raced clockwise instead of counterclockwise which everyone does today.  A colonial like myself has to ask, how they could be so backward at such a prestigious university?  It betrays my sense of the word 'tradition'.    They'd been running that direction at Oxford for over 100 years.  A mere fraction of time in English history.

Cross country was run at about 7 1/2 miles.  Bannister discusses his use of gamesmanship in talking to Cambridge runners at critical parts of the race and seeing them dropping back, discouraged.  In the middle of the cross country season, they dropped everything and went to two weeks of relay racing against Cambridge athletes.  Then they went back to cross country.   Bannister picked up on fartlek training after getting access to Gunder Hagg's book on training, and he used it regularly from 1950.  He competed  on the international scene in Europe and mentions that his British teammates preferred to avoid the Americans in many meets as they were just too competitive.  One of his colleagues retired on the spot after seeing Dick Attlesley run 13.5 seconds as Bannister's teammate was on the last hurdle in a meet in Northern Finland.   In the 48 Olympics he cheered for the Jamaicans to win some of the sprints and  relays, so that he could at least hear God Save the King played.  In those days the colonies and Great Britain all had the same anthem.

Here are a few lines directly from the book.

"Athletes are sometimes hard to restrain.  In November 1947, after winning the relays at Cambridge, our team became merry, if not unruly.  Our President was not there to keep control. He was late for the coach (bus) which was to take us back to Oxford, and the Secretary was in Oxford taking exams.  This left me as the only one who had any official status, but I was too young to restrain anyone."

"I feel very relieved on the whole that I did not earn selection for the 1948 Olympics."

"I was appointed assistant to the Commandant of the British team, Col. E.A. Hunter, O.B.E.  My duties ranged from delivering letters to conducting distinguished visitors round the Olympic village at Uxbridge."

"It was apparent that the times which would win mile and 3-mile titles at the White City were not fast enough to win races against international class athletes.  New targets had to be set and more vigorous training programmes prepared.  This was one of the lessons which I learned as a spectator at Wembley (the Olympics)."

On Americans

"We do not see Americans in Europe at their best.  Sometimes they irritate us by an over-assertiveness brought out perhaps by their sense of strangeness when confronted with traditions they themselves lack."


"I was continually startled by the Americans' alertness and interest in life.  Apathy is less common than in England; there it is no crime to be enthusiastic.  I was continually being jolted out of my complacency by an apt remark from someone I thought half asleep.  In sport Americans suddenly spring to life and beat their opponents with an off-hand smile."

Racing against the Ivy League (1949)

"On 11th June at Princeton, under the watchful eye of Jack Lovelock, I ran against Ron Wittreich, the Princeton captain.  My time was 4 min. 11.1 sec., the second fastest mile in America that year until then.  Wooderson had done 4 min. 12.7 sec. in 1935 at the same age of 20, so I was keeping pace with his schedule.  And, because I was already looking well ahead, I was even more pleased to find that I had reached my peak of fitness as I had planned-a peak which I felt I could now time almost to a day."

On Princeton

"We had never before  seen such facilities for sport.  The athlete did not have to think, or do anything for himself--he just provided a willing , obedient body, which his university clothed in athletic dress.  He had only to follow his coach's instructions.  Just in case he broke down under the strain the university had four whole-time psychiatrists to help undergraduates with their problems"

On Harvard

"....their Finnish coach, kindly white-haired Jaako Mikkola, was delighted to met athletes with the European approach.  he spent almost as much time coaching us as his own team.  He seemed lost in the American drive for results, which , even at Harvard, turned sport into a machine in which the athlete's individuality was submerged.  Jaako took away my spikes on the morning of the race, grinding them as sharp as needle points.  He also rubbed graphite into the soles of the shoes so that none of the cinders would stick.  Afterwards I always did this before an important race or record attempt."

On Yale

"George Wade of Yale, my rival in the Yale-Harvard match, was one of the best American milers of that time.  (George Wade? ed.)  ....... I won the race on 20th  June 1949 in 4 min. 11.9 sec.  I might not have defeated Wade if he had not flown to Los Angeles the previous week for the American championships--perhaps he had not completely recovered.  After another year at Yale he returned to his home in the Far West where he intended to marry and settle down.  This was a severe loss to American sport.    His was the attitude of many American athletes.  The college system seemed to have destroyed much of the pleasure he probably found in his earlier running.  During his four years at Yale he had been rushed around the States with his college team, to compete in outdoor and indoor track meets.  Sprinters may thrive on his treatment but it is more than most middle distance runners can stand.  It destroys the freshness and sparkle which are so essential."

On Long Island

"The insecurity I sensed in so many people I met transferred itself to me.  In need of a rest I sought peace on Long Island, but found instead a greater unreality--a struggle tolive in an endless round of pleasure."  (Wonder if he had read "The Great Gatsby"?)

I'll leave you here, perhaps bored , perhaps wanting to read some of this on your own.  We're only to 1950.




Charlie Warner  Vancouver Sun with his
iconic photo of the 1954 Empire Games Mile in Vancouver
From Pete Brown:
I found two results for Wade of Yale in the 1948 NCAA T&F Guide which is in my library:

>IC4A at Triborough Stadium, NYC on May 29: 5th in mile; won by Karver of Penn St in 4:17.5 (only winning time given; note that on the same day at the PCC championships in Coliseum my to be 9th grade typing teacher Roland Sink of USC won the mile in 4:12.6 and went on to make the Olympic team)
>Heptagonal at West Point on May 15th: 3rd in mile; won by Witterich of Princeton 4:23.3

Wade did not do well in cross country. The only meet I can find him in is the IC4A at Van Cortland Park on Nov 6th and he got 28th and was Yale’s 5th finisher. It was won by Waterman of Dartmouth. My future history teacher Mack of Mich State was a top finisher in all the big cross meets.

From Jeremy Mosher:

Wonderful stuff, George. I especially enjoy the inclusion of the oft under-reported fact that Bannister was responsible for making Iffley Road a quality venue; one could say Sir Roger paved the way for his own success!

I believe, the initial contractor hired for leveling and laying the new track actually went bankrupt partway through the project, so Bannister had to deal with that tangle in order to get the track finished. If my memory serves, he was just a second-year student at the time, which would have made him maybe 20 years of age while managing all this, on top of studies and training. Clearly he is and was a remarkable individual!
Jeremy Mosher


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