THERE IS a sort-of joke in physics that Albert Einstein's Nobel Prize was a makeup award, because he won it for his discovery of the photoelectric effect, a footnote compared to his mind-bending theory of relativity. Sir Roger Bannister, who died on March 3 at the age of 88, was the Einstein of sports.
On May 6, 1954, at the Iffley Road track in Oxford, England, Bannister ran the first sub-four-minute mile in human history. He was knighted in '75, but it was not for the historic feat of his feet, which, along with the ascent of Mount Everest a year earlier by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, helped psychologically rebuild postwar Britain. Nor was it for his neurology research, which earned him the American Academy of Neurology's lifetime achievement award. His Sir wasn't conferred for his time as master of Oxford University's Pembroke College, nor for his work with the British Sports Medicine Society, creating a sports medicine specialty for doctors. Like Einstein, Bannister could have received his country's highest honor for myriad accomplishments, but it was primarily for his leadership as the first chairman of the British Sports Council, where he spearheaded the Sport for All campaign, which spread athletic participation across Britain. He was particularly proud of new indoor facilities, he once told me, because of Britain's "pretty bad climate of rain and cold."
Even had he lived in 16th-century Florence, Bannister would have stood out as a Renaissance man. He represented, as Tom Ratcliffe, codirector of the 2016 film Bannister: Everest on the Track, put it, "a disappearing ideal." His preparation for the sub-four mile comprised interval training during lunch breaks or when he was supposed to be in obstetrics lectures. Before the race, he spent five days hiking in the Lake District and returned, he recalled in '04, "raring to run." He set the record, and then he swiftly wrote a bewilderingly eloquent book about it. "I felt like an exploded flashlight with no will to live," he wrote. Later that year, at 25, he retired from running.
After I wrote about him in 2011, Bannister kept in touch. On occasion I got an early-morning call: "Hello! It's Sir Roger! I have three things to tell you...." Always quick, wide-ranging and delightful. He told me he would not have been an elite athlete today and was concerned about how exclusionary sports had become, both to more participants and to diverse interests. He insisted he was most proud of his neurology research. But toward the end he increasingly emphasized the sub-four mile.
When I asked him about the mythology that he was told a man's legs would fail before breaking four, as if it were a magical barrier, he ribbed me. "Nobody that was credible to me ever said that," he said. "It was only journalists." But it was a magical barrier. College kids regularly break four now, just as seasonal climbers summit Everest. But Bannister's 3:59.4 will forever stand as a breakthrough that rendered normal what once felt impossible, which is the best kind of breakthrough one can make—on the track or off.