Roger Federer is returning to tennis competition this week at Indian Wells, California. Inevitably, his presence will lead to commentaries about his fabulous career, his record return to the number one ranking at age 36 and his unequalled 20 Grand Slam titles. His charm and grace – the perfect Swiss gentleman – only add to his unique athletic accomplishments. For obvious reasons, philanthropy and fatherhood included, Roger is universally admired. For many, he is considered a hero.
But there are other types of athletes to be considered within the rubric of hero. Sir Roger Bannister died on March 3 at eighty-eight. His athletic accomplishment was fleeting; four laps around the cinder track at Iffley Road in Oxford, England. Four laps that reverberated well beyond the University of Oxford.
On May 6, 1954, Bannister broke the 4-minute barrier for the mile. 3:59:40 was his time, just 20 hundredths of a second under what had long been considered impossible. He broke a psychological wall that had stood for decades. The record lasted only six weeks; John Landy ran 3:58:00 six weeks later. (The current record is 3:43:13. Today, outstanding high-school runners can run under 4 minutes.)
At that time, Bannister was a twenty-five-year-old medical student at the oldest university in the English-speaking world. He was a true student/athlete; running was his hobby. He often trained during lunch breaks. He went hiking with friends in the Lake District of Scotland for five days just weeks before that fateful day. No million-dollar Nike contracts; no grabbing the Rolex watch for the photographers before lifting the winning trophy; no one-and-done year at a university before signing mega-contracts to play in the National Basketball Association; no special school for up and coming athletes or studies by email; no trips to Disney for the Super Bowl MVP; no tickertape parades down Main Street or trips to the White House. Bannister was a serious student; he was a true amateur.
While reporters pepper Federer with questions about what he will do when he retires - he shies from direct answers because he still loves to play - Bannister retired from competition in 1954. In the same year he broke the barrier, he began devoting his life to medicine. He was a practicing neurologist for over forty years with an impressive list of publications; he was awarded the American Academy of Neurology lifetime achievement award. Bannister became Sir Roger for his leadership as the first chairman of the British Sports Council where he worked for increased sports participation throughout Britain.
Roger Bannister came from a different mould and a different era. His rewards came from his medical practice and philanthropic work, not from commercial contracts or public relations appearances. For years, runners had tried to run under 4 minutes, just as runners are now trying to break two-hours for the marathon. (In 2018, it is hard to imagine someone averaging 4:36 minutes per mile for 26.2 miles to finish a marathon in 2:00:55. But that is similar to the psychological Bannister faced in 1954.)
I have sat at Center Court at Wimbledon. Every year I practice my victory speech after being given the trophy. I empathize with the champion. I have also walked the cinder track at Iffley Road. I have tried to imagine what Bannister must have felt as he lunged across the finish line in exhaustion falling into the arms of his supporters. I can never empathize with that athletic achievement. But, I have also sat in classes at Oxford; I have imagined what kind of rigorous studies Bannister accomplished to get his degree. That I can empathize with.
Roger Federer is rightfully considered a hero. He deserves enormous praise. Roger Bannister is a different kind of hero. The adulation he received during his lifetime and marking his passing reflect an ideal that is, sadly, probably gone. Roger Bannister broke an athletic barrier; his example as a student/athlete now seems a barrier as well. And that barrier will take more than four faster laps around a cinder track to break.