His Olympic moment was supposed to happen in Helsinki two years before he broke the record, but he finished fourth in the 1,500. Had he medaled, it was said he would have retired from running. “That’s true,” Bannister said.
The stopwatch used to time his 3:59.4 that day hangs in a display case at Pembroke College at Oxford with his racing trophies. He didn’t live off memories, either, and wasn’t even knighted for his athletic accomplishments.
As the first chairman of the British Sports Council, Bannister assembled a group of chemists that developed the first test for anabolic steroids.
“I foresaw the problems in the 1970s and arranged for the group of chemists to detect the first radioimmunoassay test for anabolic steroids,” he said. “The only problem was it took a long time for the Olympic and other authorities to introduce it on a random basis. I foresaw it being necessary.”
Does he believe what he sees is real now?
“I believe it a lot more than when there were up to 30,000 East Germans competing,” he said.
Algeria’s Taoufik Makhloufi won the gold in the 1,500, turning in a time of 3:34.08. Leo Manzano of Austin had a huge kick the final 100 meters, vaulting from the middle of the pack to earn the silver medal — the first time since 1968 an American made the 1,500 podium at the Games.
It was as if Makhloufi took Bannister’s advice long ago: “The man who can drive himself further once the effort gets painful is the man who will win.”
Bannister’s daughter, Erin, was born three years after her father set the mile record. “But I grew up knowing every day what he had done for the rest of my life. He still gets asked for autographs everywhere.”
One moment in time, preserved in celluloid, made even more memorable by the announcer’s call that dragged out the suspense that day:
“Ladies and gentlemen, here is the result of event 9, the one mile: First, No. 41, R.G. Bannister, Amateur Athletic Association and formerly of Exeter and Merton Colleges, Oxford, with a time which is a new meeting and track record, and which — subject to ratification — will be a new English Native, British National, All-Comers, European, British Empire and World Record. The time was 3 . . .”
The rest of the time was never heard. The cheers were too loud for anything to be heard. Six decades later, Sir Roger Bannister still hears them.
For previous columns by Mike Wise, go to washingtonpost.com/wise.