On Saturday, Roger Bannister, the first man to run a sub four-minute mile, died at age 88.
Roger Bannister ran history’s first sub-four-minute mile on May 6, 1954, on the Iffley Road Track in Oxford, England. My own personal history began on the same day at Sisters of Charity Hospital in Buffalo.
Bannister died Saturday at the age of 88. He was my favorite athlete — and not just because he made the day I was born a red-letter day in sports history.
I had the great good fortune to visit Bannister at his home in Oxford in 2004 for a story about the 50th anniversary of his crowning achievement. He’d fielded requests from media outlets as the 50th approached and accepted callers at his home in the weeks leading up the big day. He had no press agent on hand to coordinate all of this. I simply knocked on his door at the appointed time and his wife Moyra answered. She entertained me for a few moments before the great man would be ready to receive me in the formal living room. In the course of our conversation I mentioned the coincidence of my birth date.
“Why,” she said, “how very clever of you” to be born on such a day.
Then she ushered me in to see the man who’d made time stand still. He was, at 75, genial and courtly and welcoming. Moyra introduced me by my birthday. I offered him a peek at my passport, as if some sort of proof were required. Bannister grinned and asked if my parents had told me about the four-minute mile. I answered that my father had told me all about it.
(I didn’t tell him that this sort of thing runs in the family. My father was born in Buffalo on April 15, 1912, at the approximate moment of the sinking of The Titanic. He liked to say that a whale groaned mid-Atlantic as a minnow was born on the American side of Lake Erie.)
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said there are no second acts in American lives; Bannister proved there surely are in British lives. He told me his medical career was more meaningful to him than his career as a sportsman.
“If you ask me in my life whether the neurology is more important or the sport is more important, the neurology tips the scale heavily in its favor because it is a never-ending quest,” Bannister said. “I think sport is a thing of growing up and being a student.”
Bannister patiently answered my questions, though he’d heard many of them many times before, and Moyra offered cheese sandwich wedges and tea. Bannister talked of his great disappointment at finishing fourth in the 1,500 meters at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. But he said how it was really a blessing because if had he won a medal he almost certainly would have retired from running — and someone else would have run into history.
“A bit of early experience of fame shows you that fame is shallow,” Bannister said. “And a bit of experience with reverses shows you that you can recover from them.”
We talked for an hour that I’ll never forget. Then a crew from CBS showed up. They wanted to interview Bannister at the Iffley Road Track. He agreed. I asked if I could tag along. Bannister offered me a ride with him. And on the way, as he drove, Bannister asked all sorts of questions as if he were interviewing me.
I told him at a certain point that I’d interviewed hundreds of people in my career and none had ever turned the tables in the same way. (Nor was there any reason they should have; the transactional nature of an interview simply doesn’t work that way.) Bannister laughed and said as a neurologist his job was all about asking questions of people. “Habits of a lifetime, I suppose,” he said.
Bannister asked about American politics. He asked about American journalism. And he asked about my family. I told him how C.S. Lewis, the Oxford don, had once called my father his most perceptive critic — and how my father had given the original letter to Oxford’s Bodleian Library at the library’s request.
“Welcome to Oxford,” Bannister said grandly as we drove to . “You have a family connection.”
Here are a couple of other family connections. Bannister was born on March 23, 1929; my daughter would be born on March 23 some six decades later. Bannister died on March 3, 2018; my son was born on March 3 some three decades earlier.
These are, of course, nothing more than coincidental quirks of the calendar. Still, my father often said his date of birth determined his bent toward epic things. And I often say mine destined me to my ink-stained, lucky life as a sports reporter.
Never luckier than on the sunny afternoon I got to spend with the forever master of the mile.