Sir Roger Bannister: I’d choose Olympic gold over breaking the four-minute mile barrier

The 83-year-old reveals how he saved the British Olympic team from disaster at the London 1948 Opening Ceremony

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You were 19 when the Games last came to London, in 1948, but you didn’t compete. Why not?

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There was a feeling at the time that if runners exposed themselves to too much competition early on in their careers, they would never reach their potential. Although that may or may not be true, I decided to save myself for the 1952 Olympics.

What did you do instead?

I got a job as the assistant to the chef de mission for the Olympics, and I actually made a small contribution to the Opening Ceremony. The teams were preparing to parade around the stadium and for some reason it became clear that there was no Union Jack for our team. There was absolute panic. The chef de mission ordered me to find a flag. I knew he had a spare one in his car. Fortunately I had a jeep with an Army sergeant as a driver. First of all we had to find the car in the car park. Then when we located it we had no key, and I had to smash the window with a brick. A policeman came over, I think to arrest me, and this sergeant had to tell him what I was doing. Next we had to rush back to the stadium. The crowd was so dense, I had to get out of the jeep and run. I don’t know how I made it, but I did.

So, four years later in 1952 you competed – what happened?

The organisers decided that instead of having a heat, then a day’s rest, then the semi-final and final, they would have all three on consecutive days. I hadn’t expected it and so I didn’t train as hard as the other European runners, especially as I was a medical student at the time. I came fourth in the 1500m and, even though I broke the British record, such was my disappointment that I weighed up whether to retire, which I would have done had I won the Olympic gold. But I decided I would go on for another two years until I qualified as a doctor.

In 1954 there would be both the European Championships and the Empire & Commonwealth Games, and I thought they would represent a respectable equivalent to the Olympics. By 1953, John Landy, the Australian, had run 4.02 in the mile, so it became clear to me that in order to be sure of beating Landy in the Empire Games I would have to be sure of beating the four-minute mark. I didn’t manage it in 1953, but in 1954 I did it.

Looking back, would you have preferred to get an Olympic gold or break the four-minute barrier?

I’d prefer the gold. To get a gold you have to win in a race in which you have to protect yourself from being boxed in and all the strategy that goes with middle-distance running. It’s the test of whether you can do it under race conditions.

Did you apply for tickets to this year’s Games?

I didn’t have to apply as there is a special process for Olympians. I received tickets for the opening ceremony! And for the 1500m final.

What do you think the limits will be for mile runners?

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In 1954, when asked the same question, I said I thought that 3.30 would be at the limit of capacity for humans with our heart and lung system. It’s at 3.43 now [set by Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj]. But whenever you can find one runner to do a time, you’ll find someone who can do it two seconds faster. It is a stretch, but I think 3.30 will be reached, and by an East African runner. They hold almost every record from the 800m up to the marathon.