Today it is as hard to keep up with Sir Roger Bannister's mind as it once was to keep up with his feet. With the offer of tea and biscuits out of the way, Sir Roger, 82, sits down at the table in the living room of his Oxford flat, takes up his pencil and legal pad and begins his interview.
"And what's your Christian name?" he asks, in perhaps another of his historical firsts, given that he is soliciting this information from a David Epstein of Brooklyn.
"There isn't much about [track and field] in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED anymore, is there?" Nope. (Sir Roger was SI's first Sportsman of the Year, in 1954, in honor of which he was given a replica of an ancient Greek amphora. He later covered track and field at the '56 Melbourne Olympics for the magazine.) "And do they do random drug testing between seasons in baseball?" Sort of. (When he was head of the British Sports Council, from 1971 to '74, Bannister oversaw the development of the first urine test for steroids.) "And is the penalty suspension for five years or life?" Definitely neither. "Well," he concludes, looking on the bright side after collecting further updates on BALCO and Roger Clemens, "it's difficult to believe that Usain Bolt has ever been involved in drugs. He's such a magnificent athlete.
"The subject of drugs now in a sense bores me," Bannister continues. "I just would hope that the international bodies pursue random testing to the point that athletes become clean." He lays down the pencil that has now covered a page of the legal pad with information ranging from the names of SI columnists to the length of Marion Jones's prison sentence. "So let's stop talking about that."
As it apparently is in his conversations, competitive sport has been only a fraction of Bannister's life, and something from which he moved on quickly. On May 6, 1954, on the strength of training sessions done when he was supposed to be in obstetrics and gynecology lectures as a med student at Oxford, Bannister ran history's first sub-four-minute mile. The effort left him feeling like an "exploded flashlight with no will to live," as he once put it. He retired from racing three months later, at age 25.
Bannister's retirements since then fill a formidable CV. His second retirement was from the Sports Council in '74. Then he took leadership of the Berlin-based International Council of Sport Science and Physical Education in '76, retiring in '83. He was made master of Oxford University's Pembroke College in '85, a post from which he retired in '93, when he also retired from his neurology practice. In 2008 he retired from retiring when he finished his work with the British Sports Medicine Society, having helped to create an official sports medicine specialty for British doctors.
He is many times retired but certainly not yet at the finish line. Bannister is still writing, and not just to fulfill the 10 or so autograph requests that come in the mail each week. Next to the legal pad is another document on which the pencil has left its mark, a section of a book that Bannister is revising. Chapter 36: "Management of Postural Hypotension." It's for the fifth edition of Autonomic Failure, a textbook on nervous-system disease that Bannister first published in 1982. When asked whether his best memories and greatest contributions came on or off the track, Bannister has no hesitation: "Oh, medicine," he says, repeating it for emphasis. "Medicine."
In addition to the paintings done by his wife and eldest daughter—he has four children and 14 grandchildren—his home is decorated with letters from presidents (Kennedy, Clinton) and pictures of his smiling encounters with luminaries (Winston Churchill, the Queen Mother). But Bannister's favorite ornament seems to be the glass obelisk awarded to him in 2005 for lifetime achievement by the American Academy of Neurology. "This is more important," Bannister explains, "because it's about my life as a whole and medicine, which are more important to me than whatever I did as a runner until I was age 25."
It has been 36 years, after all, since he could even jog.
In the summer of 1975, Bannister was driving back to London from a weekend at his country house in Leominster, his wife, Moyra, in the passenger seat and three children in the back when an oncoming driver, who "may or may not have been sober," Bannister says, swerved across the center line and slammed into the driver's side of his car. Bannister suffered injuries to his chest and face, and his right ankle was shattered.