Up until then Bannister had continued to run recreationally. He competed in orienteering races—often against Sebastian Coe—and would jog with his children. But persistent pain in the ankle meant that history's first sub-four man was never able to run again. The crash changed Bannister's outlook as well. "We were lucky not be killed," he says. "That gave me a new lease of thought, as it were, as to how to spend the time that I had, and I decided it was most important to do research."
Bannister cut back on the time he spent in the clinic treating people with epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and Lou Gehrig's disease, and ramped up his research on a particular condition that had begun to intrigue him a few years earlier. One of the first cases Bannister saw as a doctor was a priest from a small English village who would go temporarily blind toward the top of his weekly ascent to ring the church bells. "This meant that upon exercise the blood flow to his eyes and head was being impaired," Bannister says. The man's autonomic nervous system was not triggering an increase in blood pressure to accommodate the exertion of the climb.
Bannister documented a wide array of deficiencies in such patients, usually in their 60s, across bodily functions that were normally unconsciously controlled. To study how the patients sweat, for example, Bannister built a "heat cradle," a tanning-bed-like contraption that he made using a large metal box and electric light bulbs, inside which a patient would lie. Bannister dusted the patients with quinizarin, an almost colorless powder that turns dark when touched by water, and then photographed them as the cradle heated up and they began to sweat. Any part of the body that didn't show up black in the photos was an area where the patient was not sweating, and thus pinpointed a region where the nervous system was not functioning properly.
When Bannister first began to see patients with this progressive autonomic failure, their life expectancy was two to three years. The condition is still terminal, but a better understanding of the symptoms and the degeneration of cells in the spinal cord that causes them has allowed for medications that improve patients' quality of life and have doubled the life expectancy to around six years.
"It is always sad," Bannister says of the illness, "but nothing previously could be done with these patients. And when one is able to help them and get to the bottom of symptoms that were life-restraining and puzzling to other people, including themselves, they are extremely grateful."
A half joke among physicists is that Albert Einstein received the Nobel as a consolation prize because he won it for describing the photoelectric effect, a pedestrian achievement compared with his awe-inspiring discovery of relativity. It might seem obvious that Bannister was knighted for the combination of his history-making mile and his medical contributions, except that his Sir was conferred in 1975, primarily for his service as the first chairman of the British Sports Council, where he led the Sport for All campaign to expand access to sports throughout the country.
As head of the council, Bannister felt that Britain's "pretty bad climate of rain and cold" meant that people needed indoor sports areas if they were to exercise. So he devised a creative use of the council's limited resources: He organized a grant for every other town in Britain to help build an indoor-outdoor sports center, hoping that the skipped-over towns would, in the interest of keeping pace with the Joneses, build ones of their own accord. "That did work quite well," Bannister says cheerfully. "By the time I finished there were 800 to 900 of these centers across the country."
His impact is most obvious at the Oxford University Sports Center, just two miles from his home. The center's Iffley Road track (now the Roger Bannister Running Track) was a tree-root strewn path with a dip that took runners momentarily out of sight before Bannister led its reconstruction from 1948 to '50. Six years later he would mark the cinders for eternity with his 3:59.4. Today the red synthetic track, which sits just off Bannister Close, is part of a facility that includes grass tennis courts, a pool and a bouldering wall, as well as the Café Sub-4, where athletes and guests can stop for nibbles.
When Bannister visited the facility recently, he was delighted to see a ballroom-dancing group. "There isn't a better example of 'sport for all' than competitive ballroom dancing!" he says.
Bannister has long touted mass-participation sports while repeatedly warning of the potential for professional sports to alienate the masses and to narrow the lives of top competitors, who are forced to hyperspecialize. Like Bannister, his two friends who paced the sub-four mile were true renaissance men. Sir Christopher Chataway, now 80, set the world 5,000- meter record in 1954 and later was a television newscaster, a politician, the chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority and a managing director of Orion Bank. Chris Brasher, who died in 2003, went on to win gold in the steeplechase in the '56 Games before becoming a journalist and founder of the London Marathon.