In his book The Four-Minute Mile, which Bannister churned out in six weeks shortly after his retirement from racing, he writes that "the Greek ideal was that sport should be a preparation for life in general," and that increasing professionalization and corruption in concert with burgeoning emphasis on individual victory led to the decay of the ancient Olympics.
Though much of what Bannister warned of has come to pass, he is quick to find a golden lining. He is visibly excited by talk of the 2012 London Olympics, and not only because Britain surely will reap more than the single gold, in equestrian show-jumping, it took at the 1952 Helsinki Games, when Bannister finished fourth in the 1,500 meters. "Two hundred thousand people have volunteered to act as aides and drivers," he says. "It will involve the country as a whole, and it is inevitable that young people will be inspired."
And what about the fact that the current level of professionalization means that were Bannister competing in 2011 he could not have balanced medical school with Olympian performances? "I accept the fact that were I running today, I wouldn't be breaking world records," Bannister says. "I just happened to be there at a crucial time." A time when his mile and Sir Edmund Hillary's 1953 ascent of Mount Everest were part of the spiritual rebuilding of postwar Britain.
But were Bannister in his prime now, mightn't he at least have considered putting off medicine for a few years to make a go as a pro runner? "No," he says with a smile. "It's a part of life. It's not really life as a whole, is it?"