POSTED: March 9th 2018

JOHN GOODBODY: Does the death of Roger Bannister mark the passing of the rounded Olympian?

THE JOHN GOODBODY COLUMN / An authoritative and exclusive series from Sports Features Communications

(SFC) Sir Roger Bannister was best-known as becoming the first man to run a mile in under four minutes. However, he always regarded his scientific work as a neurologist as being of greater importance.

Amid all the eulogies and obituaries that his recent death generated, one constant theme was present. Bannister represented amateurism in its supreme form, someone, who regarded sport as part of his person, but not all of it.

Together with his great friends, Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher, he carefully planned and trained for his famous feat on May 6, 1954, when he was qualifying as a medical student. And they like him had many athletics successes -Chataway in October 1954 setting a world 5000 metres record in defeating the great Ukrainian Vladimir Kuts while Brasher won the 1956 Olympic steeplechase title.

And both, like Bannister, went on to impressive careers, Chataway as television presenter, politician and businessman and Brasher working in general feature production for television, journalism and founding the London Marathon.

One reason for their athletic success was that they partially overcame their small volume of training by making certain that the sessions that they had were extremely intense. Although Bannister was unable to run properly after being injured in a car accident in 1975, both Chataway and Brasher continued exercising.

After their serious competitive careers were finished, I ran with (or rather behind) both of them. And what always struck me was the depth of their focussed determination. Chataway was recording half marathons just over one hour 30 minutes when he was over 70 years-old, while I had one session with Brasher in Dusseldorf in 1977, when he gave me a start for a series of intervals but came pounding past me each time. Nothing was going to stop him, on or off the track.

With the ever-increasing demands on modern Olympians, there is a temptation to think that all an athlete in any sport can do is to compete, train, travel, eat and rest. In some sports, such as football or tennis, there is the constant grind of competition, involving long hours of travelling, waiting and performing. This certainly makes it difficult for studying for a future career outside of sport.

But is still possible and in many other sports, when there is admittedly daily training but fewer competitions, it is certainly possible. In just over two weeks' time, the Oxford v. Cambridge Boat Races take place in London. The oarsmen and women will have trained at least four hours a day (plus travelling to sessions), while taking part in some of the most academically-demanding courses in the world, an experience that is also commonplace in rowing programmes at some U.S. universities.

In many sports, there is simply a limit to the amount of physical exercise the body can take in 24 hours and, after allowing at least eight hours for sleep, there remains time for study to prepare one for life after one's competitive career.

  What many people, who combine the two, have found out is that they have benefitted from having mental stimulation so that they are not just sitting around for the next training session to come up. Instead, they are stimulated by the freshness of a separate experience.

Last week-end, Britain's Laura Muir won two middle-distance medals at the World Indoor Athletics Championships, while studying up to 80 hours a week for her veterinary exams this summer. She even brought homework to the meet.

She said of Bannister's death: "He has been a great role model for me not only in athletics and medicine but by the fact he combined the two as well."

Perhaps, even in this day and age, we have yet to see the last of the all-rounded Olympian. I hope not.

** JOHN GOODBODY covered the 2016 Olympics for The Sunday Times, his 13th successive Summer Games and is the author of the audio book A History of the Olympics, read by Barry Davies, the BBC commentator. He was Sports News Correspondent of The Times 1986-2007, for whom he received journalistic awards in all three decades on the paper, including Sports Reporter of The Year in 2001.  

****The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sports Features Communications.

Keywords · John Goodbody · Olympics

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