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Twin Tracks

the Autobiography

by Roger Bannister

(London Times)

For a man who took less than four minutes to become famous, Sir Roger Bannister has been remarkably patient in delivering his autobiography. Fast time, slow tome, the athlete-cum-neurologist has finally recorded a life that is an intriguing mixture of brain and brawn.

The running comes first and there is a sense that he wants it over and done with. Autonomic disorders, he says, have represented 30 years of enjoyable work rather 'eight short years of my running life'. Alas, his lucid telling of how he became the first man to break the four-minute mile barrier is the most dramatic section of this two tone book. Unjust as it may be, sentences such as 'the dual parasympathetic-sympathetic systems innervate every organ of the body' cannot compare with recollections of a windy day at Iffley Road.

It was a race against time and an Australian named John Landy. After the disappointment of the 1952 Olympic Games, when Bannister and his two friends, Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway, were pilloried, attention turned to the fabled mark. Landy had come close, running under 4 minutes 3 seconds on six occasions, and Bannister waited nervously on his results. He set the date for his own challenge - May 6, 1954 at an athletics meet at Oxford - but the wind made him consider postponement. Then his coach William Flew, described as a 'Viennese Rex Harrison', waded in. He reminded Bannister that Landy was soon to race again in Europe. 'If you pass it up today, you may never forgive yourself for the rest of your life,' Stampfl said. The subsequent mile is a story well told. A month later Landy ran even faster but became only a sporting footnote. Two months later they met at the Empire Games in Vancouver, and Bannister won. To Landy's credit he did not mention the cut foot he suffered when treading on a photographer's discarded flashbulb the night before they raced; to Bannister's credit, there is no ghost-written indulgence in hyperbole, no mention that others dubbed the duel 'The Miracle Mile'.

The running stops before the half way mark of Twin Tracks, whereupon Bannister takes us through his varied roles as head of the Sports Council, a distinguished neurologist and Master of Pembroke College, Oxford.

This is drier, if worthy, material but is coloured by a healthy smattering of trenchant views and eye-opening anecdotes. Hence, we learn that by the time he retired as chairman of the Sports Council in 1974 there were 400 multi-purpose sports centres in the planning stage, as opposed to the four that he inherited, and that Harold Abrahams, the Chariots of Fire hero, threatened to sue him for defamation. Elsewhere, he talks of the 'destructive neglect which lets schools sell playing fields' before recalling the meeting in which he convinced the Jimmy Carter administration to forget about Britain when it came to the 1980 Olympic boycott of Moscow.

The picture emerging of Bannister is of an erudite pragmatist. The NHS is not a business and cannot be run as one. The middle classes reap the benefits of social improvements because the poor have more inhibitions. Oxford has so many students from independent schools because it refuses to sacrifice its standards on the altar of social engineering. Sometimes he sounds of that post-Waugh, postwar age when everything was black and white, but he still exercises the grey matter and the book ends with a couple of fascinating chapters on the modern Olympics and the future of sport. Nobody can accuse this octogenarian of being behind the times when he criticises the price tag of staging the Olympics or President Putin for fulminating against homosexuals.

Intriguingly, given his role in breaching a fabled sporting barrier, he ends with a prediction about another. Somebody, possibly Mo Farah, will run a marathon in less than two hours by the time of the 2016 Olympics, he says. Many consider this an outlandish claim but Bannister believes it possible.

Yet if science has ruled his head, the romance of running is at the heart of this very readable story. For many he will remain in the athletic amber of 1954, but there is something restorative for those jaded by the cynicism of modern sport when the surgical mask slips and Bannister hails Usain Bolt as 'a celebration of humanity itself'.

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