AP Was There: Roger Bannister, 30 years after his milestone

In 1984, while stationed in London for The Associated Press, I phoned Roger Bannister to request an interview for the 30th anniversary of his becoming the first man to run a mile in under 4 minutes. His initial response was: ”Is there still any interest in this?”

One has only to look at the worldwide reaction to his death at 88 to grasp what an understatement that was. And the interview remains one of the most enjoyable I ever had.

Sitting in the garden of the Bannisters’ summer home in southern England on a sparkling May morning, the great man was in reflective mood. I started by asking him the help-me-I’m-an-idiot question: What makes the mile so special? He thought about that for a few seconds, and replied, ”A mathematical accident which nonetheless offers a kind of perfection which happens only in sport.”

Then we moved to the historical setting. Back in 1954, Britain was snapping out of its post-World War II depression. A man from New Zealand, its former colony, had become the first climber to scale Everest. Elizabeth had just been crowned queen. The mood was one of hope, for people looking for sanity in the unimportant, Bannister said, ”because sport is, essentially, unimportant.”

It took a while for this very gracious and unassuming man to get to his own achievement. I felt he’d rather talk about his real job – neurology; or his work developing sporting opportunities for young people. He recalled being told he wasn’t built for mile-running, and of flopping at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, which he took as a lucky break because had he won a gold medal, he’d have given up competitive sports and his mile-busting dream.

But he had a mysterious ability to summon a burst of speed late in a race, and believed he could break four minutes. So back he went to Oxford, and to the Iffley Road track.

”It was a bad day, windy and rainy, and we knew that if we tried to break the record and failed we would all be disappointed and might be too exhausted to try again,” he told me.

”On the other hand, if I waited any longer I might be run over by a bus, or pull a muscle … ”

Toward evening, as the wind dropped, he told his pacesetters: ”OK, it’s near enough. We must do it.”

And he did it, becoming an instant worldwide sensation. He went to the United States and was lionized. I have a childhood memory of my father taking me to a cinema in pre-television South Africa, our place of birth, to see a short film of the race. Everybody, it seemed, wanted to see this lanky Englishman who rode a chariot of fire.