Sub-four legend Roger Bannister reveals he’s suffering from Parkinson’s disease
Former athlete feels the best way of dealing with the illness is to get on with things
Roger Bannister after running the first sub-four minute mile.
There was a frailty in Roger Bannister’s voice yesterday that had more than just a gentle irony to it. Because while Bannister’s typically modest admission that he’s suffering from Parkinson’s disease has naturally surprised a lot of people, for others there was actually something familiar about it.
Bannister is not the first heroic and once seemingly invincible athlete to be diagnosed with a neurological degeneration, and he certainly won’t be the last: as he told BBC Radio Oxford yesterday – in a documentary marking the 60th anniversary of his first sub-four minute mile – “I have seen, and looked after, patients with so many neurological and other disorders that I am not surprised I have acquired an illness”.
For Bannister, who celebrated his 85th birthday last March, this also means making sure the illness doesn’t get him down. His claim to international fame didn’t end at Oxford’s Iffley Road track on that evening of May 6th, 1954, as he later became equally celebrated in the medical world for his work as a neurologist.
So he understands better than anyone that while Parkinson’s disease does present some challenges, just like the sub-four-minute mile itself once was, none of them are necessarily insurmountable. He was first diagnosed three years ago, so he understands, too, that the best way of dealing with Parkinson’s disease is to get on with things.
“There’s a gentle irony to it,” he said, “in that it is a neurological disorder. And I am having trouble with walking. One of my pleasures in life, apart from running, has been walking. But intellectually, I think and believe and hope, that I am not degenerating.
“And of course what is walking anyway?
“But I am being well looked after, and I don’t intend to let it interfere with my other activities, as much as I can. And, as I said to someone, who was commiserating with me for having this illness, ‘well just consider the alternatives’. And that is the way I look at it.”
Bannister may well have had two old friends in mind when he said that. Without the help of Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway there was no way he would have run four laps in under four minutes, described at the time as the Everest of the track.
Both men were given the task of pacing Bannister, and neither of them let him down: Brasher, as planned, led for the first two laps, then Chataway took over, before, with around 300 metres to go, Bannister sped off in pursuit of history.
However, neither Brasher nor Chataway are around to share in the 60th anniversary of their great barrier-breaking run. Brasher, who later founded the London Marathon, died in 2003 after a short illness, aged 74.
Chataway, after abandoning his running for many years in favour of business and politics, returned to the Iffley Road track, aged 64, and ran a sub-six-minute mile, famously claiming his body must have absorbed 400 pounds of tobacco and 7,000 litres of wine in the 41 years since 1954. Chataway died in January, aged 82, after battling cancer for two years.
And now, beyond the gentle irony of Bannister suffering with a neurological condition, lies something more familiar. For John Walker, one of only 13 athletes to subsequently lower Bannister’s world mile record, it will certainly be familiar. In 1975, 21 years after Bannister’s 3:59.4, Walker ran exactly 10 seconds faster – clocking 3:49.4, and with that becoming the first man to run a sub-3:50 mile.
Then, in 1996, the iconic and once seemingly invincible athlete from New Zealand, admitted he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, although like Bannister, he hasn’t let that get him down. Walker, who went on to clock 135 sub-four miles in total, still runs an equestrian shop in Auckland.
Bannister’s condition will also be familiar to the three former Irish milers – two of whom also ran under four minutes, while the other one should have – who have also been recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. At least part of the gentle irony that Bannister speaks about is that distance runners are definitely not immune to it.
Still, all this may or may not be coincidental, or may not mean anything at all, because part of the problem with Parkinson’s disease is that no one knows for sure what brings it on, or why exactly the nerve cells in the brain begin to die off.
Two years ago, in an interview to mark the 50th anniversary of his sub-four-minute mile, Bannister himself spoke about the many wonders of neurology. “Where do you stop, after all, with the brain? How does it function? What are its limits? The work seems unending.”
Indeed Bannister always said he thought more about neurology than he did his running, the gentle irony in that being no one will ever forget what he did on the track.