Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Bannister principle

 There are so many things we take for granted nowadays; cell phones, ipads, even cars where the headlights come on automatically when the light dims sufficiently. In sport, the story is similar. 

For instance, covering 100 metres in under 10 seconds is now a basic demand for a top-line sprinter. Gone are the days when a sub-ten clocking was a thing of wonder, like when American Jim Hines won the gold medal at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics in 9.95. 

In London 2012, Hines would not have got on the podium because of Usain Bolt (9.63), Yohan Blake (9.75), and Justin Gatlin (9.79). In fact, Hines would have been seventh in that race, also finishing behind Tyson Gay (9.80), Ryan Bailey (9.88) and Churandy Martina (9.94). Trinidad and Tobago’s Richard Thompson (9.98) and the injured Asafa Powell would have been the only men he would have beaten. 

Had Hines been running in these times of course, his time might have been significantly faster. Or maybe not, who is to say? The point, is however, that all these present-day accomplishments were made possible by the ones who made that first breakthrough, like Hines in ‘68.

I had started down this road since the weekend, when I read Sir Roger Bannister’s recollection of his breaking the four-minute barrier in the mile back in May, 1954, Yesterday, in fact, was the 60th anniversary of that feat.  Bannister is now 85 years-old and battling Parkinson’s disease but has survived his friends Chris Brasher—founder of the London Marathon—and Chris Chataway who were the pace-makers 60 years ago when Bannister clocked three minutes, 59.4 seconds in a race in Oxford. Even with a successful career in medicine, it is that sub-four minute run with which the Bannister name has become synonymous. 

The man himself did not even consider that run to be his athletics career highlight. That he reserved for his victory over Australian rival John Landy a few months after breaking the record. But that 1954 run remains a significant landmark in the sport’s history. It definitely broke down a mental barrier.

As insurmountable as breaking four minutes in the mile seemed at the time, Bannister’s example was quickly copied. His record lasted just 46 days before Landy broke it. And since then, 12 other men, including Sebastien Coe, Steve Ovett and current record-holder Noureddine Morceli (3:43.13) have broken the record. Many others have also run below four minutes. It just took one man to show what was possible. However, what did it take for Bannister to make that breakthrough?

Hear him: “I, as a medical student, knew there wasn’t a brick wall. If you could run it in four minutes and 2.2 seconds, then you would find somebody else somewhere who trained a little better, had better conditions on the day, was able to use the pace judgment better, and they could do it. That was the frame of mind in which I approached it.” 

So, if I read him right, Sir Roger did not take no for an answer. Instead, with his scientific way of thinking, he assessed, step by step, what would be required to run under four minutes.

In describing the final 300 yards of his run for the ages, he said: “I felt at that moment that it was my chance to do one thing supremely well...” So having a good sense of occasion also helps. Recognising quickly when an opportunity presents itself is also an aid to achieving big things. 

The men currently trying to race out of Bolt’s shadow in the 100 metres will have to be patient and keep an extra sharp lookout for their chance, because getting close to his 9.58—legally—is going to require a number of things coming together at the right time. And the way he is talking recently, 9.58 may not remain the standard to beat for another 12 months if he has his way.

“Torpedo” Thompson is a long, long, way off from 9.58. But there are several other barriers the T&T sprinter would be looking to break through before he can contemplate such a time. 

Relay medals nothwithstanding, the last six years since his silver medal in the Beijing Olympic final in 2008, have not produced the kind of career advancement he no doubt would have anticipated.

To some extent, injury has played a part, notably last year when Thompson was plagued by a hip problem. But since Beijng, he has not produced the regular sub-ten running now expected from top-class 100m men. For him, that is a barrier of sorts, one to which the Bannister approach can be applied: assess the problem, work out a strategy to deal with it and be primed to seize the opportunity when it arrives. 

Perhaps early season showings, including his 10.10 run at the Twilight Games—his best 100m effort in two years—can be a platform to rebuild his career. 

Josanne Lucas, world championships 400 hurdles bronze medallist is in a similar position. Since that landmark run in Berlin, 2009, Lucas has endured what must have been a private hell coming to terms with serious injury. She had become one of track and field’s forgotten women. I imagine that there must have been many moments when she must have wondered whether she would ever get to vault real hurdles again. The physical and mental ones seemed to be getting higher and higher as time passed. 

However, happily, she is back on the track and actually winning again. One can only hope that her body holds up. But already, Lucas’ return to the track is a positive tale; a lesson in courage and determination. 

Another endorsement of the Bannister principle.