• Paul Rutherford


Updated: Jun 10

(A belated 're-print' of lessons from one of the greatest physical achievements of the past sixty years - by one of the most modest men. RIP Sir Roger Bannister.)

After Olympic and Paralymic over-achievement for team GB, the British public will have an embarrassment of riches to choose from for BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

This annual sports shindig has become more glitz than game, yet despite the showbiz presentation, at heart it’s a celebration of what we still need in this cynical age – heroes.

While there will be a best team award, the lion’s share of attention will be on individual achievement. Because that’s the raison d'être of a hero; individual pursuit, personal sacrifice and dedication.

Heroes are the people who do what we can’t or won’t.

Roger Bannisters breaks 4-minute mile

Flicking through a book of sporting photographs recently, I came across perhaps the archetype image of heroic athleticism: Roger Bannister breasting the tape as the first human to run a mile in under four minutes.

Like Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon, here is an individual redefining the possibilities of the human condition. And in that moment of excellence, he becomes an icon for all who follow.

Individual pursuit, sacrifice and dedication, certainly - yet there is another heroic quality that is much overlooked when we take icons as role models: humility.

Bannister has always acknowledged that his impossible run was made possible by the support of others – notably his two pacemakers. Here’s a version of events from his memoir First Four Minutes:

“I grabbed Brasher and Chataway and together we scampered round the track in a burst of spontaneous joy. We had done it – the three of us! We share a place where no man had yet ventured – secure for all time…”

‘The three of us’. That isn’t reflected in the narrative which has accompanied the photo (above) taken at an Oxford running track on 6 May 1954. Nor will it when we see the headlines for Sports Personality of the Year.

For all the individual pursuit, personal sacrifice and dedication, solo success comes in a context.

As we reach year end, about to breast the tape of our annual targets, projects and goals, and as we congratulate ourselves for all that we have achieved personally, remember…

Even the greatest heroes need pacemakers.

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