History and myth have always had an awkward relationship. They inspire each other. They fight with each other. They challenge each other. They support each other. They sound like a married couple. They belong together. And the greatest stories as we tell our children, our family, our friends, often remind us about who we were, are and can be ourselves.
One of my favorite stories, the one about Sir Roger and the Dragon, involves great journeys and battles, chivalry and gamesmanship, trials and tribulations, fact and fiction. It is a story, a great story. It deserves to be told. It needs to be told. Here is the story, the story the way I tell it, the story of Sir Roger and the Dragon…
Roger was born in 1929 on the eve of a long darkness. The world was on the brink of chaos as the intermission between one Great War and another was ending. The promise of peace that had been fought for at the cost of millions of lives only a decade earlier was an empty one. This time, the world would march towards a far bloodier and devastating conflict but not before years of despair. Into this, a time of fear and doubt, Roger was born. The reality of his childhood was one of global economic hardship. Rationing was not only the norm it was a cold necessity for survival. When a child is born into a world like this it is not only bread and butter and tea that is in short supply. So is hope. Hope can’t be rationed though. A child can survive on an ounce of cheese and 4 ounces of bacon and a shillings worth of meat and a few candies each week. Hope isn’t divisible. There are no 1/3 rations available. Young Roger would have to find hope and guard it. Through diminished rations, and dire reports from the warfront, through the despair of the Fall of France and through the terror of the Battle of Britain, Roger would have to hold on to whatever innocence and vitality he could. This resilience or perseverance or optimism, maybe faith is a better word for what he was able to foster and save, it would be needed later in his life. He survived this time but was changed. He was hardened where he would need to be calloused and he remained unscarred where he would need to be flexible enough to dream about taking on the Impossible.
He also fell in love – with movement, with running.
Roger remembers a beach, the sand and the breeze. He remember how they feel as he walks then jogs then runs. He remembered how it felt to move with and against the Earth and how it felt to power his own machine – his body. He could make that machine move with grace and with speed. He could struggle against himself and his own and others perceived limitations. He could struggle against the walls and ceilings that the world had placed around and above him, his generation, his country. This struggle brought liberation. When he ran he was free.
He had found love. His hope had survived.
He would need both when he met the dragon.
Roger was aware that the body and the mind are partners. Without an athletic mind the body becomes dense and slow. Without an active body the mind becomes weak and uncoordinated. Roger found exercise not only on the trails and roads of England but also in his books and in his studies of medicine. It is fitting that Roger was drawn to the complexity and mystery of the human body. Roger would explore his physical capabilities in lockstep with an exploration of another uncharted territory, the brain. The more he learned the more unlocked potential he saw he (we all) contained.
He realized he could achieve the impossible because it was possible.
It would take a special person to take on this Dragon. Somewhere in the Kingdom, a Kingdom that was still healing from losing so much treasure and life, there had to be someone. That someone would need to have survived the great darkness and war with their soul intact. They would need to be someone who still dreamed when they slept at night. They would need to be someone who found strength within themselves. Someone who found strength when they looked out at their Kingdom – a Kingdom that had stood fast and survived – a Kingdom that had vowed to fight anywhere and everywhere the great darkness had tried to spread – a Kingdom that fought against impossible odds – a Kingdom that had vowed to never, never, never give up – a Kingdom that never gave up.
That Kingdom now needed someone to show that, the War over, they had healed enough to stand up. They had regained the strength to get back on the starting line. They had the will, training, the foundation to take on the impossible again. They needed someone to remind them that like them hope had indeed survived after so many hard times. The Kingdom needed a knight. A knight to take on the dragon. The dragon no one else could slay.
The dragon that Roger would face on Iffley Road on May 6, 1954.
This dragon had protected the barrier for all time. Challengers from the world over had met the great beast on the field of battle, a dirt oval. Many had come close. But, none succeeded. The dragon remained.
4:00. 4 laps. 440 yards. Perfect. Impossibly perfect. Unbreakable?
Change happens slowly. A change can happen quickly though. On that dirt oval, young Roger took on the great dragon named Impossible. Some believed it could not be done. He knew it could. It took Roger 3 minutes 59 seconds and 4 tenths of a second to defeat the Impossible.
The dragon was slain.
Barriers, like dragons, are not destroyed so others can replace them. They are destroyed so we can be free. A little over a month later a different gentlemen, John Landy, broke 4 as well. He ran even faster than Roger.
The dragon was dead. The gates were open. The Kingdom was free.
Newspaper accounts tell us that 3000 people witnessed the boy- born into the Depression-who became a teenager of the World War-who became the young medical student of a broken Kingdom-who became the great Neurologist-battle the dragon and win. But, we know that he was always running for more than those 3000. He was running for all of us and his race continues to be run every time we try to achieve greatness.
It was not until after the Sub 4 that he was given the title, Sir. When I tell the story, I twist the legend and the history. When I tell the story, Roger takes the line as Sir Roger Bannister. When I tell the story, a story that needs to be told, a great Dragon faces a great Knight.
And in the end a great Knight wins.
That part, my friends, is not legend. That is history. That is his story.
That is our story.
If you want to support, share and celebrate the sport and one of its true heroes, Sir Roger Bannister, you can help make a terrific documentary being made about him a reality. PLEASE check out this link and support the sport and the story!!!