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My whirlwind romance with Roger Bannister. By Joan Wheeler Bennett

Blog | May 10, 2024

Joan Wheeler Bennett, Norris McWhirter and Roger, Rome, summer 1950

Bannister’s record plunged me back into the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki.

I went out with Roger from June 1949 until September 1952. l was at Vassar College, New York, and met Roger when he captained the Oxbridge athletics team trip to Harvard and Yale. We became best friends and travelled around Europe.

In 1950, we travelled to Rome together (pictured) and went to a party at the British Embassy to celebrate an athletic event.

With the Helsinki Olympics looming. he asked me to join him in England for the preliminaries. The competitors were segregated in the Olympic Village but a few visitors slipped through the cordon – including me, escorted by Norris McWhirter.

Norris had been Roger’s bulldog, timekeeper and holder of encyclopaedic knowledge. Later he was the founder, with his twin brother, Ross, of The Guinness Book of Records. He kept the time in Oxford, when Roger broke the four-minute mile.

Norris was invariably at Roger’s side when Roger was performing, and he also looked after me whenever Roger was otherwise engaged.

Roger had pressed me to leave my job in the Gold Division of the

International Monetary Fund in Washington DC to be his companion in the lead-up to what was then the race of his life: the 1952 Olympic 1,500 metres.

He was a dedicated graduate student in neurology and expected to abandon competition on the track after winning the Olympic crown.

Joan and Roger, Rome, 1950

The weight of an expectant press was on his shoulders – a volatile mix of patriotism and more than a hint of xenophobia.

Roger did not expect to disappoint his followers. But the stress of press attention had long since forced him to go underground with his preparations – and his girlfriend.

Loyal supporters were engaged in the cover-ups. Norris was at his elbow with a car, ever ready with relevant statistics on the opposition. Harold Abrahams (the 1924 Olympic 100-metre champion in Chariots of Fire) unearthed obscure cinder tracks for practising stops and starts. With his D’Oyly Carte actress wife, Sybil, they offered a rural retreat.

E W ‘Jim’ Swanton, the cricket writer, provided a bolthole in St John’s Wood and runner Christopher Chataway’s family offered practical refuge.

Christopher Brasher, another athlete friend, came into the picture when encountered heading for London from Cambridge on foot, a hurdler in the making. It was the perfect illustration of the extreme amateurishness of the Olympic preamble 70 years ago. Still, Roger’s close acquaintance with Oxford’s chemistry labs allowed frequent testing of his lungs and muscles in private.

At a distance, professional coaches were keen to become involved but were kept at bay. No payments were involved in Roger’s training. Exceptions were made for guest appearances at American universities, with expenses only paid.

The Olympic Village in Helsinki was not only set apart from other accommodation – it was on a different planet. The density of feeling was an awkward mix of fear, hope and suppressed energy like no other except the accident-and-emergency department in a busy hospital.

At the Olympic Village, I encountered a different Roger, the optimism gone. It had been decided that not one but two heats were required for the 1,500m race, to accommodate the unexpected numbers of qualifiers.

Roger was fleet of foot and a flourishing finalist, but endurance was not his forte. He felt betrayed: this was not what he had trained for, nor was his spare body equipped for a long haul. His close supporters shared his foreboding and were thankful that he survived Heat 1 and Heat 2.

In the final, he came fifth equal – honourable in an outstanding field. But it seemed he had covered himself and his country in disappointment.

After Roger’s devastating failure to win the Olympic crown, l resumed my career at Citibank in London.

Roger was now set on the goal of the four-minute mile and cancelled our planned engagement – a hurtful and ruthless action but l knew him so well that l understood.

Of course, l could not share my knowledge with anyone else and suffered the ignominy of having supposedly turned the great man down.

I married Richard Clement Wheeler- Bennett on 8th May 1954 in the Memorial Chapel at Harvard. News of Roger’s record reached us the

night before. His great triumph was at the Iffley

Road Track, Oxford – now the Roger Bannister Running Track.

Bannister (1929-2018) runs the mile in three minutes 59.4 seconds, 6th May 1954