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Bannister and Hillary
Frank Deford
December 27, 1999
Pioneer miler Roger Bannister and Everest conqueror Edmund Hillary became, at midcentury, the last great heroes in an era of sea change in sport
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December 27, 1999

Bannister And Hillary

Pioneer miler Roger Bannister and Everest conqueror Edmund Hillary became, at midcentury, the last great heroes in an era of sea change in sport

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That somewhat mirrors the feeling he had at the time of his consummate achievement. "There was delight, yes," he says, "but also a feeling of liberation from the burden of being expected to do it." He might not have even competed after 1952 if he had won a medal at the Olympics that year. But he came up flat in the final of the 1,500, the metric mile, in Helsinki, and since he knew he would be practicing medicine by the time the next Olympics came around, he needed an alternative goal for the two serious years he would have left as a runner. "I regard the four-minute mile as a bugbear," Bannister said at the time, "but it is something that has captured the public imagination—and I suppose if it has got to be done, I would rather an Englishman do it."

He had no coach. He was too involved in his studies to run as much as he should have. He hadn't even managed a practice mile in the winter and spring of '54. Above all, he says, "there was the matter of desperation. I was about to start my residency. I wouldn't be able to properly prepare anymore. And I had no interest whatsoever in running badly."

Besides, Bannister knew that John Landy, the Australian miler, might finally best the elusive barrier once he got a couple of good warmup races and some nice weather. In England, Bannister didn't have that luxury. He decided to try for the record on May 6, in his first race of '54, at an otherwise run-of-the-mill meet. In the meantime he went off rock climbing in Scotland. It may have been, physically, the worst thing Bannister—or anyone—could do to prepare for a race. A coach today would go berserk at the thought. But it was a different time then. There was so much good whim about in those days.

Bannister figured he needed perfect conditions if he were to have any chance to do what no man had ever done. May 6, however, turned up raw and windy, with intermittent showers. So that morning in London, as Bannister went about his usual hospital rounds at St. Mary's, he understood that his chance was lost. Maybe this thing is impossible here, he thought.

III. THE BASTARD

Jan Morris, the writer, remembers the young Hillary for "moving with an incongruous grace, rather like a giraffe," but now, just turned 80, Hillary has grown a bit stout and jowly, shambling. The lantern jaw is not quite so pronounced, but the eyes that Yousuf Karsh, the photographer, said held "infinity in them" are yet clear. He wears a tiny hearing aid but says he's in fine health; he is curly-haired and ruddy. Anyway, the best part of him was always what you couldn't see: his lungs. "I'm just a big hulk, but I knew I could perform," he says. "If there were far better-looking sorts, I was stronger and faster going uphill."

It seems such a puny word to attach to Everest: uphill. But more charming still is how accidental it all was. Today the best athletes appear almost ordained. Whether or not we have lost innocence in sport, we have, for sure, lost much of the haphazard, the spontaneous—and that may be the biggest deprivation. Hillary never even saw a mountain till he was 16, never ventured up one till that visit to the Hermitage; only four years before Hillary would stand at 29,035 feet, an older New Zealand climber, George Lowe, impressed by his talent, idly inquired, "Have you ever thought about going to the Himalayas, Ed?"

No, he had not.

The vision of his people was also limited then. At mid-century, the "pink bits" scattered about the map, which every British schoolchild knew signified the Empire, were still there on the classroom Mercators, but only in hue. It was becoming the Commonwealth now. However, a new ruler of the Empire-cum-Commonwealth would be crowned on Tuesday, June 2, 1953, and as heartbroken as the British were at the death of their admirable King George VI, young Queen Elizabeth II offered the promise of a new spirit. After all, England still struggled, so dispirited and disillusioned, all the worse as Germany and Japan—the defeated monsters—were rushing ahead and as Britain's special relative, the U.S., had become this vast duchy of luxury.

"Eight, nine years on, we still couldn't get over the war," Bannister recalls. "Even then, if you left the country, you had only a 25-pound allowance. The last of the rationing didn't end till '54, you know."

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