True to his intentions, Bannister quit competitive sport before the summer was out. He ran his last mile at the Empire Games in Vancouver on Aug. 7. By then, John Landy had broken Bannister's record and was a 4-1 favorite. He led Bannister by 15 yards in the backstretch of the second lap too, but the Englishman came on to win in 3:58.8. It was a good finish for the new doctor and a good start for the new SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, which began publishing that week and made Bannister's victory its first lead story. Film of the race was on U.S. television too, watched hither and yon. If you want benchmarks, it is fair enough to say that one 20th-century era in sport ended on May 6, 1954, and another began on Aug. 7.
Bannister became a neurologist. Why not a neurological surgeon? "The interesting thing for me was deciding where the tumor was—rather than taking it out," he explains. Then, typical of the man, after his terrible automobile accident Bannister took the recovery time to "rethink," and he went back to medical research, setting up a laboratory to study the part of the brain that controls blood pressure.
He has accomplished much beyond medicine, too. He's a fine writer who has produced scores of newspaper pieces and medical articles and has edited textbooks. He also was chairman of the national Sports Council that reinvigorated all manner of athletics in Britain in the 1970s. Bannister, too, foresaw the drug problem in international sport; he helped design the urine tests that would catch scoundrels like Ben Johnson. In this regard, he holds no brief for the Olympic and track and field pooh-bahs. "It's only gradually that they've accepted the responsibility that they must clean things up," he says. "They're all so rich now with television money that they can afford to provide constant and eternal vigilance."
It is also important to Sir Roger Bannister that when the queen knighted him in 1975, it was not for what a young student did one day in one May but for a man's whole measure of work. "Running was only a small part of my life," he says. "Even now, my friends and colleagues just accept the fact that in my life, I happened to do this one thing." Broke the four-minute mile? "Well, broke the four-minute mile as a student. I thought the ideal, if you like, was: the complete man, who had a career outside of sport. Obviously, that's gone out the window."
Nevertheless, he has mellowed in his attitude about the U.S. Perhaps that was inevitable. He studied neurology at Harvard in the 1960s, and three of his four children married Americans. "I had an absorbing passion about athletics, and I was very idealistic when I first came to America," Bannister says. "I have, unfortunately, had to modify some of my views. But America was responsible for the running revolution, when the middle class became conscious of health. That caused a monumental change in attitude."
England, too, has the vision and the wherewithal. When Bannister ran on the cinders of the Iffley Road track, green meadows were everywhere, over Magdalen Bridge, behind the poplars. Now, instead, the track is synthetic, and all around are artificial-turf fields and tennis courts. They rather resemble the facilities at a state university in, say, Ohio. The students hurry by, largely unaware that history was made here, rushing to their teams or their physical-education classes, looking, all of them, so very American, with jeans and backpacks and baseball caps. It is funny. When the century started, the sun didn't set on the British Empire, but now America is the sun and the moon that rise and fall everywhere upon this earth.
Off Iffley, down Jackdaw Lane, is Bannister Close, barely a block long. The only other recognition of his feat is a small plaque, hardly noticeable, set in the new concrete grandstand, declaring that, yes, ON THIS TRACK...and so forth. Up and across the way, St. John the Evangelist still rises, and on the steeple on a bright English afternoon the flag snaps in the breeze, then suddenly goes limp, as it did that day 45 years ago, when a young man found that he could do one thing supremely well.
VI. GETTING TO THE BOTTOM
In the symmetry of life Hillary, like Bannister, endured days as horrid as his earlier moments had been splendid. Another day that same awful year as Bannister's near-fatal car accident, Hillary suffered a far worse tragedy. In Katmandu, the gateway to Everest, a small plane took off and, stupidly, someone had neglected to free the ailerons. It crashed just after takeoff, killing Hillary's wife, Louise, and their youngest daughter, Belinda. "It took me several years to recover," he says, although, even now, a quarter century on, when he talks of it he must steady himself to keep from crying. "I had always thought that I would be the one to come to grief," he goes on, "but never once—never for a moment—did I think it would be my wife or one of my children."
Not long after that crash, Hillary was supposed to accompany a group of tourists on a flyover of the Antarctic. He could not go, so his good friend Peter Mulgrew went in his stead. "Peter was a great battler," Hillary says. "He lost his feet in the Himalayas from frostbite, so he took up yachting, and even with his artificial limbs, he became a competitive yachtsman." Mulgrew's plane flew flush into a mountain.