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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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It is, perhaps, harder for Hillary to accept all the secular worship that has come his way. "I do not take it seriously," he says. "I have a wife who looks after me—bosses me around. I have both my children here in Auckland, my grandchildren. If someone wants to believe I'm a heroic figure, fine, but for me, I did a reasonable job at the time. I didn't get carried away then, and I never have."

He has—like Bannister—grown more forgiving of the U.S. and how it has helped shape the world in its image. "There is still too much hatred in the world—everywhere," he says, "and even though there's more awareness of what we're doing to the environment, it's still a shame what we are doing. We have a long way to go."

For years he kept up what he calls the "adventurous life"—most prominently leading a major expedition to Antarctica—but it still amazes him that Everest yet excites our imagination so. "Yes, of course there are challenges left," he says. "There was this Norwegian, for instance, a nice young man—skied across Antarctica, and believe me, that's quite a feat. He's been forgotten very quickly, though, whereas the Everest climb seems destined always to be remembered." He sighs in exasperation.

Sadly, the deaths of the inexperienced amateur climbers and their guides described in Jon Krakauer's book Into Thin Air has only heightened interest in Everest. Then, last May, the discovery of George Mallory's body, 75 years after he and his colleague, Andrew Irvine, disappeared into the mists, has only enhanced the peak's romance and mystique. Hillary minces no words on these subjects. Even before the ill-fated Into Thin Air expeditions, he had argued that it was disgraceful to let wealthy "no-hopers" pay for dangerous vanity trips up the mountain. He is even angrier—"horrified"—that genuine mountaineers took money for their unsparing photographs of Mallory's frozen bones. "He should have been left to lie in peace," Hillary says.

Yet he expresses equanimity in evaluating the possibility—which most experts think remote—that Mallory and Irvine made it to the top first. "For 45 years," Hillary says, "I've been regarded as the hero of Everest, so I really couldn't be upset now if it was someone else's turn." Then, wryly: "You know, to mountaineers, it's one thing getting to the top, but another getting back to the bottom. I'll settle for that."

VII. PRECIOUS NEW TIMES AND PLACES

Who would ever have guessed, back in the '50s, that come the millennium, interest in the mountain would far exceed that in the mile? But even though the mile was once so glamorous, today, in a metric world, it is linearly incorrect and only occasionally run. Besides, whereas once the mile was valued as a beautifully strategic race, downright theatrical, with a beginning, middle and end, now, says Craig Masback, CEO of USA Track & Field, who is himself a sub-four-minute miler, "The appeal of shorter events has increased in a society that operates in short bursts." Three minutes and 43 seconds is too long nowadays?

There is hope. Over time Bannister expects the mile record to drop to where we will have the elusive 3½-minute barrier to excite us. "The critical factor now," he says, "is racial selection—in the best possible way. If you have runners from Kenya or Morocco, whose line traces back there for thousands of years, then you are going to have runners who can deal better with oxygen deprivation—and ultimately, that determines speed."

It is, perhaps, poetic justice that just as the Asian Everest has become primarily the white man's challenge—even the rich white man's hazardous playground—the eternal mile, which was so long the property of Northern European stock (Bannister's own line is French, the Norman Banistre), now belongs to the darker peoples of Africa. Perhaps in this greater universality the mile will enjoy renewed popularity after the turn of the millennium. Someday, maybe even some boy from the U.S. will risk the effort and give us one thing in sport that not even Glenn Cunningham or Jim Ryun was able to give America in the American Century—the champion miler supreme. "It's so simple, really," Bannister says with a sigh. "You just run."

If not, well, a miss is as good as 1,500 meters. But what Bannister did on his day in May, no less than what Hillary had achieved 12 months before, can never be diminished by the history that followed. For the 20th century, these two modest men will always best represent the sportsman—the Anyman—who is bold enough to seize the main chance and make good on an improbable challenge. To do one thing supremely well.

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