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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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I. A PIVOT IN TIME

Now, at the end of this 20th century, we famously celebrate America as "the world's only superpower," but the fact is that in the middle of the century, when much of the rest of the earth lay in ruin, we were far more the monarch of this planet. There was no such thing as a global economy then. There was only an American economy, and what embers still glowed elsewhere after World War II did so only by the sufferance of American generosity. Oh, to be sure, something menacing lurked behind the Iron Curtain, but we, the blithe nieces and nephews of Uncle Sam, lived off the fat of the land. The U.S. in 1954 made up only 6% of the world's population of 2.7 billion, but it owned 60% of its automobiles, 58% of its telephones and similarly vast amounts of breeziness and arrogance. For the first time, we were getting fat and happy.

A young Oxford student, Roger Bannister, visiting the States in 1949, was astonished not only by Americans' enthusiasm but also by their sloth. "It seems quite impossible to walk in America," he wrote in his 1955 autobiography, adding that he "acquired a reputation for madness" by occasionally requesting to go on foot rather than ride. Somewhat later, from New Zealand, came a young beekeeper named Edmund Hillary, who was even more appalled by this blessed land. Its enchantments, he admitted, offered a "constant appeal to my baser instincts," and since Hillary perceived, correctly, that he was looking at a preview of the new global model, he concluded, "I feel a deep sadness for the future of America and the world."

Perhaps because of the war, those who had lived through it had come to expect more of humankind; mere peaceful prosperity must have seemed selfish and tawdry. Hillary, especially, wrestled with moral dilemmas. Before he had joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force during World War II, he had been a conscientious objector. The American desire to run roughshod toward success wasn't part of his makeup; in all his life, the only competition that Hillary has ever won was when, as a child, he was honored for building the best snowman. Instead, he said, he was "a reader and a dreamer" who was most comfortable alone, with nature. So, one day in January 1940, "weighted down by my mental turmoil"—to fight or not to fight?—he had journeyed from his home in Auckland down to the majestic South Island of New Zealand, to the Hermitage, a lodge at the base of Mount Cook, the highest mountain in the antipodes. There, looking up at the snow and the heights, young Hillary had an epiphany: He wanted to climb. And he did. It was, simply, "the happiest day I had ever spent."

Bannister had been too young to fight in the war, but he remembered the air-raid sirens and the deprivation. Besides, even while he grew to manhood, as the '50s wore on, England remained grim and impoverished. No wonder that, in his visit to the States, Bannister was taken aback by the self-satisfied American athletes against whom he faced off. They were so driven, so mad for victory that, it seemed to him, the American middle distance runners had lost "freshness and sparkle," and sport itself was being transformed "into a machine in which the athlete's individuality was submerged."

The mid-century was, in fact, a pivot on which sport turned, leaving men like Bannister and Hillary as something of a rear guard for the past. Some of America, though, still shared their ideal. Sport here remained an activity at which one could excel as an avocation—and without being abnormal of dimension or temperament. Average-sized people could still play football and basketball; even the heavyweight champions weighed only 185 or so. If there was one American star most cherished at this time for representing the sturdy old values, it was Dick Kazmaier of Princeton, a slight, modest Midwesterner who won the Heisman Trophy in 1951, then chose Harvard Business School over the Chicago Bears. Yes, the debate over professionalism still simmered, the purists still firm in the diminishing belief that a man should play at games only for the joy of it. Really, the values in question were not substantively different from those that Walter Camp, the father of football, had championed back in the 19th century: "You don't want your boy 'hired' by anyone. If he plays...he plays for victory, not for money; and whatever bruises he may have in the flesh, his heart is right, and he can look you in the eye, as a gentleman should."

The '50s were the last gasp of that. While it is fashionable to write off that decade as an insipid time, one long pajama party, the '50s, in sport at least, were a revolutionary age. It wasn't just that amateurism was in retreat. Everything was changing. No major league baseball franchise had moved since 1903, and the pecking order of the most influential American sports had been set in stone for at least that long: 1) baseball, 2) college football, 3) horse racing, 4) boxing. Suddenly, National Pastime franchises were flying about the country. Pro football was rising to challenge college. Sweaty basketball became respectable. Something called NASCAR was catching on, and the popular shift to watching automobiles race—instead of horses or human beings—began. Moreover, the '50s institutionalized what Jackie Robinson had wrought in '47, as black athletes flowed into sports. Television entered the arena, then television money. This magazine—weekly and national, for goodness' sake, about sports!—was launched in August '54.

It is a cherished cultural truism of the century that rock and roll changed music in America at this time; what is usually overlooked is that while sport experienced as much of a sea change as music, it did more than just switch a beat. Sport was dramatically enlarged. And its impact was upon everybody, not just the giddy teen nation.

In 1946 Roger Bannister had started medical school in Oxford, where, every lunch hour, he would fork over threepence so that he might practice his running in Paddington Park, near the hospital in which he worked. Ed Hillary left his brother behind to manage the family bee farm in New Zealand, sailed to Sydney, where he picked up a larger ship, and, sleeping in a six-berth cabin, sailed for weeks to England, there to join his parents and drive them about on holiday. He hoped he also might break away and tramp the Alps.

But if we could not quite see then what was happening—that spoil would become more about statistics than accomplishment, more about celebrities than heroes, more about gamesmanship than sportsmanship—there were still some bits of unfinished business from the olden times. Most prominent, there were left two of what were known as "barriers" or, more dramatically, "elusive barriers." The tallest mountain in the world was still unconquered by man, and the distance of ground that measured a mile had continued to resist all efforts to traverse it, on foot, in less than four minutes.

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