Among the stories in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S debut issue, which finally came out the week of Aug. 9, was a vacation guide to trout fishing that President Eisenhower reportedly enjoyed. Also a color foldout of baseball cards, which the magazine identified as all the rage. Plus, mainly, a giant justification for the publication of a weekly sports magazine. THE GOLDEN AGE IS NOW, the editors declared in a headline.
That claim appeared to be aimed more at advertisers than readers, not many of whom would have confused the glory of Dempsey's rule in the '20s with the new popularity of bowling. The magazine nevertheless believed that the sheer number of hunters (15 million, it calculated) and boaters (five million families) was case enough for immediate coverage of the leisure class, a few of whom would be likely to buy fishing tackle or an Evinrude (if advertisers would just get on board too).
It was clear that SPORTS ILLUSTRATED was not yet certain which sports needed to be illustrated, or could attract advertisers, and wouldn't settle on a formula for some time. Spectator sports were judged worthy of little more than "hemorrhoid ads," according to managing editor Sid James. Through the rest of 1954, so that the magazine might skew more upscale than that, it published only six articles on basketball but 14 on bowling. It published 17 articles on clothing (but, oddly, none on bowling clothing). It published seven on dogs, including information on buying a puppy. Later that year there was advice on taking a safari.
There were stories on athletes, too, and coverage of games, though in lesser proportion to, say, bowling, so that the magazine seemed to want to be, as it said in the publisher's letter, "all things to all men." It was uneven, overwhelming in its variety and, for all that, hugely popular. The magazine disappeared from newsstands, and subscription requests rolled in from a grateful audience, which hadn't realized what it had been missing. Wrote Lord Beaverbrook, one of Henry Luce's friends, who was as baffled by the sports smorgasbord as he was pleased, "For 25 cents there is too much value."
In that first issue, as well, was deadline coverage of a foot race in Canada. It was hardly obscure—one of the milers, England's Roger Bannister, had broken the four-minute mark earlier in the year, and he was matched with rival John Landy of Australia—and it was thought intriguing enough to this nation of hunters and bowlers that television would broadcast it that Saturday afternoon. But it could hardly have seemed a galvanizing event at the time, not to a readership so fragmented that it was as likely to be canoeing that day as watching two foreigners huffing and puffing in Vancouver.
Yet it was not accidental that SI, as it was called even then in editorial shorthand, decided to send its star writer, Paul O'Neil, along with its top photographer, Mark Kauffman, to Vancouver for its very first issue. As much as the magazine blustered about the "greatest sports era in human history," meaning all those proud new owners of croquet sets, it also recognized, deep down, that its fate would more probably hinge on this ambitious population's appetite for achievement.
Dr. Roger Gilbert Bannister, as he would be formally introduced in the article, was one of those few remaining examples of amateurism, whereby a person might play at something while training toward a real and far more justifiable life beyond sports. In Bannister's case it could hardly have been more justifiable; he was about to begin his residency toward a career as a neurologist. The amateur ideal may have been losing its foothold—it would eventually be driven into the quadrennial ghetto of Olympic sports, dwarfed entirely by a new age of professionalism—but there was still an appeal in its quaint insistence on athletic purity.
Anybody remember Walter Camp, father of football? "You don't want your boy 'hired' by anyone," the 19th-century coach said. "If he plays...he plays for victory, not for money...and he can look you in the eye as a gentleman should." These values were fast eroding, now that your boy could be hired for newly fantastic wages, but there still was an idea, however vestigial, that sports ought to be played for the joy of it—that was enough.
Bannister was clearly of this sort, who in addition to running for fun—mixing his training with his medical studies—would fulfill national obligation as well. Following the 1952 Olympics, in which he failed to win the metric mile in Helsinki, his first thought was to quit his play altogether. But he knew the four-minute mile loomed and that he still bore some responsibility toward his country. "I suppose if it has got to be done," he said, "I would rather an Englishman do it."
He did do it, ahead of Landy, who was nipping at the storied mark down in Australia. On May 6, in Oxford, Bannister broke the tape at 3:59.4. Six weeks later, racing in Finland, Landy ran the mile in 3:58, bringing them both to Vancouver, where their duel was billed, with a promoter's characteristic dismissal of 46 years of future, The Mile of the Century.