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Sir Roger Bannister
August 13, 1979
The man who achieved perhaps the most notable record of the century reflects on milers who followed him, on the uses and abuses of sport and on the human spirit
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August 13, 1979

Beyond The Barrier

The man who achieved perhaps the most notable record of the century reflects on milers who followed him, on the uses and abuses of sport and on the human spirit

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So far this has been a cheerful view of man's relentless striving after excellence, his international cooperation, his inventive technical genius in elevating further what is, in essence, play, within complex and agreed rules. But there is a darker, less promising side. Progress that brings the use of medical science to aid the injured athlete or advise the marathon runner on diet and training also brings knowledge of drugs that extend unfairly and dangerously the limits of performance, like evils released from a Pandora's box. Some athletes will pay almost any price for success. Harold Connolly, the Olympic hammer champion, testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee that he had taken anabolic steroids and regretted having run the risk of developing medical problems that steroids can cause. These include impotence and liver damage. Anabolic steroids are a blight on sport. They turned the 17-stone heavyweights of the 1950s into the 22-stone superheavyweights of the 1970s, involving a grotesque distortion of the human frame. While I was chairman of Britain's Sports Council, I was fortunate enough to have the chance to launch a counterattack on this abuse. Some of our best chemists developed antibodies to detect the known synthetic male hormone preparations. Tests were applied by the international governing bodies; more than a dozen offenders have already been suspended. Despite the protests of those who have been disqualified, I am satisfied that, properly conducted, the testing is foolproof. I rate these scientific tests highly, and I feel that athletes must not be duped into forfeiting their own healthy future by being persuaded to pay such a desperate price for fame.

There is almost no branch of sport in which the suspicion of drugs has not been raised, most recently among young female gymnasts; here, drugs may delay puberty and so produce the "elfin" type of physique so suited to this attractive sport. The battle against drugs is not a short, sharp skirmish but will be a long-drawn-out campaign needing continuing administrative and pharmacological resources to introduce on a world scale even more sophisticated tests against the few pharmacologists and doctors who are prepared to prostitute their knowledge to gain illegal advantage for their teams. The price of eternal vigilance in sport is going to be high indeed in the next decade.

I am always bombarded with questions about amateurism. I was lucky to live in a day when I could slip out of St. Mary's in the lunch hour, race around a track for half an hour and then be back for the two o'clock ward round. It was quite ordinary for all of us to be terribly hard up, and if all your friends are in the same boat it is no great privation. We had no cars and cycled everywhere. This was the pattern of our days. Daley Thompson of England, who comes from a very deprived background, is an Olympic decathlon favorite. He has a business friend who was quoted as saying he was seeking funds to buy Thompson a house "in the interest of his mental well-being." His is the most demanding of all events. He must train many hours each day to have any chance of success, and I do not begrudge him the financial support he needs to fulfill his great potential. The IOC since Avery Brundage's retirement has changed its mind about amateurism and now permits almost any broken-time financial compensation the national governing bodies approve as reasonable. This applies in Western democracies as well as in Socialist Eastern states. I do not quarrel with any of this. Of course it is fairer than the old-fashioned system.

But the capacity to pay what amounts to a living wage to sportsmen depends on the economic wealth of the country and the importance it attaches to sporting success and prestige. At present, a promising Third World athlete who wants to participate in sport full time might as well whistle in the wind unless his other abilities take him into teaching physical education. Financial compensation is a step toward the goal of equality of opportunity for all to take part in sport, and a reduction in the double-dealing into which athletes have been unwillingly drawn, but it would be healthy if a certain code of moderation could be hammered out. My blood freezes at the thought of athletics becoming one frenetic big-money deal as corrupting for the player as the onlooker. And I must add a warning. Time and again I have noticed that a runner who forsook a part-time job to spend every waking hour on sport was rewarded by a marked deterioration of performance caused by hypochondria and stale-ness. It may be that some mental stimulus is necessary to counterbalance the concentration on physical perfection.

More worrying than the passing of amateurism are the dangers of the increasing size of international events like the Olympics. This brings commercial exploitation (whose running shoes are clasped on the rostrum?) and the abuse by pressure groups seeking a platform with a ready-made television audience of hundreds of millions. I shall never forget the anguish of Munich, with 11 Israelis slain by Palestinian gunmen, and Avery Brundage deciding, rightly in my view, that, despite all, the Games should continue.

Sport is now too important commercially to be isolated from the world of political events. Though the tradition of suspending hostilities during the Olympics was said to apply in the ancient world, it was a principle more honored in the breach than the observance. I have some sympathy with African countries demonstrating to the world the strength of their feelings against apartheid with one of their few weapons, but it is certain that such boycotts also damage African countries by denying the world the chance to see the brilliance of their athletes. Taking part might result in greater sympathy for their cause instead of the irritation occasioned by last-minute withdrawals. A further consideration is the bitterness of the athletes themselves when boycotts occur. Perhaps the participation of the African countries in the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton after they had boycotted the 1976 Montreal Olympics is a good omen.

The self-perpetuating nature of the IOC, with members who are immune to the mundane pressures on politicians who have to seek re-election, has much merit. It has a better chance than a more "political" body of ensuring that Olympic host countries do not break the promises they have made about the proper conduct of the Games. Individual countries are free to choose not to go to Russia if they find the country's views abhorrent, but their complaint is not really directed against Soviet sport, and so I do not see why sport should bear the odium of every other supposed or actual misdemeanor. If the total acceptance of a country's political views were necessary, no Games would ever be held anywhere. Those who say with hindsight that athletes, had they known the coming horrors of Hitler, could have altered the course of history by refusing to go to the Berlin Olympics in 1936 are wrong. The overriding memory of those Games is Jesse Owens' four gold medals, putting paid to Hitler's view of Aryan supremacy.

Moreover, the beneficial effects of the Olympics are more pervasive than is generally recognized. The Soviet Union has already planned discotheques to cater to the evening needs of hordes of Western tourists. This may not seem the best advertisement for Western civilization, but is a tiny relaxation of Soviet disapproval of Western mores.

My crystal ball reveals no clear pattern for the Olympic Games after Los Angeles. Initially a most reluctant host, that city promises a "Spartan" show. With �1 thousand million ($1.5 billion) spent on 7,000 competitors and 10,000 members of the press at Montreal, the Olympic Games reached their peak of cost, and such massive affairs will probably be succeeded after Moscow and Los Angeles by Olympics with fewer sports in smaller stadia. This would ensure rotation of the Games beyond the superpowers, so fulfilling better the Olympic ideal of broadcasting the benefits of sport. It would also ensure that the facilities were used after the Games, unlike some accommodations that have lain sadly idle after recent Olympics.

What sports can be spared from the Olympics? I see a return toward the core of traditional individual events in the ancient Olympic Games, and the removal of some team sports. I would favor a continuity of rotation through the Third World, though countries with unsuitable climates or political instability would exclude themselves. I would not at this stage favor any return to a permanent site in Greece.

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