SI Vault
Roger Bannister
November 19, 1956
Off to Melbourne to assume a new sport role, he presents his first report on the Games for Sports Illustrated's readers
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
November 19, 1956

Exclusive: Bannister's Olympic Forecast

Off to Melbourne to assume a new sport role, he presents his first report on the Games for Sports Illustrated's readers

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

In assessing the Olympic chances of various teams it is often forgotten that great athletes are freaks—the chance result of good breeding. Olympic champions should therefore sprout in proportion to the size of a country's population. I hope the time will come when the 600 million of China claim some of the Olympic medals to which they are entitled on the basis of population. Until then, only in countries where more of the basic human needs are satisfied is it possible for men to impose on themselves, voluntarily, the great strain of competitive sport. At present America and Russia, by very different methods, are systematically combing the population for athletic talent. Because of the size of their populations they will continue to dominate the Olympic field for many years to come.

Making the reasonable assumption that the Russian secret service knows its stuff, perhaps we can accept the head Russian coach's view of the American team. Gabriel Korobkov has said, "I do not see how the Americans can fail to win at least 12 gold medals." For saying little more Emil Zatopek, the great Czech distance runner, was once sternly reprimanded by the authorities. In return the American chief coach could hardly grant Russia more than two gold medals in the men's events—Mikhail Krivonosov in the hammer (a prospect dimmed recently by the American Harold Connolly's new world record) and possibly Vladimir Kuts in the 10,000 meters.

No one doubts that the American team in Melbourne will be a brilliant one, but there are several reasons why it could have been stronger. First, the five-month gap between the final trials and the Olympic Games means that some of the team will be below their best in Melbourne. This is not because of deliberate training lapses but because athletes, and American athletes in particular, thrive on competition.

Second, certain lessons on how to produce middle-distance runners have not yet been fully absorbed in America. Consistent year-round training and meticulous progression in the severity of interval running over the years, not months, will be needed if America is to equal Europe and Australia in the production of distance runners.

Third, there will be certain absentees. David Sime may not be missed too badly, but his case outlines the quadrennial problem of the U.S. method of Olympic selection, which picks a team as the result of a single meet rather than, as in Britain, on an assessment of an athlete's ability shown by several races. In America there can be no argument, the method is almost brutally fair; but the best man may occasionally be excluded. Perhaps in Melbourne an athlete excluded from his best event, like Harrison Dillard in the London Olympics of 1948, will win a title in another event with delightful indignation and abandon.

A second absentee, whom America can less afford to do without, is the U.S.'s greatest miler, Wes Santee. As the finalists line up for the 1,500 meters I shall think of him again, almost a martyr through his inevitable suspension. That disturbing final comment of Justice Walter A. Lynch will ring in my ears: "Santee eliminated himself as an amateur athlete but not without an assist from some of the guardians of amateur athletics."

Third in terms of total strength behind the U.S. and Russia should have come the Hungarian team. How they will fare now, with their ranks tragically depleted by the events in their homeland, no one can say. But it is interesting to speculate how much Hungary's athletic brilliance in the last two years has been due to national tradition and how much to the inspiration of a single man—Mihaly Iglói, coach to Sándor Iharos, László Tábori, István Rózsavölgyi and Sándor Rozsnyói, who between them might have won as many as four gold medals.

I hope that Britain after the disappointment of 1952 may perhaps return to the gold, or should I say the silver gilt, standard. The British team would be unlucky not to win one or two gold medals, but Olympic competition is so fierce that despite excellent performances in all events the British team could still return empty-handed.

But this keeping of an international scoreboard can have odd consequences. An American journalist who saw the Russians hastily dismantling their scoreboard when they were losing in Helsinki cabled the story, "RUSSIANS CAUGHT WITH THEIR POINTS DOWN."

The Olympic Games are neither an international slanging match nor a testing ground for national prestige. (I am waiting with interest to hear a Russian athlete whistling The Star-Spangled Banner after having heard the band play it at least 12 times in the previous eight days.) But the Games are an individual contest. Baron de Coubertin's dictum concerning winning and taking part in the Games—which incidentally we owe to the Bishop of Pennsylvania—is variously misquoted by emphasizing the one to the exclusion of the other. The fascination of attempting to produce Olympic winners is twofold. First, can any athlete be certain of winning a gold medal? Second, if he cannot be certain, on what factors does his likelihood of success depend? This year new world records have been set up in 16 out of the Olympic total of 24 men's events. Can a new world record holder be regarded as a certain victor in Melbourne? It is reasonable to assume that, barring unfortunate accidents, certainty depends on his degree of superiority over his nearest rival. He must be immune from the special hazards which exist in each event—for example, an unlucky start in the 100 meters or an outside lane in the 400 meters. A speed superiority of 2% would give him two meters in the 100 meters—barely safe—or a secure 16 meters in the 800 meters or a flamboyant 100 meters in the 5,000 meters. If the difference is insufficient to assure him of victory—as it is in almost every case—then there must be a delicate appraisal of his rival's temperament and personality in order to discover the athlete who is most likely to flourish instead of wither under the strain of the Olympic Games.

Continue Story
1 2 3