Saturday, October 30, 2004

Remembering Roger Bannister

Fifty years ago today, Roger Bannister broke the 4:00 minute mile.

Like Sputnik and soon, the fall of the Berlin wall, this is yet another fact that most people will gloss over as the most irrelevant of facts in a world already awash in irrelevancy.

i know that doesn't sound like much, running a mile in less than 4:00 minutes; especially since in my day, kids in high school were completing a mile around a cinder track in just over 4:00 minutes. Today, I imagine they routinely break that barrier. i don't really know for sure. Of course, with the advent of metrics, I am not certain there even IS a mile any longer (damn Europeans!)

Growing up a runner in high school, the name Roger Bannister meant something to me. The first. Like Rosa Parks but without the sense of social conflagration that surrounded the event. The names Jim Ryan and Kip Keino: does anyone even remember their nearly mythic battles on the track at a time when Track and Field still struggled to gain space on the inner most pages of the sports sections of newspapers - just after the classifieds - the sections that no one ever really reads?

I remember when Nike was "invented", selling shoes out of the backs of trucks to us in high school. I remember Steve Prefontaine and even went to his hometown of Coos Bay Oregon to pay him homage after his tragic death in 1975. I remember watching and being part of a sport that was almost completely out of the public eye, as it was being born.

While most kids were oohing and ahhing over Dr. J or counting Hank Aaron's home runs, I was one of the few on the east coast wearing my "Go Pre" tee-shirt.
Hearing the news of this anniversary made me realize how far things have come from where we started; like traveling across a river on a boat, the shore we left gets smaller and smaller until it hardly even seems significant.

This makes me consider how what we think of as important, as milestones, in the end are just events after all. Sub 4:00 minute. Sub 3:00 minute, it's really all the same. Roger Bannister was a doctor, not a professional athlete. He trained on his lunch hour from medical school, having to pay 3 pence just to use the track to train. He was an athlete, when today what we honor is celebrity. He ran for the record, for the honor, for that limit. Not for a contract. Not for a Gatorade commercial. And not even so he could hold up his index finger indicating he was truly "number 1". It was never about self-exultation, the way sports today seem to be. What was lifted up was the spirit of global human endeavor. Breaking the four-minute mile was a milestone for all humans everywhere, not one team, or city, or country.

Today, the sub-four minute mile has become a metaphor for something more than just a race. It has come to represent the frailty of limits; the transient nature of boundaries and on a universal level makes one consider all possibility as mathematically feasible and endless - like those Russian nesting dolls where one fits inside the other, inside the other, inside the other.

Where can it stop? This is not a question we are given the luxury of considering in these days of the microchip and the Internet. This was not even about success. It was about why we do the things we do. In a day when success seems to be all that matters, this was a moment in time when why we do what we do sometimes matters more.

What fell that day in England was more than just a record.

What fell in the record books that day fifty years ago was a way of thinking, a way of living, a way of looking at things that hold us back, and a way of overcoming. And on this anniversary, for us not to honor the record breaker and the record passing; to not honor the last of this breed of athlete, to not recognize how rare a heart this was to challenge and overcome simply for its own sake, would be a disgrace.


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