In 1954, when Roger Bannister broke four minutes for the mile and SPORTS ILLUSTRATED started turning up in the library of Howard Elementary School in Eugene, Ore., I was 10 and made of timid, moist clay. Both a slate and a lump. Amid the jubilation and wonder over Bannister's feat, I felt the first, warm impress of direction. Here was something rather childlike that society valued. After some false starts, I began to run and now, 35 years later, exult in the great fortune of having been formed and fired by contemporary sport, American style.
Athletics enabled me to have a good education and to compete in two Olympics. It even kept me safely on the Army track team in Southern California while many of the men drafted with me fought in Vietnam. But by then, I was proficient. It was nearer the beginning that the truly important things happened, those having to do with being good.
Becoming an athlete meant self-discovery through extreme discomfort. In high school I felt no kinship with, say, football players, who simply seemed obsessed with the repeated use of force. But we were all hardening in our own crucibles, all creating ourselves according to how well we embodied the lessons of our sporting tribes.
Of course, they were the same lessons: Try. Never lose hope. Follow the rules. Try. Know yourself. Focus. Always get up. Try.
In the state high school cross-country meet in my senior year, I started too fast and ambitiously sprinted myself into oxygen debt. I drifted, sick and disgusted, back into the pack. A crosstown rival, who had not beaten me all year, passed me at the finish. I used a wild elbow to try to keep him behind, but to no avail.
That evening at dinner, my father remarked that my avowed concern for fairness and discipline seemed inconsistent with slugging opponents. I wanted to shout, "You win any way you can!" but I knew that was absurd. That was what football players said. I still remember the acid turmoil of that night, my mind frantically squirming to avoid the truth of what I had done. Ultimately it could not. Out of this experience came a resolve that I would never again lose control, no matter what the goad.
So sport nudged me, as it has a great part of our society, from the savage toward the humane. At least I hope it has, for to celebrate sport is to celebrate self-control. To the extent that we keep from hurting each other in our competitive rages are we civilized—to that extent are we Olympian.
Yet, to celebrate sport is also to celebrate sheer abandon, to savor moments when athletes surrender themselves to effort and are genuinely transformed. This is when sport takes loneliness, fear, hate and ego and transmutes them into achievement, records, art and powerful example.
After terrorists killed 11 Israeli coaches and athletes during the 1972 Olympics, few of us entered in the marathon had much desire to run the event. Avery Brundage, the president of the International Olympic Committee, decreed that the Games must continue, but in his speech the day after the murders, he had the gall to equate the terror with a threatened boycott of the Games by black athletes who had demanded the expulsion of Rhodesia. All he did was add outrage to our grief.
We did run, in order not to let murderers drive us apart, but I remember Frank Shorter saying that dwelling on our winning or losing would seem monstrous measured against the deaths of our fellow athletes.
In the years since, as I have written of sport events and characters, my sensations often have been the old dry-throated ones of competition. Juiced by the likes of Mary Decker's wins in the 1983 World Championships or Daley Thompson's 1980 and '84 Olympic decathlons or Butch Reynolds's 400-meter world record last year, I have nervously beseeched my prose to be worthy of what I have witnessed. On rare occasions, performances have so taken hold of their stories that when I reread them, I ask, as I once did after a sprint that carried me past a favored opponent, "Where did that come from?"
It came from sport's capacity to define and transform, for sport does not seem to relinquish those it has molded. I try to keep that in mind when faced with the day's cocaine deaths, steroid cover-ups, collegiate hypocrisies, gambling scandals, criminal agents and Olympic boycotts. Such failings show that sport's civilizing, freeing effect on us is incomplete. Not everyone is following the rules. Not everyone is trying.
But here is an article of faith, based on knowledge of the competitive heart. Sporting people won't permit such abuses to continue indefinitely. The transforming nature of sport works even upon itself. All that saves and lifts sports are the athletes. "And the best athletes," Thompson has said, "are the ones who are free of self-destructive tendencies."
The finest ones will always be there to assist, to marvel, to safeguard, as sport continues to breathe life into the latest lumps of clay, producing its good works.