I. A PIVOT IN TIME
Now, at the end of this 20th century, we famously celebrate
America as "the world's only superpower," but the fact is that
in the middle of the century, when much of the rest of the earth
lay in ruin, we were far more the monarch of this planet. There
was no such thing as a global economy then. There was only an
American economy, and what embers still glowed elsewhere after
World War II did so only by the sufferance of American
generosity. Oh, to be sure, something menacing lurked behind the
Iron Curtain, but we, the blithe nieces and nephews of Uncle
Sam, lived off the fat of the land. The U.S. in 1954 made up
only 6% of the world's population of 2.7 billion, but it owned
60% of its automobiles, 58% of its telephones and similarly vast
amounts of breeziness and arrogance. For the first time, we were
getting fat and happy.
A young Oxford student, Roger Bannister, visiting the States in
1949, was astonished not only by Americans' enthusiasm but also
by their sloth. "It seems quite impossible to walk in America,"
he wrote in his 1955 autobiography, adding that he "acquired a
reputation for madness" by occasionally requesting to go on foot
rather than ride. Somewhat later, from New Zealand, came a young
beekeeper named Edmund Hillary, who was even more appalled by
this blessed land. Its enchantments, he admitted, offered a
"constant appeal to my baser instincts," and since Hillary
perceived, correctly, that he was looking at a preview of the
new global model, he concluded, "I feel a deep sadness for the
future of America and the world."
Perhaps because of the war, those who had lived through it had
come to expect more of humankind; mere peaceful prosperity must
have seemed selfish and tawdry. Hillary, especially, wrestled
with moral dilemmas. Before he had joined the Royal New Zealand
Air Force during World War II, he had been a conscientious
objector. The American desire to run roughshod toward success
wasn't part of his makeup; in all his life, the only competition
that Hillary has ever won was when, as a child, he was honored
for building the best snowman. Instead, he said, he was "a
reader and a dreamer" who was most comfortable alone, with
nature. So, one day in January 1940, "weighted down by my mental
turmoil"--to fight or not to fight?--he had journeyed from his
home in Auckland down to the majestic South Island of New
Zealand, to the Hermitage, a lodge at the base of Mount Cook,
the highest mountain in the antipodes. There, looking up at the
snow and the heights, young Hillary had an epiphany: He wanted
to climb. And he did. It was, simply, "the happiest day I had
Bannister had been too young to fight in the war, but he
remembered the air-raid sirens and the deprivation. Besides,
even while he grew to manhood, as the '50s wore on, England
remained grim and impoverished. No wonder that, in his visit to
the States, Bannister was taken aback by the self-satisfied
American athletes against whom he faced off. They were so
driven, so mad for victory that, it seemed to him, the American
middle distance runners had lost "freshness and sparkle," and
sport itself was being transformed "into a machine in which the
athlete's individuality was submerged."
The mid-century was, in fact, a pivot on which sport turned,
leaving men like Bannister and Hillary as something of a rear
guard for the past. Some of America, though, still shared their
ideal. Sport here remained an activity at which one could excel
as an avocation--and without being abnormal of dimension or
temperament. Average-sized people could still play football and
basketball; even the heavyweight champions weighed only 185 or
so. If there was one American star most cherished at this time
for representing the sturdy old values, it was Dick Kazmaier of
Princeton, a slight, modest Midwesterner who won the Heisman
Trophy in 1951, then chose Harvard Business School over the
Chicago Bears. Yes, the debate over professionalism still
simmered, the purists still firm in the diminishing belief that
a man should play at games only for the joy of it. Really, the
values in question were not substantively different from those
that Walter Camp, the father of football, had championed back in
the 19th century: "You don't want your boy 'hired' by anyone. If
he plays...he plays for victory, not for money; and whatever
bruises he may have in the flesh, his heart is right, and he can
look you in the eye, as a gentleman should."
The '50s were the last gasp of that. While it is fashionable to
write off that decade as an insipid time, one long pajama party,
the '50s, in sport at least, were a revolutionary age. It wasn't
just that amateurism was in retreat. Everything was changing. No
major league baseball franchise had moved since 1903, and the
pecking order of the most influential American sports had been
set in stone for at least that long: 1) baseball, 2) college
football, 3) horse racing, 4) boxing. Suddenly, National Pastime
franchises were flying about the country. Pro football was
rising to challenge college. Sweaty basketball became
respectable. Something called NASCAR was catching on, and the
popular shift to watching automobiles race--instead of horses or
human beings--began. Moreover, the '50s institutionalized what
Jackie Robinson had wrought in '47, as black athletes flowed
into sports. Television entered the arena, then television
money. This magazine--weekly and national, for goodness' sake,
about sports!--was launched in August '54.
It is a cherished cultural truism of the century that rock and
roll changed music in America at this time; what is usually
overlooked is that while sport experienced as much of a sea
change as music, it did more than just switch a beat. Sport was
dramatically enlarged. And its impact was upon everybody, not
just the giddy teen nation.
In 1946 Roger Bannister had started medical school in Oxford,
where, every lunch hour, he would fork over threepence so that
he might practice his running in Paddington Park, near the
hospital in which he worked. Ed Hillary left his brother behind
to manage the family bee farm in New Zealand, sailed to Sydney,
where he picked up a larger ship, and, sleeping in a six-berth
cabin, sailed for weeks to England, there to join his parents
and drive them about on holiday. He hoped he also might break
away and tramp the Alps.
But if we could not quite see then what was happening--that
sport would become more about statistics than accomplishment,
more about celebrities than heroes, more about gamesmanship than
sportsmanship--there were still some bits of unfinished business
from the olden times. Most prominent, there were left two of
what were known as "barriers" or, more dramatically, "elusive
barriers." The tallest mountain in the world was still
unconquered by man, and the distance of ground that measured a
mile had continued to resist all efforts to traverse it, on
foot, in less than four minutes.
Of course, these were two very different challenges. Mount
Everest was there; the mile could be anywhere. Mount Everest was
the last in the geographical set that made up the goals of what
had been known as the Heroic Age. The Poles had been reached,
the mouth of the Nile found, the deepest oceans marked, the
wildest jungles trekked. But no one had climbed the
29,000-some-odd feet of Mount Everest (29,002, it was thought
then; 29,035, we have it now) to stand at the crest of the
world. But neither had any human being run 5,280 feet in less
than four minutes. The record had been reduced to 4:01.4, but
there it had stood, unyielding, since 1945. A physical limit? A
psychological hurdle? Whatever, 4:00.0 had become a symbolic
figure, and the pursuit of it was essential to our mythology.
Oh, yes, it all might appear so quaint now, what with the mile
record down to Hicham El Guerrouj's 3:43.13 and with tourist
buses, it seems, stopping for Nieman-Marcus box lunches at the
Everest summit. But in the early '50s these two romantic quests
genuinely inspired the vision of good people who had fought wars
and Depression for most of this century and who held to the
faith that fine, intrepid men were still about, ready to astound
us with their devotion to a noble goal. We had that on the best
authority. Winston Churchill, who in 1951 had been returned to
10 Downing Street, had said of his people in 1941, "We have not
journeyed all this way across the centuries, across the oceans,
across the mountains, across the prairies, because we are made
of sugar candy."
II. THE BUGBEAR
It had helped Bannister that he was a good sort who would go
over the Magdalen Bridge to the Iffley Road track at Oxford and
help shovel off the snow. This was a factor in earning him a
spot on the university's third team. Certainly, he was not a
prepossessing physical specimen, and in fact, for a runner, he
moved with an ungainly gait, rather prefiguring Monty Python's
Ministry of Silly Walks. But then, out of the blue, on March 22,
1947, when Bannister was being used as a pacer for the
first-team Oxford runners against Cambridge, something happened.
Bannister simply did not stop; he won the mile by 20 yards in
4:30.8. "I knew from this day," he said, "that I could develop
this newfound ability."
Still, however, he continued to view athletics primarily as
something "fun," while his respect went to the well-rounded man.
"We felt that we belonged to a tradition that was dying," he
explains. "I don't mean the tradition of British privilege. In
fact, I came from quite an ordinary background and attended
Oxford only because I won a scholarship. No, the tradition was
of running and working--and while you were studying, being part
of a team."
Today, the esteemed Dr. Bannister and his wife, Moyra, have a
flat in the city, to which he refers, like all English,
irrespective of geography, as "up in London." The Bannisters, in
retirement, reside mostly in Oxford, which is itself
north--up--from London. They returned there some years ago, when
he was appointed Master of Pembroke, one of his alma mater's
colleges. It is a position of honor and consequence, which he
held until 1994. "It was a significant event in my life," he
says, "to come back to Oxford, where I had been so very happy."
Pointedly, he does not say, Where I came to fame as the first
man to run the four-minute mile.
The Bannisters live barely a mile or so from the Iffley Road
track, in a corner house with a perfect English garden, jammed
with shrubbery and bright blooms--that familiar embroidery that
lets us know precisely where we are. That assurance of place, of
heritage, helps us understand why Bannister thinks back on the
everyday at Oxford, rather than on his day of days.
In from the garden, though, the house is cluttered with the fine
handiwork of Moyra--she paints and makes ceramic plates--played
off against all manner of knockabout toys for visiting
grandchildren. However, virtually no trophies are on display,
inasmuch as Bannister gave them to Pembroke, including the Greek
amphora that SPORTS ILLUSTRATED presented to him in 1954 as its
first Sportsman of the Year. In a dark hallway, beneath some
apparently incidental family pictures, at about knee level,
ignored and hanging askew, is the famous photograph of Bannister
breasting the tape at Iffley Road.
Just turned 70, Bannister is exactly a decade younger than
Hillary. In 1975 Bannister was almost killed in a head-on
automobile collision. His injuries were so terrible that he
never again could run. Today, however, no traces of his accident
remain evident. Neither do his eyeglasses dim his bright
blue-gray eyes, and at 6'1 1/2" he remains lank and animated,
downright antsy. He is more comfortable sitting atop a high
swivel chair, in which he often spins himself around. If not
twirling, he is wont to glance away, here and there, as he
talks, always in sentences so complete that one all but hears
the commas. Sometimes, though, the doctor will throw himself off
the chair and pace about.
Bannister is not irritated that his youthful feat follows him
down through his years. For a long time, in fact, he presented
commemorative neckties to those others who broke the
barrier--till running ye olde four-minute mile became so
commonplace that he would have needed to become a haberdasher to
keep up with the demand. Still, Bannister has had to relive the
memory so often that it bores him. So all of a sudden, "Can't we
talk some about afterwards?" he cries out, springing off his
chair, plunging about the room.
That somewhat mirrors the feeling he had at the time of his
consummate achievement. "There was delight, yes," he says, "but
also a feeling of liberation from the burden of being expected
to do it." He might not have even competed after 1952 if he had
won a medal at the Olympics that year. But he came up flat in
the final of the 1,500, the metric mile, in Helsinki, and since
he knew he would be practicing medicine by the time the next
Olympics came around, he needed an alternative goal for the two
serious years he would have left as a runner. "I regard the
four-minute mile as a bugbear," Bannister said at the time, "but
it is something that has captured the public imagination--and I
suppose if it has got to be done, I would rather an Englishman
He had no coach. He was too involved in his studies to run as
much as he should have. He hadn't even managed a practice mile
in the winter and spring of '54. Above all, he says, "there was
the matter of desperation. I was about to start my residency. I
wouldn't be able to properly prepare anymore. And I had no
interest whatsoever in running badly."
Besides, Bannister knew that John Landy, the Australian miler,
might finally best the elusive barrier once he got a couple of
good warmup races and some nice weather. In England, Bannister
didn't have that luxury. He decided to try for the record on May
6, in his first race of '54, at an otherwise run-of-the-mill
meet. In the meantime he went off rock climbing in Scotland. It
may have been, physically, the worst thing Bannister--or
anyone--could do to prepare for a race. A coach today would go
berserk at the thought. But it was a different time then. There
was so much good whim about in those days.
Bannister figured he needed perfect conditions if he were to
have any chance to do what no man had ever done. May 6, however,
turned up raw and windy, with intermittent showers. So that
morning in London, as Bannister went about his usual hospital
rounds at St. Mary's, he understood that his chance was lost.
Maybe this thing is impossible here, he thought.
III. THE BASTARD
Jan Morris, the writer, remembers the young Hillary for "moving
with an incongruous grace, rather like a giraffe," but now, just
turned 80, Hillary has grown a bit stout and jowly, shambling.
The lantern jaw is not quite so pronounced, but the eyes that
Yousuf Karsh, the photographer, said held "infinity in them" are
yet clear. He wears a tiny hearing aid but says he's in fine
health; he is curly-haired and ruddy. Anyway, the best part of
him was always what you couldn't see: his lungs. "I'm just a big
hulk, but I knew I could perform," he says. "If there were far
better-looking sorts, I was stronger and faster going uphill."
It seems such a puny word to attach to Everest: uphill. But more
charming still is how accidental it all was. Today the best
athletes appear almost ordained. Whether or not we have lost
innocence in sport, we have, for sure, lost much of the
haphazard, the spontaneous--and that may be the biggest
deprivation. Hillary never even saw a mountain till he was 16,
never ventured up one till that visit to the Hermitage; only
four years before Hillary would stand at 29,035 feet, an older
New Zealand climber, George Lowe, impressed by his talent, idly
inquired, "Have you ever thought about going to the Himalayas,
No, he had not.
The vision of his people was also limited then. At mid-century,
the "pink bits" scattered about the map, which every British
schoolchild knew signified the Empire, were still there on the
classroom Mercators, but only in hue. It was becoming the
Commonwealth now. However, a new ruler of the
Empire-cum-Commonwealth would be crowned on Tuesday, June 2,
1953, and as heartbroken as the British were at the death of
their admirable King George VI, young Queen Elizabeth II offered
the promise of a new spirit. After all, England still struggled,
so dispirited and disillusioned, all the worse as Germany and
Japan--the defeated monsters--were rushing ahead and as
Britain's special relative, the U.S., had become this vast duchy
"Eight, nine years on, we still couldn't get over the war,"
Bannister recalls. "Even then, if you left the country, you had
only a 25-pound allowance. The last of the rationing didn't end
till '54, you know."
He finds a sports analogy to describe the huge chasm between
England and America. Bob Mathias, an 18-year-old California
schoolboy, had won the decathlon at the 1948 London Olympics.
"An 18-year-old winning the decathlon would've been
inconceivable here," Bannister says. "Not only [because of] the
weather, but, all the more so, because of our lack of
resources." Indeed, on the very morning of the day that
Bannister ran his mile, an article in The Times of London
lamented England's athletic plight. "In spite of our own
standards," the paper groaned, "we are still hard put to keep up
with the advances of other countries."
Ah, but despite such melancholy, the fond links forged by the
Empire remained strong. Hillary declared, "Like most of my
fellow citizens, I was British first and New Zealander second."
New Zealand had been an independent nation since 1947, but
still, as the journalist Colin James writes of his country, "It
was British and white. It made lambs and butter and some of the
most boring cheese imaginable, and it sent it Home [to England]
in plain wrappings for a good price.... It was safe...a place of
no choice and none needed. Small, rich and complete. Bland
beyond boredom. The most comfortable place in the world to grow
Nevertheless, the Kiwis have always been rugged sportsmen and
the most courageous companions. John Keegan, the renowned
military historian and author, calls New Zealanders indisputably
the finest soldiers in the world in this century. So in 1951,
when Eric Shipton, the pipe-smoking English leader of an Everest
expedition, had the opportunity to add a few Kiwis, he invited
them--the well-regarded George Lowe and the unknown Hillary
included--to join him in Nepal if they could make it there on
their own. Shipton knew the New Zealanders brought specifically
useful talents, because their South Island Alps offered the same
challenges of snow and ice (ace, in Hillary's Down Under accent)
as were found in the Himalayas.
But there was a new problem. Everest rises out of two nations,
Tibet and Nepal, and in 1951 the Chinese Communists had taken
over Tibet and closed it off. Previously, Tibet had been open as
the way up, while Nepal kept out foreigners. Around this same
time, Nepal started to ease its restrictions and allow
foreigners to travel there. So now the task was not only to get
to the bloody top but also to discover a whole new route--which
would obviously be even more challenging than the one that had
already proved too difficult and had, in fact, taken at least 16
lives, including that of the legendary English climber George
Mallory. Hillary finally caught up to the expedition, saw
Everest and thought this: a white fang, thrusting into the sky.
Shipton quickly realized what a find he had in Hillary, and it
was on their reconnaissance that they spotted the glacier pass
that might make a southern route possible. It was at this point
too that the competitor in Hillary emerged; it was, if you will,
the Americanization of Edmund. Despite himself. In his heart, he
wrote in a 1955 memoir, he knew Shipton had to abandon "the
deep-seated British tradition of responsibility and fair
play...to modify the old standards of safety and justifiable
risk and to meet the dangers as they came.... The competitive
standards of Alpine mountaineering were coming to the Himalayas,
and we might as well compete or pull out." Nice guys finish last.
That expedition was a success, in Shipton's view, for his team
had mapped a route he felt could be successfully followed to the
summit, and they made plans accordingly for another trip the
next year. However, when Hillary returned home, he learned that
two Swiss teams had the only permits for an assault on Everest
in 1952, and when he heard, incorrectly, that Raymond Lambert
and the Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay had made the summit, he was
crestfallen. For a mountaineer--all-for-one and all
that--Hillary knew these jealousies were "unworthy thoughts."
But the conceit of taking Everest had won out over his better
British self. "Yes, we had to change the traditional attitude,
accept the dangers and be prepared to take more risks than the
older brigade," Hillary says. "But then, we're a bit that way in
New Zealand--adventurers of sorts."
Still, on a 1953 British expedition led by John Hunt, Hillary
knew he'd overstepped honor even more, because he had terribly
mixed emotions about his "very good friends" Tom Bourdillon and
Charles Evans when they made the team's first assault. He took
small comfort that Norgay, whom he admired and who was now
paired with him, felt even more conflicted with jealousy as
Evans and Bourdillon closed on the peak. "Tenzing was very
glum," Hillary says. He pauses as Big Red, his tabby, jumps up
into his lap; then he goes on, remembering clearly, "I wasn't
very proud of my feelings."
As it happened, Evans and Bourdillon had to turn back barely 300
feet below the summit. Upon returning to high camp, Evans told
Hillary, "I don't think you're going to get to the top along
that ridge." But, says Hillary, "I didn't take that seriously,
because it reminded me of just another one of those good Alpine
ridges I'd seen so often in New Zealand--demanding, yes, but
climbable." So it was, to make a long story short, that at the
top of the world Hillary and Norgay found a very daunting
cornice and then, past that step, a...well, a climbable South
Island-style ridge. And they endured, confidently. "I suppose
most people who find themselves in a dangerous spot pray to
God," Hillary says. "But while maybe I have an arrogant view, I
feel that I've gotten myself there, so it's my own
So they pushed on together, the Kiwi and the Sherpa. At 11:30 on
the morning of May 29, 1953, in the first year of the reign of
Queen Elizabeth II, Hillary took one last stride up a gentle
rise and found himself, first ever among humankind, standing and
looking down at all the world beneath him.
He and Norgay shook hands, and then Hillary took photographs of
the Sherpa. "It never crossed my mind to give Tenzing the camera
to take my picture," he says. "That would never happen today.
But I was just a naive country boy. Why did I need a photograph?
I knew I'd been there, and that was good enough for me."
When he and Norgay came back down, they ran first into Lowe.
"Well," crowed Hillary gaily, with the best extemporaneous
victory line ever, "we knocked the bastard off."
Back in London, the news arrived, exclusively to The Times, late
the night of June 1, just as the Coronation Day edition was
being put to bed. In those days, The Times still ran only
"notices" on the front page. There was otherwise only the
paper's logo and, under it, LONDON, with the date and, over to
the right, in the largest small type that would fit, The Times'
editors added two little words: EVEREST CLIMBED.
So, with that gift from Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, did
later that very day the Commonwealth crown its queen.
IV. HIP, HIP, HOORAY
On the midday train to Oxford, Bannister chanced upon Franz
Stampfl. He was the coach of his teammate Chris Brasher, who,
along with Chris Chataway, was going to try and keep a
minute-per-quarter-mile pace for him. Despite the nasty weather,
Stampfl urged him to go for it. "He made the point," Bannister
recalls, "that 'if you don't take this opportunity, you may
never forgive yourself.'" The thought stayed with him.
Bannister enjoyed a leisurely lunch with friends, but even when
he took tea with Brasher later, he hadn't made up his mind. Only
about 1,100 people were in the old wooden stands at the Iffley
Road track, but Bannister's parents had been tipped off by a
friend that "it could be worthwhile" for them to show up, so,
unbeknownst to their son, they were among the small assemblage
at the meet. It was Oxford versus Britain's Amateur Athletic
Association. Down by the track, Bannister kept glancing up
toward Iffley Road. There, on the far side of the street, flying
above the steeple of St. John the Evangelist, was the flag of
St. George, standing straight out in the brisk breeze.
Only shortly before the mile was called for 6:10 p.m. did
Bannister note that the flag had begun to dip some, and so, just
five minutes before the start, he decided that a man in England
would never get anything done if he waited for good weather. He
told Chataway and Brasher he'd go for it. Later, Bannister wrote
a more beautiful description of what made him decide to try: "I
felt at that moment that it was my chance to do one thing
The six runners took off, the flag still drooping above St.
John's, clouds but no rain, 54[degrees], Bannister's seven-ounce
spikes sinking into the damp cinders. Brasher took the lead and
held it through the end of the third lap, when Chataway stepped
up--primed, himself, to try for the 1,500-meter record. Chataway
was on top at the bell in 3:00.5, but Bannister passed him on
the backstretch and, lengthening his stride, moved farther and
farther ahead. There was no pace but his own now, no one to push
him. He must race into history on his own. He seemed on target
too, until he came down the stretch, when the wind rose again,
slapping him crosswise, slowing him, surely, precious
hundredths--tenths?--of seconds. But Bannister kept churning,
hitting the tape with his one last gasp, so that, yes, that
final elusive barrier of the Heroic Age had been overcome in
3:59.4 by an Englishman in the second year of the reign of Queen
There was, then, as "Our Athletics Correspondent" from The Times
reported, "a general swoop on to the centre of the field....
Bannister was encircled and disappeared from view, but somehow
the news [of the record] leaked out. There was a scene of the
wildest excitement--and what miserable spectators they would
have been if they had not waved their programmes, shouted, even
jumped in the air." There were also three cheers for Bannister
and a kiss from Mum.
V. A LARGE PART OF HIS LIFE
True to his intentions, Bannister quit competitive sport before
the summer was out. He ran his last mile at the Empire Games in
Vancouver on Aug. 7. By then, John Landy had broken Bannister's
record and was a 4-1 favorite. He led Bannister by 15 yards in
the backstretch of the second lap too, but the Englishman came
on to win in 3:58.8. It was a good finish for the new doctor and
a good start for the new SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, which began
publishing that week and made Bannister's victory its first lead
story. Film of the race was on U.S. television too, watched
hither and yon. If you want benchmarks, it is fair enough to say
that one 20th-century era in sport ended on May 6, 1954, and
another began on Aug. 7.
Bannister became a neurologist. Why not a neurological surgeon?
"The interesting thing for me was deciding where the tumor
was--rather than taking it out," he explains. Then, typical of
the man, after his terrible automobile accident Bannister took
the recovery time to "rethink," and he went back to medical
research, setting up a laboratory to study the part of the brain
that controls blood pressure.
He has accomplished much beyond medicine, too. He's a fine
writer who has produced scores of newspaper pieces and medical
articles and has edited textbooks. He also was chairman of the
national Sports Council that reinvigorated all manner of
athletics in Britain in the 1970s. Bannister, too, foresaw the
drug problem in international sport; he helped design the urine
tests that would catch scoundrels like Ben Johnson. In this
regard, he holds no brief for the Olympic and track and field
pooh-bahs. "It's only gradually that they've accepted the
responsibility that they must clean things up," he says.
"They're all so rich now with television money that they can
afford to provide constant and eternal vigilance."
It is also important to Sir Roger Bannister that when the queen
knighted him in 1975, it was not for what a young student did
one day in one May but for a man's whole measure of work.
"Running was only a small part of my life," he says. "Even now,
my friends and colleagues just accept the fact that in my life,
I happened to do this one thing." Broke the four-minute mile?
"Well, broke the four-minute mile as a student. I thought the
ideal, if you like, was: the complete man, who had a career
outside of sport. Obviously, that's gone out the window."
Nevertheless, he has mellowed in his attitude about the U.S.
Perhaps that was inevitable. He studied neurology at Harvard in
the 1960s, and three of his four children married Americans. "I
had an absorbing passion about athletics, and I was very
idealistic when I first came to America," Bannister says. "I
have, unfortunately, had to modify some of my views. But America
was responsible for the running revolution, when the middle
class became conscious of health. That caused a monumental
change in attitude."
England, too, has the vision and the wherewithal. When Bannister
ran on the cinders of the Iffley Road track, green meadows were
everywhere, over Magdalen Bridge, behind the poplars. Now,
instead, the track is synthetic, and all around are
artificial-turf fields and tennis courts. They rather resemble
the facilities at a state university in, say, Ohio. The students
hurry by, largely unaware that history was made here, rushing to
their teams or their physical-education classes, looking, all of
them, so very American, with jeans and backpacks and baseball
caps. It is funny. When the century started, the sun didn't set
on the British Empire, but now America is the sun and the moon
that rise and fall everywhere upon this earth.
Off Iffley, down Jackdaw Lane, is Bannister Close, barely a
block long. The only other recognition of his feat is a small
plaque, hardly noticeable, set in the new concrete grandstand,
declaring that, yes, ON THIS TRACK...and so forth. Up and across
the way, St. John the Evangelist still rises, and on the steeple
on a bright English afternoon the flag snaps in the breeze, then
suddenly goes limp, as it did that day 45 years ago, when a
young man found that he could do one thing supremely well.
VI. GETTING TO THE BOTTOM
In the symmetry of life Hillary, like Bannister, endured days as
horrid as his earlier moments had been splendid. Another day
that same awful year as Bannister's near-fatal car accident,
Hillary suffered a far worse tragedy. In Katmandu, the gateway
to Everest, a small plane took off and, stupidly, someone had
neglected to free the ailerons. It crashed just after takeoff,
killing Hillary's wife, Louise, and their youngest daughter,
Belinda. "It took me several years to recover," he says,
although, even now, a quarter century on, when he talks of it he
must steady himself to keep from crying. "I had always thought
that I would be the one to come to grief," he goes on, "but
never once--never for a moment--did I think it would be my wife
or one of my children."
Not long after that crash, Hillary was supposed to accompany a
group of tourists on a flyover of the Antarctic. He could not
go, so his good friend Peter Mulgrew went in his stead. "Peter
was a great battler," Hillary says. "He lost his feet in the
Himalayas from frostbite, so he took up yachting, and even with
his artificial limbs, he became a competitive yachtsman."
Mulgrew's plane flew flush into a mountain.
The widower Hillary and Mulgrew's widow, June, had known each
other for two decades. After a while they moved in together, and
eventually they married. They live today--along with the old
tabby Big Red--in Auckland in the same house where Hillary
raised his family with his first wife.
All you really must know about Sir Edmund Hillary is that while
his face is on his country's five-dollar bill, his name is still
in the Auckland phone book. Talking with him in his home seems a
bit like chatting with George Washington at Mount Vernon.
The house is in Remuera, an affluent if not ostentatious suburb.
You go down a hill to reach it, but it boasts a glorious vista,
looking toward the harbor where the sleek America's Cup boats
sail out to race. One huge tree soars over the house--a
Himalayan deodar, a gift from Louise Hillary's father. Maybe
that is proper. Symbolically, you see, something of Everest
always rises above Edmund Hillary.
The reason that Hillary's wife and daughter were flying out of
Katmandu when their plane went down was that Hillary returned
there regularly. As Sir Roger would devote some of his later
years to the sport that had brought him eminence, so has Sir
Edmund dedicated much of his life to helping the indigent Sherpa
people. Even now, Hillary goes back to Nepal every year,
spending several other weeks in Europe and the U.S. to raise the
funds to build hospitals and bridges and airfields and schools
in the Himalayas.
Yet the irony that he has given so much love to helping Tenzing
Norgay's land is heightened by the fact that when the two men
came down off the bastard, Norgay's people let Hillary know they
despised him. "Everyone in the crowd was pouring out hate toward
me," he wrote in 1955. This was because those indigenous folk
had lived in the lee of the mountain that they had called
Chomolungma for eons before the British identified it as Peak 15
and then, in 1865, named it after Sir George Everest, a surveyor
general of India. The Sherpas believed that Buddhist gods
resided up there, in the clouds, and they did not want to accept
that the first human afoot there had not been one of their own.
To Hillary the issue was meaningless. "I led all the way," he
says, "but believe me, to us, to mountaineers, who's first is
not important. We were a team. Who sets foot first bears no
relationship to who makes the greatest contribution."
It was another example of Hillary's innocence that he would
assume that no one--in Nepal or anywhere else--would be curious
about primacy. But then, he also was astonished when the queen
knighted him, and it did not trouble him that whenever he and
other members of the expedition spoke about the conquest, his
fee--a minuscule 25[pounds]--was the same as theirs. "We thought
all this reaction would quickly fade," he says. "I really didn't
expect that the public would care much."
In any event, even before they came off the mountain, John Hunt,
the expedition leader, met with Hillary and Norgay, and they
agreed that they would say that somehow the two men had arrived
at the top simultaneously. As soon as the expedition reached
civilization, though, it found trouble. "In Nepal it became very
important to believe that Tenzing was first," Hillary says.
"That was proof that an Asian was as good as a Westerner. Norgay
was quite frightened, actually, because politically he found
himself in a very difficult situation."
The two men kept to the story, although in Norgay's final
memoir, shortly before his death in 1986, he acknowledged that
he'd been a couple of steps behind. That book didn't receive
much attention in the West, so at last, as he entered his ninth
decade, Hillary decided to set the record straight. "Finally, I
just got a gutsful of it," he says. "I got tired of people
saying that Tenzing had gotten to the top first."
That Hillary is such a munificent benefactor of Nepal mutes the
issue. By now, the mountain people had learned that he was, if
not a Sherpa himself, one of them in spirit who had first stood
with their gods. "The Sherpas always impressed me with one
element of their belief," Hillary says, "which is that you must
choose your own path." As if on cue, Big Red jumps off his
master's lap and strides away disdainfully, as cats do. Hillary
goes on: "They don't preach at you if you choose a path that
they wouldn't. No matter how strongly they may feel, they're
unlikely to express judgment. The Hindu priests always welcomed
me into their temples, and, you know, I adopted the attitude
that anybody who wants to bless me--well, I'm quite willing to
accept their blessing."
It is, perhaps, harder for Hillary to accept all the secular
worship that has come his way. "I do not take it seriously," he
says. "I have a wife who looks after me--bosses me around. I
have both my children here in Auckland, my grandchildren. If
someone wants to believe I'm a heroic figure, fine, but for me,
I did a reasonable job at the time. I didn't get carried away
then, and I never have."
He has--like Bannister--grown more forgiving of the U.S. and how
it has helped shape the world in its image. "There is still too
much hatred in the world--everywhere," he says, "and even though
there's more awareness of what we're doing to the environment,
it's still a shame what we are doing. We have a long way to go."
For years he kept up what he calls the "adventurous life"--most
prominently leading a major expedition to Antarctica--but it
still amazes him that Everest yet excites our imagination so.
"Yes, of course there are challenges left," he says. "There was
this Norwegian, for instance, a nice young man--skied across
Antarctica, and believe me, that's quite a feat. He's been
forgotten very quickly, though, whereas the Everest climb seems
destined always to be remembered." He sighs in exasperation.
Sadly, the deaths of the inexperienced amateur climbers and
their guides described in Jon Krakauer's book Into Thin Air has
only heightened interest in Everest. Then, last May, the
discovery of George Mallory's body, 75 years after he and his
colleague, Andrew Irvine, disappeared into the mists, has only
enhanced the peak's romance and mystique. Hillary minces no
words on these subjects. Even before the ill-fated Into Thin Air
expeditions, he had argued that it was disgraceful to let
wealthy "no-hopers" pay for dangerous vanity trips up the
mountain. He is even angrier--"horrified"--that genuine
mountaineers took money for their unsparing photographs of
Mallory's frozen bones. "He should have been left to lie in
peace," Hillary says.
Yet he expresses equanimity in evaluating the possibility--which
most experts think remote--that Mallory and Irvine made it to
the top first. "For 45 years," Hillary says, "I've been regarded
as the hero of Everest, so I really couldn't be upset now if it
was someone else's turn." Then, wryly: "You know, to
mountaineers, it's one thing getting to the top, but another
getting back to the bottom. I'll settle for that."
VII. PRECIOUS NEW TIMES AND PLACES
Who would ever have guessed, back in the '50s, that come the
millennium, interest in the mountain would far exceed that in
the mile? But even though the mile was once so glamorous, today,
in a metric world, it is linearly incorrect and only
occasionally run. Besides, whereas once the mile was valued as a
beautifully strategic race, downright theatrical, with a
beginning, middle and end, now, says Craig Masback, CEO of USA
Track & Field, who is himself a sub-four-minute miler, "The
appeal of shorter events has increased in a society that
operates in short bursts." Three minutes and 43 seconds is too
There is hope. Over time Bannister expects the mile record to
drop to where we will have the elusive 3 1/2-minute barrier to
excite us. "The critical factor now," he says, "is racial
selection--in the best possible way. If you have runners from
Kenya or Morocco, whose line traces back there for thousands of
years, then you are going to have runners who can deal better
with oxygen deprivation--and ultimately, that determines speed."
It is, perhaps, poetic justice that just as the Asian Everest
has become primarily the white man's challenge--even the rich
white man's hazardous playground--the eternal mile, which was so
long the property of Northern European stock (Bannister's own
line is French, the Norman Banistre), now belongs to the darker
peoples of Africa. Perhaps in this greater universality the mile
will enjoy renewed popularity after the turn of the millennium.
Someday, maybe even some boy from the U.S. will risk the effort
and give us one thing in sport that not even Glenn Cunningham or
Jim Ryun was able to give America in the American Century--the
champion miler supreme. "It's so simple, really," Bannister says
with a sigh. "You just run."
If not, well, a miss is as good as 1,500 meters. But what
Bannister did on his day in May, no less than what Hillary had
achieved 12 months before, can never be diminished by the
history that followed. For the 20th century, these two modest
men will always best represent the sportsman--the Anyman--who is
bold enough to seize the main chance and make good on an
improbable challenge. To do one thing supremely well.
Alas, though the queen yet lives and the U.S. still rules the
roost, the world now is probably too technological and too
packaged to allow anymore for much of that independent panache.
Too bad. Not even victory can ever be as precious as venturing
into a time or a place that has previously denied our intrusion.
"Even if I hadn't climbed Everest," Hillary says with complete
assurance, "still, I know I would've lived an adventurous life."
But will anyone be able to say that about a 21st-century life?
Ironically, the new wonders we create in laboratories serve only
to reduce the majesty of the natural world, so that the past's
adventurer becomes the present's tourist; yesterday's
milestones, today's "highlights."
But what Hillary and Bannister pioneered is forever secure in
the history--and the legend, too--of our whole time and place.
This is especially true because both of the men who achieved
these feats when they were young went on to live examined lives,
full of generosity and curiosity, so that what they became
serves even more to ennoble what they did once, for us all, so
many springtimes ago.
become a symbolic figure, and the pursuit of it was essential to
wildest jungles trekked. But no one had climbed Everest to stand
at the crest of the world.
go for it. "I felt at that moment," he later wrote, "that it was
my chance to do one thing supremely well."
pray to God," Hillary says. "But I feel that I've gotten myself
there, so it's my responsibility."
thought the ideal was: the complete man, who had a career
outside of sport. That's gone out the window."
says, "but for me, I did a reasonable job at the time. I didn't
get carried away then, and I never have."
"and I was very idealistic when I first came to America. I have
had to modify some of my views."
We were a team. Who sets foot first bears no relationship to who
makes the greatest contribution."