FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Which Roger is Your Kind of Hero?

Roger Federer is returning to tennis competition this week at Indian Wells, California. Inevitably, his presence will lead to commentaries about his fabulous career, his record return to the number one ranking at age 36 and his unequalled 20 Grand Slam titles. His charm and grace – the perfect Swiss gentleman – only add to his unique athletic accomplishments. For obvious reasons, philanthropy and fatherhood included, Roger is universally admired. For many, he is considered a hero.

But there are other types of athletes to be considered within the rubric of hero. Sir Roger Bannister died on March 3 at eighty-eight. His athletic accomplishment was fleeting; four laps around the cinder track at Iffley Road in Oxford, England. Four laps that reverberated well beyond the University of Oxford.

On May 6, 1954, Bannister broke the 4-minute barrier for the mile. 3:59:40 was his time, just 20 hundredths of a second under what had long been considered impossible. He broke a psychological wall that had stood for decades. The record lasted only six weeks; John Landy ran 3:58:00 six weeks later. (The current record is 3:43:13. Today, outstanding high-school runners can run under 4 minutes.)

At that time, Bannister was a twenty-five-year-old medical student at the oldest university in the English-speaking world. He was a true student/athlete; running was his hobby. He often trained during lunch breaks. He went hiking with friends in the Lake District of Scotland for five days just weeks before that fateful day. No million-dollar Nike contracts; no grabbing the Rolex watch for the photographers before lifting the winning trophy; no one-and-done year at a university before signing mega-contracts to play in the National Basketball Association; no special school for up and coming athletes or studies by email; no trips to Disney for the Super Bowl MVP; no tickertape parades down Main Street or trips to the White House. Bannister was a serious student; he was a true amateur.

While reporters pepper Federer with questions about what he will do when he retires – he shies from direct answers because he still loves to play –  Bannister retired from competition in 1954. In the same year he broke the barrier, he began devoting his life to medicine. He was a practicing neurologist for over forty years with an impressive list of publications; he was awarded the American Academy of Neurology lifetime achievement award. Bannister became Sir Roger for his leadership as the first chairman of the British Sports Council where he worked for increased sports participation throughout Britain.

Roger Bannister came from a different mould and a different era. His rewards came from his medical practice and philanthropic work, not from commercial contracts or public relations appearances. For years, runners had tried to run under 4 minutes, just as runners are now trying to break two-hours for the marathon. (In 2018, it is hard to imagine someone averaging 4:36 minutes per mile for 26.2 miles to finish a marathon in 2:00:55. But that is similar to the psychological Bannister faced in 1954.)

I have sat at Center Court at Wimbledon. Every year I practice my victory speech after being given the trophy. I empathize with the champion. I have also walked the cinder track at Iffley Road. I have tried to imagine what Bannister must have felt as he lunged across the finish line in exhaustion falling into the arms of his supporters. I can never empathize with that athletic achievement. But, I have also sat in classes at Oxford; I have imagined what kind of rigorous studies Bannister accomplished to get his degree. That I can empathize with.

Roger Federer is rightfully considered a hero. He deserves enormous praise. Roger Bannister is a different kind of hero. The adulation he received during his lifetime and marking his passing reflect an ideal that is, sadly, probably gone. Roger Bannister broke an athletic barrier; his example as a student/athlete now seems a barrier as well. And that barrier will take more than four faster laps around a cinder track to break.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
June 22, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Karl Grossman
Star Wars Redux: Trump’s Space Force
Andrew Levine
Strange Bedfellows
Jeffrey St. Clair
Intolerable Opinions in an Intolerant Time
Paul Street
None of Us are Free, One of Us is Chained
Edward Curtin
Slow Suicide and the Abandonment of the World
Celina Stien-della Croce
The ‘Soft Coup’ and the Attack on the Brazilian People 
James Bovard
Pro-War Media Deserve Slamming, Not Sainthood
Louisa Willcox
My Friend Margot Kidder: Sharing a Love of Dogs, the Wild, and Speaking Truth to Power
David Rosen
Trump’s War on Sex
Mir Alikhan
Trump, North Korea, and the Death of IR Theory
Christopher Jones
Neoliberalism, Pipelines, and Canadian Political Economy
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Why is Tariq Ramadan Imprisoned?
Robert Fantina
MAGA, Trump Style
Linn Washington Jr.
Justice System Abuses Mothers with No Apologies
Martha Rosenberg
Questions About a Popular Antibiotic Class
Ida Audeh
A Watershed Moment in Palestinian History: Interview with Jamal Juma’
Edward Hunt
The Afghan War is Killing More People Than Ever
Geoff Dutton
Electrocuting Oral Tradition
Don Fitz
When Cuban Polyclinics Were Born
Ramzy Baroud
End the Wars to Halt the Refugee Crisis
Ralph Nader
The Unsurpassed Power trip by an Insuperable Control Freak
Lara Merling
The Pain of Puerto Ricans is a Profit Source for Creditors
James Jordan
Struggle and Defiance at Colombia’s Feast of Pestilence
Tamara Pearson
Indifference to a Hellish World
Kathy Kelly
Hungering for Nuclear Disarmament
Jessicah Pierre
Celebrating the End of Slavery, With One Big Asterisk
Rohullah Naderi
The Ever-Shrinking Space for Hazara Ethnic Group
Binoy Kampmark
Leaving the UN Human Rights Council
Nomi Prins 
How Trump’s Trade Wars Could Lead to a Great Depression
Robert Fisk
Can Former Lebanese MP Mustafa Alloush Turn Even the Coldest of Middle Eastern Sceptics into an Optimist?
Franklin Lamb
Could “Tough Love” Salvage Lebanon?
George Ochenski
Why Wild Horse Island is Still Wild
Ann Garrison
Nikki Haley: Damn the UNHRC and the Rest of You Too
Jonah Raskin
What’s Hippie Food? A Culinary Quest for the Real Deal
Raouf Halaby
Give It Up, Ya Mahmoud
Brian Wakamo
We Subsidize the Wrong Kind of Agriculture
Patrick Higgins
Children in Cages Create Glimmers of the Moral Reserve
Patrick Bobilin
What Does Optimism Look Like Now?
Don Qaswa
A Reduction of Economic Warfare and Bombing Might Help 
Robin Carver
Why We Still Need Pride Parades
Jill Richardson
Immigrant Kids are Suffering From Trauma That Will Last for Years
Thomas Mountain
USA’s “Soft” Coup in Ethiopia?
Jim Hightower
Big Oil’s Man in Foreign Policy
Louis Proyect
Civilization and Its Absence
David Yearsley
Midsummer Music Even the Nazis Couldn’t Stamp Out
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail