Man and boy stood cheering by when Roger Bannister ran his great four-minute mile and ever since then he has been a marked man.
"What hath God wrought?" demanded a sportswriter reviewing the Bannister triumph of May 6, 1954, sensing something more extraordinary than just another pretty race.
And what God hath wrought among other wonders was a 25-year-old, 158-pound Oxford man standing 6-feet-1 1/2 on 35-inch legs with hocks like a cheetah, hooves like the red deer and heart like a steady hound, to say nothing of lungs like a wind god. He had, and has, blue eyes, a plain and pleasant-looking face and hair the color of a sandstorm. Not so much now.
Divine engineering aside, Bannister loved to run and meant to win. Everybody knew, of course, the mile could never be run in four minutes because oxygen intake and chemical buildup in straining muscles and zub, zub, zub, made such a goal ridiculous. (Bannister's wife, by the way, thought for a time he had run four miles in a minute, which shows women perceive heights undreamed of by men.)
Sir Roger, knighted by the queen, was in Washington this week in his new responsibility as master of Pembroke College, Oxford, beginning in December, after an intervening career as a neurosurgeon.
"What part of the paper are you from?" he inquired suspiciously when I phoned him, "because I don't want to be interviewed about track."
All the same, he saw me and confessed the obvious, that roughly 46,000 times a day for 31 years people have wandered up to talk about his great mile.
"I'm resigned to it now," he said, "and it has had this advantage, it makes a bond or breaks the ice. It was not so nice when I was training in medicine."
Which in those days probably took intellectual concentration, to the extent Bannister gave up international sports. He had no further time for training to produce a first-rate performance, and saw no point offering less.
The great record was broken almost immediately by John Landy, 3:58 even to Bannister's 3:59.4. A few weeks later in the Mile of the Century he beat Landy by five yards.
If you're the first man to achieve the impossible, it sticks, even if later the record falls. Planes go faster than Orville and Wilbur's ever did, but their early laurels are still green enough.
Furthermore, almost everybody runs, so it's easier to grasp the miracle of 3:59.4 when you yourself have run it in, ah, slower. And you like it all the better when you see that despite the advantage of 35-inch legs and superb lungs, the man did not just warm up a little and then run it. Sometimes he ran 10 sprints a day in training, or several half-miles, varying the regimen. He worked forever on the problem of getting enough oxygen to sustain the speed and he had expert help and advice, but it was not the easy triumph that comes with luck. Through the world people sensed this, and they liked the idea he refused to endorse products or do anything else to make money from his love. Besides, he looked like everybody else -- he could be passed on the street without notice -- and this made his triumph all the easier for all to share.
Bannister never set out to become a symbol of man's triumph in a resistant world. That's something people made of him, but done is done. It's almost an impersonal thing, the glory being more than the mortal who was glorious.
When he rose to speak at a dinner for old Pembroke chaps, given by three alumni, he could have been an Oxford don or something. Gone are the slow-motion breakneck strides. Academic life will be new to him and he trusts all will go well, though he knows academics sometimes get rather absent-minded, and hopes he won't. Like the one at Oxford who saw a lad returning, and said, "Good to see you again, Richardson. Was it you or your twin brother that was killed in the war?"
Then dear old Dr. Spooner always had trouble (he went on). He introduced a distinguished general as a "battle-scared veteran," and when people laughed, corrected it to "a bottle-scarred veteran."
Pembroke, he said after enough of an interval to seem modest, of course produced Dr. Samuel Johnson and Sir Thomas Browne, great names in literature, as well as James Smithson, whose money established the Smithsonian Institution. Furthermore the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, William Fulbright (D-Ark.), was a Pembroke man and so is the incumbent, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.).
Bannister came to keep in touch with the old boys and let them meet the new college chief. One old boy (not from here) got tired of hearing so often from the school and notified them he was dead. Then he didn't get his basketball tickets as usual and phoned to ask where the hell they were?
"I got a dead man on the phone," Bannister said the office clerk said, "who wants to know where his tickets are."
The college can certainly use some money, by the way. Bannister is not one to hammer the point, and is probably no less effective for that.
Fulbright said, when his turn came, that if we learned to live with the English (once a chancy matter in the republic) we should be able to live with the Russians. He hoped Lugar would be good enough to talk with the president about this before the forthcoming summit. Lugar paid Fulbright a number of compliments -- when Lugar was a mere student he wrote Fulbright, who entered into correspondence with him and took him seriously.
Another Pembroke man, Philip Lager, candidate for the governorship of South Carolina, also went up to Fulbright, who he said had inspired him to go to Pembroke in the first place and who served as his model for a public life.
James Davidson, chairman of the National Taxpayers Union, was master of ceremonies, moving things right along, introducing a seven-human team called the Capitol Steps who, as the emcee promised, delivered satirical sketches calculated to offend everybody. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger did not display great enthusiasm for them, neither did either of the senators, but the team was terribly lively and beastly to California.
Bannister, who may not be fully current on American bureaucracy, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and so forth, smiled more or less throughout, trusting that was the thing to do, but possibly wondering what it all meant. When the young performers finished their great decibels, the silence was invaded by echoes remaining in the ears, more than in the air.
Bannister sat there making sure it was all over then stood up with a modest smile to talk with guests. The half-sensed echoes of the room were probably nothing more unusual than the distant trumpets, still detectable, that rang through all the West when he ran his race, and that never afterward -- not for any other runner or other athlete -- spoke that way again.