Up to the year 1954 — the afternoon of May 6th, to be precise — the idea of a human being running a mile in fewer than four minutes was as fantastic, as fabulous, as the notion that two people could go for a stroll on the surface of the moon.
That afternoon, though, a med student at St. Mary’s Hospital in London, whose hobby was running track, participated in a mile race at Oxford University. When he crossed the finish line, ahead of all the other runners in the race, he’d set the world’s record — our species’ record — for the mile, completing it in six-tenths of a second less than four minutes. His feat was worldwide news. It was as if Giancarlo Stanton had hit his one hundredth home run in a season or Leo Messi scored ten goals in a game.
It was inconceivable.
Any athlete who accomplished such an unheard of feat today would be lionized, pedestal-ized, celebrated, feted, worshipped, and guaranteed riches exceeding eight figures. In fact, Roger Bannister, that British med student, was indeed elevated to a sort of superman status. His name was splashed across newspaper front pages around the world. The 4-minute-mile became a magical standard equivalent to cure-for-cancer or world-peace.
So, how did Bannister fare, post-race? He bathed, briefly, in the glow of international celebrity but, almost immediately, resumed his studies. Several months after running his historic mile, Bannister was assigned to a medical residency. He quit running. Here’s the explanation he offered for his decision in a speech before the English Sportswriters Ass’n:
Now that I am taking up a hospital appointment, I shall have to give up international athletics. I shall not have sufficient time to put up a first-class performance. There would be little satisfaction for me in a second-rate performance and it would be wrong to give one when representing my country.
The practice of medicine, in short, was more important than running fast.
What a quaint time it was, 64 years ago.
Bannister died last week. He was 88.
BTW, notice how I used the terms fantastic and fabulous in the entry above? I’m using them in the old school manner. Today they mean great and terrific and so on. And even those contemporary synonyms have evolved similarly.
As late as the 1950s, fantastic meant something — an event, an idea, anything — was not real, a fantasy. Fabulous into the 20th Century signified a tall tale, a fable. Great until recently simply meant large. Terrific meant terrifying.
Another reminder that language is surprisingly fluid.
The Whole World Was Watching
I’ll be reading a chapter from my novel-in progress, Black Comedy. The theme? 1968. Sort of a follow-up to the big conference and festival, “Wounded Galaxies 1968: Paris, Prague, Chicago,” at Indiana University and other venues around town last month. My piece tonight will deal with some of the scenes of street violence during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in my beloved hometown the year I turned 12.
Festivities begin at 6:00pm and run through 9. There’ll be scribes like me as well as the occasional musician mixed in. It ought to be a hoot and you can drink beer or wine and have a nice little bite to eat, to boot. Admission’s free. I hope to see you all there.
Funny little fact I learned while recording this week’s Big Talk with author, journalist, and war correspondent Doug Wissing. The Indiana Historical Society is one of the most well-endowed such state repositories of the past in the nation. Wissing’s been told that the Lilly family threw scads o’dough at the IHS decades ago. Visiting scholars from around the country marvel, sez he, at the depth and breadth of the operation here.
In any case, Wissing and I discuss the new book he’s writing right now. It’s a biography of — as W. describes him — “the most powerful person you’ve never heard of.” That would be Indiana’s own Benjamin C. Evans, Jr., who spent an eventful decade and a half as the executive secretary of the CIA.
Most federal operations are run by people whose names we never hear of read of. The political appointees get all the attention — George H. W. Bush, for instance, director of the CIA under President Gerald Ford. They get all the press and have their mugs posted in every branch office across the land, but it’s quiet people like Evans who do the real slog stuff, making assignments, monitoring progress, drawing up schedules, and so on.
While Evans ran the show, the CIA was involved in some of the most controversial and important trouble zones on the globe. There was Vietnam, the Cold War, the Middle East, the Prague Spring, the Pueblo Incident, and even Watergate (President Nixon tried to get the CIA to sabotage the FBI’s investigation at one point). Then, too, during Evans’ term, there were widely publicized hearings about the Agency’s misdeeds, including drug and mind-control experiments, foreign coups, and even assassinations of world leaders. For all we know, Evans took to his grave the answer to the half-century-plus-old nagging question: Who really killed JFK?
Tune in this afternoon, and every Thursday, at 5:30pm on WFHB, 91.3 FM.