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February 12, 2009

Torch Bearers

Admin note: As you've probably guessed, even after running a 5-minute mile, I still had lots of lingering thoughts about the overall significance of Bannister’s accomplishment, and whether such a momentous occasion could ever happen again in modern times. For multiple reasons, I can’t envision a scenario where anything similar would ever occur. This epilogue to the series touches on a few of those reasons.

Why I thought to conclude a series about the most famous distance runner in history with an analogy to a hockey team is still, even five years later, somewhat puzzling to me. I think I had always known about the Canadiens’ (and please don’t write to correct me on the spelling – that’s how it’s written. Apparently it's a French thing.) story, and was just waiting for a time when I could work it into an article without seeming like a complete departure from the subject at hand.

Finally … thanks again to everyone who stuck it out with this series, especially to those who commented or e-mailed me along the way. I’m sure you had no idea what you were wading into when this all started; so if you actually made it to the end, you are to be congratulated.


Chasing Roger Bannister

Epilogue: Torch Bearers

Painted on the inside of the Montreal Canadiens’ locker room is a passage from Canadian Lt. Col. John McCrae’s famous World War I poem In Flanders Fields: "To you from failing hands we throw the torch; Be yours to hold it high."

The Canadiens (or Les Habitants, or “Habs”, to its loyal fan base) are one of the most storied franchises in all of sports. The team has won 24 Stanley Cups since 1916, including at least one in every decade of the 20th Century. More than 40 of its players have been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Current champions perennially mentor and guide the organization’s stars of the future, and the tradition of winning championships is passed from one generation to the next.

Above their lockers, modern-day players see the Flanders Fields text inscribed in foot-high letters that wrap around the walls, lined atop facial profiles of great Canadiens of the past. As they suit up for each home game, under the gazes of legends such as Maurice Richard, Jacque Plante, and Guy Lafleur, the message to today’s players is clear: You follow in the footsteps of great men. Your actions should be worthy of the proud tradition.

I’ve written a lot this year about Roger Bannister (probably – if we’re being honest – way too much). More than 50 years ago, he broke through a physical and psychological barrier that had long resisted men’s efforts to overcome it. His reasons for doing so were fairly straightforward: atonement for a poor Olympic showing, ambition for the honor that came with being a world-record holder, and a competitive drive to accomplish the feat before one of his rivals.

There was one final reason, equally important but far lesser-known, that drove Bannister’s fervent pursuit of the four-minute mile: he wanted to score a victory for the amateur athlete. Neal Bascomb explains this in The Perfect Mile: “Bannister knew that the gentleman amateur was fast becoming a dinosaur…But [he] was not ready to relinquish the values he had learned…For Bannister, breaking the barrier would be affirmation that the amateur was still capable of realizing athletics’ most coveted prize.”

In the 1950s, most Britons stubbornly cherished a notion that was becoming rapidly antiquated: that athletics were purely a young man’s fancy, before he turned his attentions to the important responsibilities of adulthood. The British universities of Cambridge and Oxford took particular pride in promoting the amateur ideal, and Bannister recognized that the Iffley Road track at Oxford would be a particularly appropriate setting for the barrier to be broken.

With hindsight, we can see how Bannister’s era was a time of pivotal change in athletics, from strict amateurism to professional enterprise. With each passing decade, top-tier athletes have been able to earn increasing dollar amounts from sponsors and appearance fees, enabling them to pursue their goals without the burden of maintaining a secondary career.

The pendulum has swung so far in this direction that the notion of a world-class athlete having a day-job is anachronistic. In fact, it is probably impossible - although I hesitate to use that word in a column about Bannister - for a runner to succeed on the world-class level without devoting at least 40 hours per week to conditioning, strength training, and form drills, as well as modern-day luxuries like massage, physical therapy, and lab testing, among other things. In other words, being an athlete in 2004 is a perfectly acceptable career.

Consequently, today’s world-class runners barely resemble - in either appearance or lifestyle - their counterparts of 50 years ago. Their talents are so highly evolved, and race strategies are so different (for example, the mile has almost become a prolonged sprint), it’s almost like they practice a whole different sport. In general, this remarkable evolution is a good thing - but one downside is that the sport of running loses some of its connection to the past that is prized in other long-established sports like hockey or baseball.

Today’s Montreal Canadiens are essentially playing the same game that their forbearers knew; sure, they may skate a little faster and benefit from modern advances in equipment, but the fundamentals are the same. The same thing can be said (putting aside the unspoken elephant in the room that is drug abuse) about baseball’s storied traditions from one generation to the next.

Yet somehow, it’s hard to imagine that Alan Webb or Hicham El Guerrouj are inspired in any way by Roger Bannister or John Landy as they lace up their shoes every day before heading out to the track. After all, they certainly can’t identify with the off-track burdens and expectations their predecessors commonly faced. Nobody ever pressured Webb to quit running so he could begin a real career, and El Guerrouj probably hasn’t worried about feeding his family for quite some time now.

And while these changes are understandable, they might also cause those links to the past to be eventually forgotten. That’s where you and I come in.

Perhaps the amateur athlete that Bannister worked so passionately to glorify hasn’t become extinct; perhaps he just looks a little different now. He’s no longer the guy competing at the Olympics – instead, he’s competing for an overall win or age-group award at the local 10K. Maybe he or she sits in a cubicle all day, or drives a backhoe, or coaches a soccer team, or raises children at home, while also training for a marathon. The same ideals that Bannister embodied on the world stage can still be found, only now they’re on the much smaller scales of local running clubs and all-comers track meets.

It’s likely that those of us who attend to jobs, families, and other obligations beside running can identify with the heroes of the past far more easily than the athletes who are competing on television today ever could. By these standards, the torch of Bannister’s era has, in fact, been passed - not to the modern-day elites, but to us.

Those of us who diligently train for no recognition other than personal satisfaction also follow in the footsteps of great men. By persevering with our training, by striving toward new personal goals, and by repeatedly testing the limits of our abilities, we hold the torch high. Hopefully, through the years, all of our actions will continue to be worthy of this proud tradition.

See previous installments of this series on sidebar at right.


don 2/12/09, 4:38 PM  

I thought this post was going to be about the torch bearers for the next Olympics. They were taking applications today in Vancouver. Although I suppose you would have to be a Canadian to apply. Heh heh

GZ 2/12/09, 5:57 PM  

This was a beautifully written series and this conclusion was exemplary. Thanks.

Thomas 2/13/09, 3:44 AM  

Apart from your needless swipe at the Europeans in one article I did enjoy the series, but the epilogue is somewhat strange.

Man, I had no idea anyone could write so much about a race that took you less than 5 minutes to cover!

Dave 2/13/09, 6:24 AM  

Loved the series! And here's to us amateurs, who will never run like gazelles, but who do love to run and to watch the elites who can run like gazelles.

Makita 2/13/09, 7:10 AM  

Awesome! Awesome! Awesome! :D

Gretchen 2/14/09, 2:17 PM  

I'm not at all surprised that your own race turned out as it did, and it was so cool that your son had his first race at the same meet!
This posting is an interesting conclusion to a beautiful series. I like the idea that today's amateur athletes inherit Bannister's legacy, but I also can't imagine that the top pro's in Track & Field don't also hold Bannister up as a hero.
Thanks for spending the time to put this series toghether, it was so much fun! And congrats on your sub-5 mile!

David 2/15/09, 2:35 PM  

I am reminded of a recent race (I forget which major) in which an amateur woman actually won the race but since she did not start with the elites they would not declare her winner (at first). She is my Bannister hero.

Darrell 2/15/09, 10:37 PM  

Great series. I loved reading the whole entire thing. Thanks for bringing the 4 minute mile and your own 5 mile mile from a new perpective.

Rainmaker 2/16/09, 8:34 PM  

I'd be curious given you're heavy base increase over the past few years how another mile test would fare. Of course, given I've participated in similiar excercises in pain, I'd fully undersatnd you're willingness to not run another mile TT.

Great series though, made for a good read tonight!

jeff 2/19/09, 3:04 PM  

this is one thing that i've blogged about in the past...amateur athletics in the uk. it seems that virtually every town has it's own track club, cycling club, bowling club, etc. and the folks that show up for those runs, rides and games run the whole spectrum of ability, but you'd be surprised just how many of them would rival an elite athlete.

you're right, the sports are dominated by elites with no other responsibilities but the sport, but amateur athletics are alive and well in the uk. we'd do well to follow their model because they've got it wired.

donald, this was a brilliant epilogue to the bannister series. well done and thanks for the fantastic write up.

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