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LONDON—The question that’s captivating England will be solved in a few hours. Here’s hoping the answer is 83 years old and doesn’t move too well.
He once moved better than any human being in history. The name and number are synonymous: Roger Bannister. Four-minute mile.
Now Sir Roger has roared out of the pack and is the betting favorite to light the Olympic flame. It will be the highlight of Friday night’s three-plus hour Opening Ceremony.
British bookies now have Bannister at 1:1 to do the honor. Just days ago he was 33:1, then word leaked after dress rehearsals that the torch-lighting seemed set up for, as one volunteer put it, “a runner from the past.”
There is no runner from the past, present of future who can match Bannister. Forget track, there aren’t many human beings who can match Bannister’s accomplishments.
Despite that, most Brits thought rowing legend Steven Redgrave or track icons Sebastian Coe or Daley Thompson would be the last of 8,000 people to carry the torch. It has paraded around England for 70 days, and more than 10 million people have turned out to cheer as it went past.
Back to Bannister, whose dark horse flame status was due to a skimpy Olympic resume. He was a 19-year-old assistant for the 1948 British team, and finished fourth in the 1,500 meters in the 1952 Olympics.
That disappointment motivated him to go for the Holy Grail of sports achievement.
It was May 6, 1954, and back then track and field was a pretty big deal, even in the U.S. Running the mile in less than four minutes was more than merely breaking 60 on a golf course, hitting 61 home runs or winning a Triple Crown.
It was like climbing Mount Everest, a feat what was accomplished only a year earlier. Some people thought the human body was incapable of running that fast and a runner would die if he ran that hard.
The real attraction was the simplicity of the number. Four minutes. Who would get there first? Bannister ran 3:59.4 and became Sir Edmund Hillary. He became Neil Armstrong. Or more precisely, Armstrong became Bannister when he stepped on the moon 15 years later.
The mile record is now 3:43.13. We know Bannister wasn’t super-human. But at the time, he seemed it. The Oxford medical student was an overnight international sensation.
The enormity of his achievement has faded with time, which explains why Bannister was a 33:1 long shot to light the flame. But he is distinguished by far more than the four-minute mile.
Bannister said he’d rather be remembered for his career in neuroscience. He was a leading researcher in the field of idiopathic orthostatic hypotension. We can safely assume none of the other torch candidates will ever be renowned for their work in idiopathic orthostatic hypotension.
Bannister was also an early crusader against performance enhancing drugs. He helped develop one of the first tests for steroids in the 1970s. If you don’t think that had a profound impact on Olympic history, see Ben Johnson.
And unlike other sports celebrities, Bannister never cashed in on his fame. Not that there’s anything wrong with endorsing Visa. But there’s something noble about letting your achievement speak for itself.
And it’s not as if Bannister was totally without Olympic achievement. The last London Olympiad was 1948, and Bannister was helping the British organizing committee.
His skills came in handy at the Opening Ceremony, when the Brits suddenly realized they didn’t have a flag to carry in.
The chief told Bannister to hustle back to the car park and find his vehicle, which has a flag in the back seat. Bannister found the car but didn’t have a key, so he grabbed a brick and broke in the window.
“A policeman was in charge saw, and an Army sergeant had to restrain him and say what we were doing,” Bannister said.
He ran back to the stadium and delivered the flag right as the British contingent was marching into the stadium. If you ever see a newsreel of the event, you’ll notice the Union Jack is smaller than the flags carried by other countries.
Far better that than no Union Jack at all.
“So there we are,” Bannister said. “My small contribution to the 1948 Olympics.”
He deserves to make a much larger one to the 2012 games. For all the other fine candidates to light the torch, only one climbed the Mount Everest of sports.
So let’s hope the rumors are right, and that the flame lighting is set up for an older runner. You’ll have to stay up late to find out, but fear not. If Bannister gets the job, he’ll get it done in less than four minutes.