There are currently many horrors and travesties in the world. These days, it is unusual for sport to dominate not only the back pages of newspapers but also the front. However, that was the case this week. Indeed, for a period of time, sport was not only the dominant headline, but also the second main story too. Two stories about this sport that I love. One detailing the life of an inspirational human being and runner. One detailing all the more saddening side of sport.
Sadly, I never had the opportunity to meet the late Roger Bannister. However, in my parents’ house in Holywood, sitting on top of a bookshelf, there is a framed photo of him. He is surrounded by my brothers, Conor and Noel, and the rest of the Queen’s University Belfast athletics team. They had the good fortune of chatting with him at one of the university races in Oxford several years ago. Their thoughts and opinions on the man have been echoed throughout the newspapers in the last few days. His achievements throughout life were inspirational. They redefined the boundaries of the human imagination. Despite the decades that have passed, a sub four minute mile is still a marker for an elite athlete. That succinct round number still possesses a dreamlike, unattainable quality for so many athletes. I have never broken it myself. It is still on my bucketlist, although time is beginning to run out.
There are very few people who I do not know, whose achievements I find inspire me. Most of the role models in my life are those people I have met along the way who have had an impact upon my thoughts. For a man I did not know, indeed I still know very little about his personal life, I found that simply walking past his photo in the house, would sometimes cause a release of adrenaline. Sometimes I would stop and stare at the picture and remind myself of what he had accomplished. Four years ago, I was on a training camp in California with a group of Australian runners. I remember looking around the table one night at dinner. Sitting there were ten or so athletes who had all broken that magical four minute barrier. A remarkable accomplishment for each of them. However, they were not the first to do so. They did not lead the way for others to follow. That is what is so special about Roger Bannister. He managed to do something that no human being had ever done before in history. So while he will be missed by so many, his four minute mile achievement will truly last for eternity.
And now for something much more gloomy. I must confess, I do not know if performance enhancing agents were in use during the 1950s. I have never heard of anyone questioning whether Roger Bannister ‘doped’ or cheated. I like to believe that they were simpler times back then and winning ‘at any cost’ was not an issue. Training and racing was about the beauty of the sport. The thrill of competition. Pushing the human body to the limit without the need for injections or various random synthetic chemical compounds. Somewhere along the way, the real meaning behind sport has been lost. With the recent murky revelations that came out last week (I point you in the direction of www.bbc.co.uk/sport/43281807), alongside the alleged doping offence of the current world record and Olympic female steeplechase champion, something has gone seriously wrong. It has been well documented that Roger Bannister was an ‘amateur’ athlete, whereas today’s crop of medal winning athletes are ‘professionals’. Since when did being professional become synonymous with ‘willing to cheat’. In a world where publicity and money speak volumes, where is the deterrent, other than a strong moral conscience. Sadly, it is a slope that athletics appears to have been on, not just for a few years, but rather a few generations. It is unlikely to stop anytime soon until dramatic, much needed, rule changes are introduced. If nothing is done then I fear for the future of this wonderful sport. To be inspired, you have to believe in what your eyes and ears are telling you. I am unsure whether the current crop of youngsters can believe the performances that they are watching on television. The ongoing trickle of positive drug tests would indicate that, sadly, they should not. For myself and all clean athletes out there, which I like to believe are the majority, I hope that the changes come sooner rather than later. If they do not, it might just be that the passing of Roger Bannister marked not just the death of an inspirational human being, but also, in the public’s eye, the death of the last true clean performance.
It is only fitting to end with Roger Bannister’s own words:
‘We run, not because we think it is doing us good, but because we enjoy it and cannot help ourselves. The more restricted our society and work become, the more necessary it will be to find some outlet for this craving for freedom. No one can say, ‘You must not run faster than this, or jump higher than that.’ The human spirit is indomitable.’