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Remembering Sir Roger Bannister – A Chat with David Epstein

On Sunday, we learned that Sir Roger Bannister died peacefully in Oxford at the age of 88. Bannister made history on May 6, 1954 by becoming the first man to break four minutes for the mile. At the time, many deemed it an impossible feat. He went on to have a long medical career in neurology and was knighted in 1975. The British sports icon was also named the 1954 Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year – the first one in the magazine’s history. In 2011, senior writer David Epstein profiled Bannister for the “Where Are They Now” issue. After the story ran, Epstein and Bannister stayed in touch.

We decided to give Epstein a call on Tuesday to get his thoughts on the passing of a legend and what it was like to befriend someone who inspired so many on and off the track.

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Below is a transcription of the podcast with Epstein. It has been edited lightly for clarity. Kevin Liao and Intern Matt assisted in the transcription.

Chris Chavez: What have the last couple days been like for you with the passing of a legend in a sport that you really love and at the same time time someone that you got to know through your work?

David Epstein: Well first of all, let me say thanks about what you’ve said about my stories. That’s really gratifying to hear because I’ve enjoyed watching from afar you develop and progress in covering our favorite sport for Sports Illustrated so that was nice to hear. Roger, I guess in some ways I was a little mentally prepared for it because the first time that I met him in 2011, he was in great shape – in none of the times I saw him was he without both a tie and a blazer so I knew I had to step up my game when I was going to see him – he was in great shape then and the last time I saw him in person (which was maybe two years ago), he had physically declined significantly. He was using like a walking aid. He was still completely sharp.

He was, as he often was, concerned about me not having enough direction in what I was going to do next, which he needled me about a little bit. I realized that he was declining and getting older so I was mentally prepared for it but it still felt really sad when I saw the news. I never knew when I was going to talk to him. I guess he liked the story I did. When I first showed up to interview him, it was a difficult interview in 2011 because he had been interviewed so many times and he sorta writes about journalists sometimes not always so flatteringly in his book. I would ask him some questions and I thought he was very much planning to give his usual talking points that he had given so many times. Then I get out of there. I asked him some odd questions. I read part of  a neurology textbook that he wrote and things like that. I asked him what color was this powder that he had been using for this experiment. He said, ‘Oh, you wouldn’t want to know about that.’ I’d keep asking it and I think he thought it was maybe a little odd. I kept pestering him. I think he liked the story and decided to stay in touch.

Every once in a while, I’d get a call at like 6 a.m. here or something in the middle of his day. It was from a British number. I’d pick up and I’d hear, ‘Hello! It’s Sir Roger and I’ve got three things to tell you..’ He’d list a couple things like, ‘The South African from the world championships was just splendid.’ He’d go onto something else and then the third thing would be, ‘And now what are you up to and what are you doing next?’ Then he’d just go ‘Goodbye! Goodbye!’ I’d hear from him again at some point. It was really quick, wide-ranging and really delightful. There was no reason for him to be calling me randomly and I don’t know what would prompt him to do it at any particular time.

If I was at Oxford for work or for talks, he’d show up and meet me. I just sort of liked knowing he was out there even though it was sporadic when I would communicate with him. Because I think he represented something – I don’t want to fetishize amateurism in sports because I like pro sports – about for him the sub-four mile was more of a theme of his life and pushing himself and being conscious of history and innovation more than just an athletic record. I think his curiosity and drive was part of everything he did. I think it’s harder for that to manifest in so many different domains for athletes or anyone today. He represented something for me that I liked to know was out there. I think he pulled off one of the coolest feats in sports history and I’m just glad it was him that was in a position to do that. It could’ve been someone not like Sir Roger Bannister. I’m really glad it was because it’s stuck that way forever even though that he is gone.

CC: Not too long ago, we got the email at SI that if you have any ideas or pitches for the Where Are They Now issue, feel free to send them along to the editor for it. How did the assignment come about?

DE: I was always looking for an excuse to write about track and field. I loved Where Are They Now. First of all, it was one of my favorite issues to read. Also, it was an excuse to pitch any interesting person. It didn’t have to be hooked to a news event. I was looking for something interesting. I was talking to Richard Demak, a longtime editor at Sports Illustrated who is also a big track and field fan. He left med school. I left science grad school when I got into journalism. We both like track and field. We both have a passion for medicine and science so we have some overlapping interest. I would sit on his couch and toss around some ideas. In the lead-up to London, we were thinking about Where Are They Now and who would be a good track and field figure that we can pitch. There was like a 4×3-foot photo of Roger Bannister crossing the finish line about ten feet away so the idea came to us pretty quickly. I was thrilled to do it and also nervous.

CC: You tweeted that your hands were shaking before the interview. So you board this flight to England, you get to the door, what’s your process and what did you expect going in?

DE: I also meant to tweet a photo of the doorbell. There were three names because of the connected houses. I just remember it says “Bannister” on the doorbell and just made me nervous. It wasn’t just the running. As I’m reading more about him, I’m looking at his scientific papers. In 2005, he won a lifetime achievement award from the American Academy of Neurology. I read his book and so many of these other articles. For one, I could tell that he was incredibly clever and curiously. I also could tell that he didn’t have a ton of patience for journalists. He’s very decorous and used to these formal interactions. I wondered whether he would take more time for me than just a quick-hit daily story. I really prepared a lot. I took a ton of notes on all the things he had written. I was just nervous for it. Rightfully so because when I got there, I did realize he was sort of expecting to go over his normal talking points and I was asking some stuff that he thought was odd. The first day, I didn’t get through that much and so I had to go back to him and explain that I really was interested in some of the things I was asking. I wasn’t just making random small talk. It sort of went better. Even once I came home, I called him a couple times and cajoled him a little bit more until he started telling he things that weren’t totally written out in his book.

One thing that I learned from working with Selena Roberts at Sports Illustrated was that asking the same question a bunch of times in different ways can be pretty effective. I used to feel like I would just annoy people by doing that but it turns out that they stew on it a little bit and maybe you come back to it the next day or later on in the conversation and then ask the same question again, sometimes it seems to work and people open up. I don’t know why it wasn’t intuitive to me but I saw Selena do it and thought, ‘Well, I’m gonna start doing that also.’ Maybe even call them and re-talk about the same things that you talked about in person. More stuff comes up and that happened in this case.

CC: There is an attachment to Roger at SI because he was our first Sportsman of the Year. In your article, he was aware of Sports Illustrated and how track doesn’t make the cover or pages of the magazine as often. Did he recognize what the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year meant? Here it’s a big deal. They have the BBC Sports Personality of the Year out there. But for him, was this just one of the little titles that he’s got on his resume? Because he is more proud of his medical accomplishments. Did the SI cover come up?

DE: Yeah. I think he was very proud of it. I think he was given like a Greek amphora. It was this big presentation. He was actually a correspondent for SI at the 1956 Olympics so I think he had some good feelings about Sports Illustrated because he then did some writing for Sports Illustrated. Obviously, there was a period of time when Sports Illustrated was far and away the biggest sports publication in the world. I think he was well aware. He also still follows track and field a lot. He’ll watch a lot of the events. I think he was aware that Sports Illustrated’s coverage had declined a lot. I think he still had some pretty good feelings and that’s part of what made him agree to allow me to come into his home and then come back another day. He had so many interactions with journalists that were quick that he had gotten used to this revolving door. I think partly the Sports Illustrated name and hopefully my preparation and being really annoying definitely helped.

CC: In the opening to your story, one of the first conversations gets into doping, BALCO, Roger Clemens and all that. Especially in the last couple years, because the story was written in 2011, the doping conversation has come into the center of the sport. In the last couple years, did doping come up with Sir Roger?

DE: Not much. Not a lot. I think we talked about it a little bit but it didn’t come up much. That first conversation, now that you mention it, I just remember being pretty intimidated because I came in and he took out a notebook and started asking questions and writing stuff down.

I definitely didn’t have any conversations with him about Russia or anything like that.

CC: What did he like about the sport in the last couple years?

DE: One of the things I think that he sort of thought was particularly unique about the sport was the limits aspects of it – that this is a pure sport that you can measure very easily. The other was that it was easy to do. He was really for wide-sports participation even for people who were not going to be elite competitors. I remember we talked about this a little bit because at Sports Illustrated I was having sort of an argument with one writer who covered basketball and boxing. He was saying that distance runners aren’t tough and they’re just jogging on TV for two hours. I was like, ‘Dude, you don’t know what you’re talking about at all.’

One of the things Roger said when he asked about coverage in Sports Illustrated and whether there was anything about athletics recently. Often there wouldn’t be. I remember telling him that people here think the sport isn’t popular. We had a conversation about how  if you based it off participation as opposed to who is watching on TV, most of the big three sports are not popular relatively speaking when you think about the number of competitors. For me, a more important sign of popularity is how many people are engaging in the sport, not how many people are watching it on TV. We had a couple conversations about that. I think he really liked that it was this low common denominator that didn’t take much equipment and that it was truly an international sport. He had a real profound sense of sort of this sweep of the world and history. He was proud of the fact that some countries have no representation in the Winter Olympics, for example, but are not only represented but you have champions in track and field from every inhabited continent. I think that is something that he was proud of.

CC: Now that you’ve mentioned participation in the sport, there’s that car crash in 1975 that left him unable to run. After that took place and you got to meet him, did you sense that now by reading, writing and taking the sport that he was still fulfilled in how much track he was able to be a part of? I know they tried to get him more involved ahead of the 2012 Olympics to boost up the London presence.

DE: I think for a while after that, he turned his energy the way he had with the four-minute mile to his research and got totally immersed in that for a while. Then, once his life started to balance out again, he started to follow the sport from afar. He would do other types of exercise and go to events. I think he stayed involved sometimes ceremonially but certainly as a spectator in promoting the sport by talking to people or being a cool guy that was around. He stayed involved but when he started his other efforts like the British Sports Medicine Society, creating a sports medicine specialty for British doctor and then with the British Sports Council (where he was spreading basically sports facilities all over the country to try and increase participation.) He became a much broader part of the sports world in the UK than just track and field, it was still his favorite, but I think he expanded and touched sports more generally.

roger bannister death

CC: Of his medical accomplishments, what wows you the most in what he was able to do?

DE: As I understand it, some of his most important contributions came in research about people with autonomic failure, which is basically normally automatically controlled functions of their central nervous system like regulating your temperature or your blood pressure when you stand up so you don’t pass out. You know how if you stand up too fast then you might feel a little dizzy? If your blood pressure wasn’t changing, then that would be a lot worse. People who have progressive autonomic failure I think were generally doomed and horribly so. They not only didn’t have any real explanation for it but no real treatment. I think he was part of a group that was starting to understand what was going on there. At first so that people who were afflicted with it and their families could have something to know about and then the condition remained very severe but treatable in a way that could improve somebody’s quality of life and in some cases extend their life, which is pretty remarkable. If you think of it, they had no idea what was going on when he was an early researcher. Now these are things that we can change in people’s lives in a lot of cases – not necessarily save everybody but I think that’s pretty remarkable.

CC: And then that’s what actually got him knighted. Popular to contrary belief, it wasn’t the four-minute mile.

DE: Actually, the biggest part of his knighthood, he said was the British Sports Council. I think ultimately it’s a little bit of everything. He was the inaugural director of the British Sports Council and one of the things he was charged with was increasing sports participation. One of the things he did was disperse funds to towns in such a way – I remember he had a clever, sort of devilish laugh about this – where he would pick a town and distribute the funds such that he thought a town nearby with its own sufficient funds would look at the town and be like, ‘Well, look at what they’re building. I guess we’ve got to build something too.’ He’d try and sprinkle grants and things in a way where it would inspire other towns to build their own facilities. I think that worked really, really well and massively increased sports participation in the U.K., which has had a long term effect on how good they are in a lot of sports. That was the major thing that he was cited for but frankly, I think it was a little bit of everything.

CC: Before we started recording, you said that you might go back and read some of his book. Did he share much insight into it? The book came together really fast in that same year that he broke four. Did he share any insight into the writing process?

DE: Not a ton but I remember him saying that there was – journalists had a really intent interest in him and the attempt on the four-minute mile. He was a med student so he couldn’t set a time for them to come talk to him. Sometimes I think people would be barking at his tree at all times while he has things to do. I think part of it is that he wanted to put out his definitive story out there and let that carry it before going on with whatever he was doing. I remember him being motivated to do that because people would be writing about what he was doing in training and sometimes it was like not totally accurate so he just wanted to put his version down. He was really humble about it. There’s some beautiful terms and phrases in that book. There’s the famous one about him feeling ‘like an exploded flashlight with no will to live’ when he crosses the finish line. I think the next sentence after that is something like ‘I was existing in the most passive physical state’ and then he hears the three that was read off the clock. He was very humble about his writing. I tried to talk to him about it a little more and he was like, ‘Well, it was just my thoughts.’ He kept a training journal and a regular journal that he went back to. It’s pretty amazing he wrote it that same year. He did it very, very quickly.

CC: You read his book. Did he read The Sports Gene?

DE: (Laughs) I sent him a copy but I never decided to ask him and never mattered to me. He was very nice about it. I never bothered to ask him because if he didn’t want to read it, I didn’t want to make him feel obliged or anything.

CC: What was the last correspondence that you had with Sir Roger?

roger bannister four minute mileDE: I talked to him about…it got a little less frequent…maybe about a year ago?…Give or take…We talked a little bit about the Rio Olympics. He was a big fan of Usain Bolt, which is funny because it’s almost hard to imagine two people with sort of  more different demeanors in some ways. He loved the personality and loved watching him compete. We talked a little bit about him, his retirement, the future of the sport and those sort of things. As always, he was pestering me about what I’m going to make of myself. You have to tell him, ‘Not everyone gets to change the world when they’re 25.’

Also, we talked about a film made about him, “Bannister: Everest on the Track”. We talked a little bit about that. I was concerned about it because for no reason other than he’s pretty demanding – not in the sense that he’s mean to anyone – he just expects people to do their job well. It made me nervous. I was interviewed several times for the film. When it’s real time, it’s not like writing. I’m sure I’ve said something ridiculously stupid just talking to you now that I didn’t even pick up on. So I was nervous but he saw it and he loved it. He asked for a whole bunch of copies from one of the filmmakers so that he could pass them out to his family. We talked a little bit about reflecting. For him, what was so important about the sub-four minute mile was not just showing humanity that you could do it but also the psychological rebuilding of Britain after World War II. He felt that was a very important thing for people to have and he was very conscious of that. We talked about history a little bit. Some of that is talked about in the film. I was really relieved that he liked the film.

I got the sense over our last couple conversations whereas the first time I talked to him and I asked him what accomplishment he was most proud of, he said medicine. No question. As he got a little older, I think he started reflecting about what he did on the track a little bit more and realizing that was something nobody else was ever going to do. In some ways, we can land on the moon again but it’s just never the same. It was this momentous thing. I think that he in his later years started to more appreciate his own accomplishments in some way than when he did it, wrote his book and then right back to med school. I really do think he was thinking about it differently as he got older and feeling that it was actually more important beyond Great Britain but something that was going to stay. We talked about how I had seen him on a poster in a public school. It was a motivational poster that said something about limits. I do think that he just  became reflective when he was older and even more appreciative of what he was able to do and maybe started to feel that medicine and the sub-four minute mile were more even on the scale than at least when I first talked to him.

CC: It’s interesting when a singer dies that there’s probably an unreleased track that they might have. For a movie star, there’s probably footage from a film that no one has seen before. With someone like Sir Roger Bannister, whose accomplishment took place more than 60 years ago and there’s a documentary about it, several books about it (one in his own words), has Roger Bannister’s story been told to its limit or do you think there are journals out there that we’ll never see?

DE: I think there’s still stuff. Because when I was doing the basic Nexus database thing and looking at old articles about him when I was preparing to interview him the first time, I realized there was a tremendous number of stories about him and they were almost identical in all the facts. I understood why when I talked to him and he was giving me those same facts again. I searched my computer for my own old files. I have hours of tape of his that maybe I should go through and transcribe. In his home, there were pictures of him with foreign dignitaries and all these sorts of people. Given how much he enjoyed writing, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some gem of a journal sitting around. I think there’s more. I was learning things about him when I got to watch the film Everest On The Track. So I think there is more. A lot is out there – certainly in his own book. I hope this will be a calling for other people that have encountered him in other parts of his life to share some other stories. Hopefully I’ll do that too. I was thinking maybe I should transcribe whatever I didn’t use from those audio files and post them somewhere online just for people to read. He was such a special guy. I’m just glad it was him who came along at that time in history. For someone like me, and I’m guessing you’re the same, there’s no minutiae too small that we wouldn’t be interested in when it comes to his story. I hope people come forward and I’m hoping to do my little part.

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