Thursday, April 10, 2014

David Epstein on Bannister and ‘BANNISTER’

If you like sports or science or reading, you may have heard of longtime Sports Illustrated senior writer David Epstein and his book The Sports Gene, which explores “the science of extraordinary athletic performance.” That certainly describes Sir Roger Bannister’s breaking of the four minute barrier, and Epstein was also instrumental in our being able to tell Bannister’s story in our documentary BANNISTER: EVEREST ON THE TRACK. First, he helped make introductions with the great man, and later sat for two interviews that help make up the backbone of our story. We asked the former Columbia University track athlete a few questions about his history with Sir Roger and what makes his story special.

You were gracious enough to share a lot of time and insight for our documentary BANNISTER: EVEREST ON THE TRACK. How did you and Sir Roger Bannister first connect?

First, basically the “Where Are They Now” issue of Sports Illustrated is one of my favorites, and given that it’s harder to get track in there anymore, I always tried to use that issue to write about someone in track and field. It’s a much easier way to get track in the magazine.

So I pitched stories thinking, “Who would it be awesome to meet and write about?” And I pitched Sir Roger. I didn’t know he was a world-renowned neurologist. Sir Roger doesn’t necessarily do a lot of media stuff these days. But he likes SI and he’d actually been a correspondent awhile back. So I went over for the story.

I will say that when I got there, he was a little… he’d told this certain story so many times he’d go on auto-pilot. I’d read a gazillion articles and they all basically say the same thing. They’d say he went on to be neurologist but none of them actually said what he did in that field. So I asked him about his career but he would always say, “Oh, you don’t want to hear about that.” I went back to him a second day, and was like, “I don’t want to talk about running today.”

Have you stayed in touch since?

He would call me every once in a while. I think he was a little skeptical about the article at first, but it came out and he liked it and asked me to send a bunch of extra copies. From time to time we’d touch base. During the World Championships in 2009 he called me, and he said, “I hope you’re watching, there’s a controversy about the South African runner,” and then he rattled off a bunch of things about it. So, from time to time, something would come up and we would talk.

There’s been a good deal of interest in your book, The Sports Gene, and you had mentioned a story about one of the resulting speaking engagements which involved Bannister.

Stupidly, I was behind on things and didn’t call him until the day before I was set to do a talk in Oxford. I went for a run and stopped by his house but he wasn’t there. So I called him later and said, “I’m two miles from your home and giving a talk tomorrow, if you’re interested.” And he said, “What’s the talk about?” “Well, the latest science on genetics in sports.” And he said, “This is a topic I’m very interested in, therefore, I shall be there.” So he came. And not only that, but asked some very astute questions. I think it was pretty great for everyone there.

Based on your research for The Sports Gene, what sort of genetic advantages do you think Sir Roger might have had in his quest to be the first human under 4:00?

Looking at his training logs, you would not expect most people to run a four minute mile off of what he was doing. And on cinders it’s even faster than that compared to modern surfaces. He wasn’t doing the volume.

I don’t think in his first race he was very phenomenal. But he did have a phenomenal rate of improvement. And his father had some history, having won a small mile race at some point. So I think he must be what exercise scientist would call a “high responder” to aerobic endurance training.

Looking at his improvement, it wasn’t “Jim Ryun-esque.” But it wasn’t far off.

As other professional sports have grown, track’s popularity seems to have waned a bit over time… to what extent do you think Bannister’s achievement will continue to resonate, into the future?

I think sadly a lot of young people won’t know his name the same way as the previous generation. That said, I think the feat itself is so ingrained in just the cultural ether that it’s almost impossible not to know about it. Everyone runs a mile. You have to do it in gym class. You’re sort of aware that someone broke the four minute mile and that it was special. I do think there will be a time where naturally fewer people will know it was Bannister, specifically. But it’s like the moon-landing of sports.

Now that we’re sixty years after Bannister’s record, what part of his story remains most remarkable to you?

These were incredible renaissance men. While athletes have gotten better by focusing, they’ve sometimes become less interesting. But this was just another day for Bannister. He went hiking days before the race. It’s amazing. These were true amateur athletes. It’s a cool moment of a bygone era.

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