In 1954, Roger Bannister's feet carried him to one of the landmark achievements in all of sports when he ran the first sub-4-minute mile. For his performance, the once obscure British distance runner was knighted at home and beloved throughout the world.
On Wednesday, Bannister put those famous feet firmly in his mouth when he said that the success of black sprinters might have to do with "certain anatomical advantages" they possess. In so doing, Bannister might have added an unflattering final chapter to his long-glittering legacy.
While pointing to such possibilities as longer Achilles' tendons, muscles adapting to warm weather and less fatty tissue under the skin to provide a better power-to-weight ratio, Bannister offered no medical proof to back up his remarks. A retired neurologist, Bannister added that "the brain, not the heart or lungs, is the critical organ."
Nonetheless, Bannister's statements made during a conference in Newcastle, England, for the British Association for the Advancement of Science caused a wide range of reaction in the track community on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Some were angered, but most weren't surprised.
"This is a pervasive sentiment in Western society, particularly in the U.S. and Britain," sports sociologist Harry Edwards said yesterday from the University of California at Berkeley. "These were the leading slave institutions of the 19th century. The roots of that racist ideology are still there."
Said Dr. LeRoy Walker, the president of the USOC and a former track coach at North Carolina Central University, "We've gone through this many, many times from people who want to attribute an athlete's success to something other than hard work and training."
Though conceding that blacks have dominated the sprints recently, Walker pointed to a number of white sprinters who have had success over the years. The 200-meter world record has been held by Italy's Pietro Mennea since 1979. The current 200-meter indoor champion, Geir Moen of Norway, is also white.
"I've heard it my whole career," said Kevin Little, who finished second to Michael Johnson in the 200 meters at this year's national championships and was the only white sprinter on this year's U.S. team at last month's world championships. "I've always tried to do my best and throw the stereotypes out the door. I've focused on becoming the fastest man in the world, not the fastest white man. . . . I wouldn't be a good test case for " Roger Bannister's theory."
It wasn't only the statements made that caused concern, but that someone so respected and revered as Bannister would make them. Pete Cava, a spokesman for USA Track and Field and a longtime fan of Bannister's, said "the comments kind of turn your head around. It came out of left field. Alarming is probably the right word. What's very disturbing is that this is one of the icons of sport."
It was, considering Bannister's stature, even more distressing to some than similar remarks made in recent years by former CBS football analyst Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder, who also said black athletes had genetic advantages and former major-league baseball executive Al Campanis, who said blacks lacked the proper skills to become managers and general managers.
Walker, who has known Bannister for a number of years, said from his office in Durham, N.C., yesterday that he would try to contact Bannister in the near future. "I would like to say to Roger that as a person as well as a scientist, you don't want to make wild statements that you can't back up," said Walker. "There is a concern that individuals will read these remarks and take them as fact."
Said Edwards, "I know Roger Bannister. This is a very decent human being. But this doesn't make him less susceptible to subscribing to this belief. It is so pervasive, so seductive that it affects good people. The scary thing is that some blacks believe it, too."