I’m a huge fan of human endeavour in the ‘pure’ sports. Pure in the sense that they are just us against each other, without the use of equipment – sticks, racquets, machines. I’m talking about boxing, running, that sort of thing. ‘Chariots of Fire’ is my favourite film of all time.

In these sports, it’s down to our genetic inheritance, our training and our dedication. The track part of track and field athletics has always captivated me, along with millions of others. I guess that’s what makes the 100 metres the attraction it is, the ‘citius’ part of the ‘citius altius fortius’ Olympic motto.

Sir Roger Bannister breaking the 4-minute mile in 1954 is for me one of those man-on-the-moon moments. It was back in the day when these Renaissance men strove to be the best in the world while also playing a full-time trade.

I had the good fortune to meet Sir Roger in the mid-1980’s. I use ‘meet’ in the loosest sense.  I was captain of the university table tennis team for my final year of studies. The annual varsity games weekend hosted a bunch of sports between Oxford and Cambridge. Some of the sports were very prestigious, attracting ‘full blue’ status for those that represented their University at it. Other sports were not as prestigious, and even though you might have been the world’s best, all you could hope for was ‘half-blue’, thanks to the stuffy, sports caste system that existed. I sound bitter, and in fact I contradict myself, because the pure sports belonged in the full blue camp. Table tennis did not.

That year Sir Roger was the VIP on hand to present the trophies to each captain of the University that had won their sports varsity match. My team had squeaked through 6-4. All sports had a trophy. All sports, that is, except table tennis. As the trophies were handed out one at a time, I debated what to do. When the turn of table tennis came, I walked up, as Sir Rog looked to the table on his left for a trophy that did not exist. He looked back at me in a somewhat confused state, then smiled a big avuncular smile. We shook hands, made eye contact, and that was it.

It was good to brush shoulders – or hands – with true greatness for a brief moment.

Advertisements