SATURDAY, JUNE 16
With less than a month to go until the Olympics opening ceremony and excitement already at fever-pitch, tonight — at a party in London’s Kensington — I finally met the man who I consider to be the finest athlete in living memory.
Roger Bannister, in fact, never experienced Olympic glory. His best finish was fourth at the 1952 Helsinki Games. But he did make history by becoming the first person to break the four-minute mile – a milestone that some ‘experts’ had said would never be achieved.
It was an astonishing feat of willpower, and sheer bloody-minded grit. It was a triumph that electrified the world.
Roger, now 83, quit athletics a few months after smashing the world record, and became a neurologist.
I asked him tonight if he ever got bored of talking about the four-minute mile to every breathless fan (like me) he meets.
‘No, no, I remain very proud of it,’ he smiled. ‘But I only ran for seven years – I’m much prouder of my work in neurology, to which I devoted the next 50 years of my life.’
As for what drove him, Roger — a charming, razor- sharp man who still looks fit enough to beat me over a mile — once uttered the most inspiring quote I’ve ever heard: ‘ Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a lion or a gazelle — when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.’
THURSDAY, JUNE 21
Aaron Sorkin, genius writer of my favourite ever drama, The West Wing, has now fixed his literary eye on my own game, the cable-news business.
His new HBO show, The Newsroom, stars Jeff Daniels as a bored, irascible old TV anchorman called Will McEvoy with a reputation for being too lightweight – a reputation he then decimates by suddenly transforming into an enraged, passionate, hard-news assassin.
The trigger for this comes during a tedious college panel debate, when the moderator goads him into answering the question ‘What makes America the greatest country in the world?’
McEvoy pauses for a few seconds, then goes on an almighty (factually and statistically accurate) rant about why America is NOT the world’s greatest country, a concept that would be horrifyingly alien to 99.99% of Americans I know: ‘We’re seventh in literacy, 27th in maths, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, fourth in labour force and fourth in exports.
‘We lead the world in only three categories — number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defence spending, where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined… So when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what the f*** you’re talking about.’
As the students look on, stunned, he adds, ‘We sure used to be… We waged wars on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbours, we put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chest. We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and cult ivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars, and acted like men… We were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed, by great men… The first step in solving any problem is recognising there is one — America is not the greatest country in the world any more.’
And nor, indisputably, is the oldworld pretender to that throne. Britain now ranks 23rd in literacy, 28th in maths, 16th in science, 13th in life expectancy, 25th in infant mortality, eighth in household income, 17th in labour force and tenth in exports.
Britons, too, used to be all the things McEvoy fondly recalls Americans being in their great past.
What are my countrymen world leaders at now? Well, we increase our alcohol consumption over the Christmas holiday more than any other nationality.