The Irish Mail on Sunday - TV Week - - PUZZLE TIME -


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.’


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.


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