Four Minutes: Q&A with Frank Deford

Updated: October 4, 2005, 2:08 PM ET
ESPN.com

Editor's note: In anticipation of the Oct. 6 premiere of Four Minutes (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET), ESPN talked with the film's screenwriter Frank Deford. Deford is a senior writer at Sports Illustrated and a weekly commentator on NPR's "Morning Edition."

ESPN: Can you talk a little bit about how the original magazine article came about? Was it an assignment, or were you thinking about the idea beforehand?

FRANK DEFORD: As the end of the 20th century approached, I was bemused by the fact that so much of the sports summary was narrow and repetitive. With a few exceptions -- Babe Ruth, Jim Thorpe, Babe Didrickson -- almost all of the attention was lavished on those athletes who had competed in the last decades of the century. In the United States, too, almost no attention was paid to foreign athletes.

Christopher Plummer as Archie Mason
Christopher Plummer plays Archie Mason, the former running great that coached Roger Bannister.

I told the managing editor at Sports Illustrated, Bill Colson, that I thought the two most signal athletic events of the century were being overlooked by a parochial and modern sporting press -- the conquering of Mt. Everest and the breaking of the four-minute mile. I said I wanted to do a story on the men who performed those feats, Sir Edmund Hillary and Sir Roger Bannister. (Tenzing Norkay, who climbed to the Everest summit with Hillary, was dead.) Colson immediately agreed that it was a worthy story for Sports Illustrated to conclude the century with.

Of course, I also had an ulterior motive. As someone who has covered sports for 40 years, I'm not easily impressed by athletes. Hillary and Bannister, I wanted to meet.

ESPN: Further to that, how did the notion of a Four Minutes film come about? What was it like adapting something you had written yourself?

DEFORD: Adapting Sir Roger's story to film was an altogether different experience than writing the magazine story. Film is such a different medium from journalism. I had to embellish scenes and create representative characters to dramatize the story. Also, whereas writing a magazine piece is a very solitary experience, film-writing is a collegial craft. I was always working closely with Gerry Abrams and Bud Greenspan, the executive producers. Greenspan had himself extensively interviewed Sir Roger for an earlier documentary.

ESPN: Bannister, as a man of science with what you've called a "very full life," is unique among sports heroes because of his other interests. Is it safe to say that's part of what you found so interesting about him?

DEFORD: Oh, indisputably. The great charm of Sir Roger is that he is such a whole man. In a way he almost gets irritated that this thing he happened to do one day fifty years ago so dominates the interest in him. What he did that May 6th, 1954 would by itself make him an unforgettable person, but the fact that he has lived such a full and successful life since then makes him especially unique and memorable. As much as any athlete I've ever met, his sporting achievement -- great as it was -- remains in context to the all of him.

ESPN: Bannister no longer holds the record for the mile. What, in your opinion, can viewers of Four Minutes still learn from his experience?

DEFORD: Bannister didn't just break a record. Athletes will do that on a regular basis as long as races are run, games are played. He did more. He crashed through a barrier. His was a victory of the will, a triumph for all humankind -- only an elemental advance, to be sure, but an achievement that proved to us all that we can always accomplish more. Often enough, too, we can do it on our own terms, our way.

ESPN: The movie notes that Bannister was one of the last true amateurs to compete at the world-record level in Olympic sports. Do you think that's part of what makes him such an inspirational figure?

DEFORD: Actually, I'm no great fan of amateurism. Too often, I think, it was a policy imposed on poor athletes for the wrong reasons. Actors, singers, writers get paid; why shouldn't athletes? But that was the milieu Bannister grew up in, and what is so noble about him is that he lived up to all the demands of that world. He would not compromise. The most amazing thing to me is not that he became the first human being to run a mile in four minutes, but that he did it after a normal day's work -- on his feet, doing rounds at a hospital, riding a subway, riding a train. The feat would have meant so much less to him if he had stolen from the rest of his life to succeed as a runner.

ESPN: England after World War II was a tough place to be. Can you speak briefly about the effect that Hilary and Bannister had on the British people? What is Bannister's legacy in England today?

DEFORD: England had won the war at such great cost, and then, in a way, lost the peace. As late as '54, when Bannister ran his mile, the country was under heavy rationing. It was a dispirited place -- especially in comparison to the United States. Even Germany was being rehabilitated faster. So even small victories mattered to the people. Athletically, England -- the very country that gave birth to so many popular sports -- languished. At the 1952 Olympics, England won one gold medal -- and that not really by a human being. A horse, in the equestrian events, was the only true winner.

While Hillary and Norkay were neither of them English, Hillary was from New Zealand, part of what was still called the "Empire." The expedition itself was managed by British. It was fair enough to believe that England had conquered the world's tallest peak -- and all the more exciting that the news arrived literally on the day that Queen Elizabeth II was crowned. Bannister's feat a year later meant just as much to the people, to the nation. Once again, something that mattered to all the world had been achieved by England. The English could hold their heads high.

For all the great British athletes who have come to prominence since then, including, even, some record-breaking milers, none can ever mean as much to the spirit of a people as Roger Bannister did. He's remembered in a special, dear way. His legacy endures.