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Championship Century: 100 Years of Heroes
During a century bursting with record shattering achievements in all forms of human endeavor, this moment stood out: On May 6, 1954, a 25-year-old English medical student named Roger Bannister ran a mile in 3 minutes 59.4 seconds. This "tall, pale-skinned explorer of human exhaustion," as the first issue of Sports Illustrated described him, had crashed through one of the most formidable barriers n sports: the four-minute mile.
Bannister's feat, an ultimate test of courage, will, and ability, inspired athletes everywhere, but especially in the United States. Here, in the second half of the 20th century, sports of all kinds began to assume an importance unparalleled even in ancient Greece. Sports helped spur social change, providing unprecedented opportunity for heretofore excluded groups-women and African Americans like tennis champion Arther Ashe, the first black man to win a major singles title. At the same time, television transformed sports into entertainment for the masses, allowing even couch potatoes to participate, albeit vicariously, in their favorite pastimes. Sports above all became big business, spawning myriad millionaires, including many of the players themselves.
The man voted outstanding male athlete of the century's first 50 years was born too early to share in the wealth. Native American Jim Thorpe led the tiny Carlisle Indian School to victory over such collegiate football powers of his day as Harvard. Later he became America's first pro-football star. He also played six years of Major League Baseball. But his most astonishing performance came during the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, where he won both the decathlon and the pentathlon.
The titles earned him worldwide admiration and the praise of royalty. "Sir, you are the world's greatest athlete," Sweden's King Gustav told him. "Thanks, King," was Thorpe's snappy comeback. But then a newspaper revealed that Thorpe had violated the stringent and unforgiving requirements then in effect for holding amateur status. For a scarce few dollars a week he had spent two summers pitching and playing first base in a minor league in North Carolina. The practice was common among collegians, who usually eluded detection by using assumed names, but the na�ve Thorpe took no such precautions. He was compelled to give back his Olympic gold medals, and his name was erased from the record books. The pain of the loss never left him; neither medals nor records would be restored until 1982, nearly three decades after he died in poverty.