It has been a magnificent spring. Great champions have demonstrated once again to an already incredulous audience that there is virtually no limit to the accomplishments of human speed, skill and strength. Unknown young athletes have hurtled to international fame. And yet none of it means a thing. For what has been taking place, on every cinder track and in every shotput ring and vaulting pit across the nation, has been mere preparation for three consecutive weekends which lie ahead and which promise to be among the most dramatic and important in the history of track and field. From these next three weekends, on four California tracks, the 1956 U.S. Olympic team will emerge.
It will be the best Olympic track and field team the United States has ever produced. In many events, U.S. superiority over the rest of the world is so marked that the big problem really revolves around which trio of American citizens, in each of 22 events, is better than some half dozen others. That is what the next three weekends should solve.
First stop on the road to Melbourne is a double feature. At Berkeley this weekend the National Collegiate championships will qualify the first six finishers (excluding non-U.S. citizens) in each event for the U.S. Olympic Trials. At the same time, in the Interservice championships at Fort MacArthur, track men from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps will be battling for the three qualifying spots allotted to that meet in each event. Then on June 22-23 at Bakersfield, the National AAU meet will qualify a final six, and this is open to all amateurs, whether members of clubs, college teams, military organizations or even if unaffiliated with any organization at all. For many, the AAU will be their only chance. For others who missed at Berkeley or at Fort MacArthur, it will be a second chance. And for some who have already gained a spot in the Trials, it will be an opportunity to test their spikes—and maybe go after a record—on what has been called the world's fastest track.
On June 29-30 the survivors get together at Los Angeles to determine which three, in each event, will make the trip to Melbourne.
In a normal year the accent at the NCAA meet would be on the team championship, but there is more significance this year in the speed of an Arnie Sowell or a Dave Sime than in the possibility that a Kansas or a UCLA might topple the University of Southern California from the throne the mighty Trojans have occupied for seven consecutive years.
The college field at Berkeley this weekend ought to send nearly 30 men to the Olympics, some two dozen of them as members of the U.S. team and the rest as representatives of countries such as Ireland (Miler Ron Delany of Villanova), Australia (Miler Jim Bailey of Oregon), Finland (Pole Vaulter Eeles Landstrom of Michigan) and Trinidad (Sprinter Mike Agostini of Fresno State). There could be even more, for this is an amazing collection of fine young athletes.
In the 800 meters, for example, Lang Stanley of San Jose State and Billy Tidwell of Emporia (Kans.) Teachers can furnish the competition necessary to push Pitt's fabulous Arnie Sowell to a new world record. In the 400 meters, Defending Champion J. W. Mashburn of Oklahoma A&M meets Villanova's Charley Jenkins, the 1955 AAU winner, and Penn's Johnny Haines, who, in view of his performances in recent weeks, appears ready to abandon the sprints, where he was one of the nation's best, in favor of the longer distance, where he has been looking even better. And the pole vault will feature three boys who have already been over the magic height of 15 feet this spring—Don Bragg of Villanova, Bob Gutowski of Occidental and Southern Cal's Ron Morris.
Also at Berkeley, together for the first time, will be the three streaking sophomores who could conceivably be the entire U.S. entry in the dashes at Melbourne: Bobby Morrow of Abilene Christian, Dave Sime of Duke and Leamon King of California.
Bobby Seaman of UCLA, the best U.S. college miler, gets another shot at two four-minute men, Bailey and Delany. Rafer Johnson of UCLA, the No. 1 Olympic decathlon hope, doesn't figure to win any of his specialties at Berkeley but should provide tremendous competition to Indiana's Greg Bell in the broad jump and Lee Calhoun of North Carolina College in the high hurdles. Bill Nieder of Kansas, the only college shotputter ever to surpass 60 feet, is a favorite to win his event for the second straight year, but no one is underestimating Manhattan's Ken Bantum, a 59-footer in his own right. And the discus throw, which may wind up deciding the eventual team champion, is loaded with talent: Al Oerter of Kansas, Rink Babka and Jack Egan of Southern Cal, Ron Drummond and Don Vick of UCLA, Carl Vereen of Georgia Tech.
Despite all the individual glitter, there remains the issue of the team championship and the manner in which UCLA, Kansas and possibly Villanova seek to bring the almost legendary domination of Southern California to an end. Southern Cal, even with the loss by injury and illness of such stars as Two-Miler Fernando Ledesma, Shotputter Ray Martin and Broad Jumper Jon Arnett, retains its usual depth. Perhaps only chunky little Max Truex in the 5,000 meters is a strong first-place possibility, but USC still has Walt Levack and Morris (pole vault), Mike Larrabee (400), Murray Coburn and Chuck Kirkby (800), Sid Wing (1,500), Babka and Egan (discus) and Bob Voiles (javelin) who will be in there chipping away at the points for third, fourth, fifth or sixth places.
UCLA has strong big-point possibilities in Johnson (high hurdles and broad jump), Seaman (1,500), Russ Ellis (400) and Vick and Drummond in the weights, but no real second-line strength to back them up. In fact, if anyone is to dethrone the Trojans, it may well be Kansas and not UCLA at all. Nieder (shot) and Oerter (discus) are pre-meet favorites to pick up 20 points all by themselves, and they have an excellent supporting cast in Blair (sprints), Kent Floerke (broad jump and hop, step and jump), Al Frame (5,000 or 10,000), Jerry McNeal (steeplechase) and Les Bitner, the defending champion and collegiate record holder in the javelin who has had trouble all spring recapturing his 1955 form because of a sore back. Villanova's outside hope for victory lies in the tremendous first-place potential of Jenkins (400), Bragg (pole vault) and Delany (1,500). Distance Man Alex Breckenridge and High Jumper Phil Reavis could help.
Down at Fort MacArthur there will be an older, more experienced field in which most of the standouts are former college champions themselves, not to mention six world record holders. For instance, the service meet will include Rod Richard, Thane Baker, Willie Williams and Ira Murchison (sprints); Jim Lea and Lou Jones (400); Tom Courtney and Lon Spurrier (800); Jack Davis, Milt Campbell and Charlie Pratt (high hurdles); Parry O'Brien and Des Koch (weights); John Bennett (broad jump); Al Cantello (javelin); Joe Tyler (5,000); Josh Culbreath and Bob Rittenberg (400 hurdles) and Ken Reiser (steeplechase).
Not even the Pentagon cares whether the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marine Corps wins the team championship in this one, but the individual brilliance of the athletes involved is enough to carry the load. And, together with the college men up at Berkeley, the service athletes are sure to make this Friday and Saturday—first of the big three—a track weekend to remember.