The youngest member of the 1956 U.S. Olympic track and field team lay sprawled on the infield grass deep inside the vast bowl of the Los Angeles Coliseum and wiped the perspiration back through his curly brown hair and grinned. And then, with all the inscrutable and profound insight that only 18 can bring, Eddie Southern explained quite simply not only why that Friday night he himself had been able to run so fast—much faster than he had ever run before—but also why the final U.S. Olympic trials were to become the most fabulous track and field meet the nation had ever seen.
"I was just a scared Texan," he said. "I was afraid I wouldn't make the team."
Eddie Southern had no intention of speaking for his half a hundred teammates selected in the white heat of competition from the 250 who got to Los Angeles the hard way. He was thinking only of the race he had just run, an amazing flight of 400-meter hurdles, more than half a second under the world record but still not quite good enough to bring him in first that night in Los Angeles. But he spoke for others, too. For a 21-year-old farmboy named Glenn Davis, who was not a scared Texan but a scared Ohioan and in his own private anxiety to make the team, had just beaten Southern and set a world record. He spoke for Charlie Dumas, the graceful young man with the green kangaroo-skin track shoes and the kangaroolike reflexes who, minutes later, was to conquer the high jumper's Everest of seven feet; Charlie Dumas, a 19-year-old iceberg from Compton Junior College who never appears rattled or disturbed in competition but, until he clinched his own place on the Olympic team, admitted he was getting a little scared, too. And Southern spoke for Bobby Morrow, the lean, brown 20-year-old with the beautiful sprinter's stride who had completely dominated the dashes all through these frantic preliminary weekends and did the same at the Coliseum, too, but was never sure, until he hit the tape, that even he might not be the victim of some fantastic and unkind—but irrevocably final—trick of fate that would send him back home to Texas, instead of to Australia in November.
July 8, 1956
The tremendous pressure even affected the old pros (which is only a manner of speaking, Mr. Dan Ferris). Parry O'Brien and Cy Young and Bob Richards and Fortune Gordien were hardly scared, but the excitement was heavy on them, too, and—just like the youngsters—they responded.
At Melbourne, the words of Baron de Coubertin will undoubtedly ring true: "The important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part." At the Coliseum, however, they rang slightly hollow. If you did not win—or at least finish third—there was going to be little satisfaction next fall in sitting at home and remembering you had been part of the show.
Whatever the reaction on the individual—fear, determination or pride—the trials themselves developed into something even more than had been expected. A meet record was set in the first event. A world record was tied in the third, and when they finally got around to totting up the final score, the whirling split-second hands on the stop watches and the shimmering steel tape measures told a story of two rather startling days in the history of track and field: three world records broken, another tied, two American records broken and a dozen assorted American-citizen, meet and stadium marks completely obliterated.
Probably the most dramatic of all was the high jump, although for Charlie Dumas the day didn't begin auspiciously at all: he could neither find his competitor's pass nor talk his way past a stout guardian of the stadium gate, and had to shell out $3 for a ticket to get inside. There Charlie had fun, and as the bar mounted higher and higher he began to forget even the $3; all year this trim college freshman had been consistently the best high jumper in the land and the rarefied atmosphere approaching seven feet is his normal habitat.
Finally it was down to five jumpers and then, after making 6 feet 8½ inches, Ernie Shelton and Bernie Allard both missed. Little Phil Reavis and tall Vern Wilson made 6 feet 9½ and then they missed, too. And there was Dumas all alone.
"Move it up to seven," he asked.
"Charlie," warned Wilson, "if you do that and make it, eight guys will equal it next week. Make it seven feet and one-half inch."
So they did, and Dumas, after missing once and relacing his green kangaroo-skin shoes twice, sailed over the bar, leaving it shaky, but still there, at a measured height of 7 feet 5/8 inch.
In some ways, particularly to the track experts, Davis' race over the 400-meter hurdles was even more astounding. Here was a sophomore at Ohio State who had never run that event before this year (although, singlehanded, he once won the Ohio State high school track championship with three first places and a fourth) and had tried it only five times previous in 1956. "Why did I pick it?" he repeated a newsman's question, "Well, because I figured I couldn't make the Olympic team in anything else and because I think it's a great race."
It was fortunate he had both convictions to help him last weekend. Southern, the slightly phenomenal University of Texas freshman who was running the race for only the fifth time (but who had also done pretty well in high school: two national records at 220 and 440 yards), ripped off the blocks as if he had done nothing all week but study pictures of Bobby Morrow in action and, half way around the track, was clearly five strides ahead of Davis. "I knew I was so far behind right there," said the Ohio Stater, "that I felt like giving up."
Nobody gave up, but Southern got a little tired and Davis caught him going over the 10th and last hurdle. And in the run to the tape, Davis edged ahead by a yard, then two. His time was 49.5 seconds, Southern's 49.7, and third-place Josh Culbreath, 1955 National champion now in the Marine Corps, had 50.4. Culbreath's time was equal to the old world record set by Russia's Yuriy Lituyev in 1953. "Maybe these people don't appreciate completely what those two boys just did," mused a thoughtful coach, "but Russia will. In fact, they won't believe it. And I'm not sure that I do either."
The meet's third world record went to Lou Jones, the former Manhattan College quarter-miler, now in the Army at Fort Meade, Md., and his performance, though of tremendous brilliance, really surprised no one at all. For Jones has now run the two fastest 400-meter races of all time, and the record he broke was his own. The old one, set in the Pan-American Games last year, was 45.4. The new one is 45.2. At Mexico City, the onlookers said "impossible," and at Los Angeles they just said "impossible" again and let it go at that. Second was Jim Lea, world record holder at 440 yards who had also been second to Jones in the other big race, although then by a matter of inches. This time, although Lea ran a 45.8 himself, the margin was a rather conclusive five yards. Jones's first 220 yards was timed, unofficially, in a startling 21.3. He believes he sprinted the first 100 yards in 9.8. And this in a race they once called the 400-meter run.
No one was at all surprised when Morrow won both dashes, and while so doing, for the second time in eight days equaled the world record of 10.2 for 100 meters and for the second time in two weeks (he didn't run the longer race in the AAU at Bakersfield) equaled the American record of 20.6 for 200 meters around a curve.
In the 100 he ran his 10.2 in a heat, looking around to be certain no one was sneaking up from behind, which was a rather modest but useless gesture considering all the factors involved. "I wasn't really trying," he grinned later. "I didn't think I was going so fast." Murchison and Baker also ran 10.2, the chunky little Army man getting away to his usual rocketing start, and the tall Air Force man, who has been one of America's best dash men for half a dozen years, coming up with his usual blazing finish. Both admitted they were trying.
In the finals Murchison got away typically first and Baker came on typically strong at the end. But most typical of all, Morrow caught Murchison by the end of 40 meters and didn't let Baker get too close at the finish. His time was 10.3. Murchison, Baker and King finished in that order in 10.4.
The 200 meters was much the same. Morrow just outran everybody, including Baker and Stanfield who, in the opposite order, finished one-two in this event at Helsinki. And again, no one was ever close to catching this streaking young man from the Rio Grande who appears almost a cinch to become the first double sprint winner at the Olympic Games since Jesse Owens.
But while the world records were fun, to the track purist nothing could quite match the wonderful 800-meter race so carefully planned and so flawlessly executed by Tom Courtney to beat the slender miracle runner from Pittsburgh, Arnie Sowell. Except for once when Arnie was pushed off the track, it was the first time in three years of hot competition that the ex-Fordham star had been able to beat his feather-footed opponent outdoors.
Everyone knew it would be a great race and some even thought Courtney might win; he had been improving steadily all season, but then so had Sowell. So the stage was set and the gun went off and Sowell and Courtney, in that order, blazed to the front at the first turn and the race was on.
Just a few days before, Assistant Olympic Coach Bob Giegengack of Yale had said: "Deliver me from guys who think; just give me the ones who can run." But Courtney was determined to do both. He decided right away the pace was a little too fast and he dropped back, letting first Mal Whitfield, the two-time Olympic champion, go past, and then Lang Stanley and Lon Spurrier, the world 880-yard record holder, as well. But back in fifth place, Courtney remained unworried even though Sowell clipped off the first 400 meters in 51.7 seconds. "Just as long as he didn't get too far ahead, I didn't care," explained the big Army private. "I had planned to do the first 400 in 52.5 and that's about what I did."
On the backstretch, marvelous old Mal Whitfield made his bid, trying with one cunning and desperate move to steal the race and qualify for his third Olympic Games. But although Sowell let him go, it didn't last long; Arnie moved out on the turn and began to sprint, going past Whitfield and apparently heading for another of his brilliant victories. But then here came Courtney. He began his move at the turn and, while nearly 40,000 in the stands were watching Sowell and Whitfield, he pounded his way up even with both. And when they reached the stretch, it was Courtney who had the kick left. "Usually, Arnie is passing me on that last straightaway," he grinned later. "Today I thought as I went past, 'Now it's my turn.' "
And it was. Courtney won by four yards in a new American record time of 1:46.4; Sowell ran 1:46.9 and both Spurrier and Stanley drove up to catch and pass Whitfield before the finish line.
The two other major records, while unimpressive by international standards perhaps, were still fine performances nonetheless. One was the 14:26 flat 5,000-meter race run by Oregon's handsome, little Bill Dellinger, which was an American record ("He will be under 14 minutes before the year is out," said his coach). The other was the American citizen's record of 51 feet 4¾ inches in the hop, step and jump by Ira Davis, from La Salle.
There were surprises, of course. Fred Dwyer and Bobby Seaman, America's two fastest milers in the absence of the uninvited Wes Santee, both failed to qualify in the 1,500 meters, which was won in the quite acceptable time of 3:47.6 by surprising home town boy Jerome Walters.
But mostly, it was a meet which ran according to form. There was, for example, the shotput. The world's three 60-footers, Olympic Champion Parry O'Brien, NCAA and AAU Champion Ken Bantum of Manhattan and Kansan Bill Nieder, the national collegiate record holder, all made the plane to Melbourne. (Although O'Brien was the only one to get over 60 feet.) In the hammer, America's three ranking stars, the only three to get past 200 feet, mounted the victory stand together: Al Hall of Cornell, Cliff Blair of Boston U and the steady veteran, Harold Connolly of the Boston AA. Jack Davis who has a world record of 13.4 up for recognition, and Lee Calhoun, who beat him the week before at Bakers-field, ran a photofinish dead heat in the 110-meter high hurdles.
In the javelin, it was Olympic Champion Cy Young and NCAA Champion Phil Conley; in the pole vault the remarkable Reverend Bob Richards, over 15 feet once more; in the discus happy-go-lucky Fortune Gordien, the world record holder and, at 33, all frisky to get down to Australia and take his third try at winning an Olympic title as well; and the two broad jumpers who have been consistently the best in the nation for two years and who fittingly enough ended up in a tie at 25 feet 8½ inches at the Coliseum, Greg Bell and John Bennett.
Some, of course, missed. Who will forget the tragic picture of Dave Sime limping across the track to fall on his knees and elbows on the infield grass while Morrow flashed away on down the white-lined straightaway toward the Olympic Games. Dave Sime, who had pulled a groin muscle two weeks before the trials and was never able to run, even in practice, at more than half speed. When he crouched at his blocks in the 100 heat on Friday, it was the first start he had attempted in two weeks. It was probably just as well. At the first stride, the muscle pulled again and by the end of five he was through. The fans said what a shame, but another eastern runner who had been watching Sime all year told the story better than they. "Now," he said, "these people out here will never really know—or ever believe—how great he really was."
And there was Ernie Shelton, the man who has come closer to jumping seven feet more times than any athlete alive, but now just one of those who will remain behind in November. Ernie Shelton, trudging dejectedly head down across the field toward the dressing room with sawdust in his hair and what could have been perspiration rolling down his cheeks. And there was Bud Held, walking off the field carrying his beloved javelin which once set a world record but, last week, was one gigantic inch short of sailing quite far enough; Don Bragg, the second highest pole vaulter in history, standing by the pit with his injured leg heavily bandaged and half-heartedly arguing that the wind had blown his pole against the standard on his third failure at 14 feet 8½ and Aubrey Lewis, the Notre Dame football star from New Jersey who beat Davis at Berkeley, and might have again, sprawled on the track after hitting the final hurdle in his preliminary heat and failing even to reach the finals. "It has been," said Lewis later, looking around him at Sime and Bragg and Dwyer, "a tough weekend for New Jersey."
And while there was nothing tragic about two men who have gained glory such as few athletes will ever achieve and who even then had just made their final efforts both thrilling and strong, it was a little sad to watch Whitfield grin and shake his head after the 800 meters and Old Bones Dillard trot back up the track for the last time after finishing sixth in the high hurdles and wave pleasantly to the thousands who rose and cheered as he went by.
But really there was little room for sadness. The younger and the stronger and the physically fit had survived, and when they gathered in the middle of the field for the closing ceremonies and their introduction to the crowd as the members of the 1956 United States Olympic track and field team, no one even looked scared any more. Not even Eddie Southern, who in his 18-year-old wisdom could look back at the two days, look around him at his teammates—and relax with a big grin, knowing that it was now time for the rest of the world to worry about him.
SAN BENITO, TEXAS
100, 200 meters
GRAND FORKS, N.D.
5,000, 10,000 m.
110-m. high hurdles
SANTA MONICA, CALIF.
PACIFIC GROVE, CALIF.
110-m. high hurdles
J. W. Mashburn
NEW YORK CITY
NEW YORK CITY
Hop, step and jump
100, 200 meters
NEW HYDE PARK, N.Y.
110-m. high hurdles
LA VERNE, CALIF.
NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y.
Hop, step and Jump
SAN JOSE, CALIF.
GLEN RIDGE, N.J.
TERRE HAUTE, IND.
VAN NUYS, CALIF.
BOYS TOWN, NEB.
Hop, step and Jump
NEW YORK CITY
SAN JOSE, CALIF.