Since 1946, Russian track and field women have been ripping off one astounding performance after another. They were the talk of the '52 Olympics and today hold world records in three of the nine events on the Olympic program, share the record in two others and are represented among the first four in the remaining events.
This is an article from the Aug. 27, 1956 issue
Last week the Russian girls once again demonstrated just how they intend to monopolize the Games at Melbourne. Rubbing his hands, Gabriel Korobkov, chief Russian track coach, said "prospects for Russia's women athletes look bright," but on second thought Korobkov warned of overconfidence: "Americans," he mused, "often say their women athletes are not good, but often they are much better than expected."
The American response to Korobkov was a quick one. Two days after the finish of the Soviet shindig in Moscow (see page 12), nearly 200 American track and field girls "did better than expected" at Philadelphia's sun-trapped Franklin Field. Competing in the National AAU championships in stewy 95° heat, the girls established four new American records in sprinting, jumping and throwing and still saved most of their energy for this Saturday's all-important Olympic try-outs in Washington.
Star of the meet was 24-year-old Mae Faggs of Tennessee State, one of America's alltime greats who has represented the U.S. in every important national and international contest since the 1948 Olympics. Running in seven heats, semifinals and finals, Mae won the 100-meter event in the good time of 11.7; her specialty, the 200-meter, in 24.6; and anchored the 400-meter relay team to a very fast 47.1.
There's a thrill in watching Mae perform, from the moment she walks out onto the track, shoulders back and head erect. She prances up her lane to get the feel of the track, shoots around a curve in a short burst of speed to warm up muscles and test her spring. Back at the starting line, she is most meticulous about placing her starting blocks in just the right position. As the less experienced runners fidget, Mae quietly treads in one spot, first lifting her knees slowly, then increasing the speed until they are driving like pistons. At the call to the blocks, like the last piece in a jigsaw puzzle, she drops into position, head down, knee deeply bent but her back level and straight. At the crack of the gun she's like a trout rising swift and clean. Halfway through the race her rivals are strung out behind her, and from there on in she just floats to the tape.
Anyone with enough nerve to challenge her plays right into Mae's hands. "I'm not a self-propelled record breaker," says Mae. "I need somebody breathing down my neck." "But," say her competitors, "soon as you push Faggs, she just hydraulically shifts gears and, with no break in stride, stays out in front all the way." Barbara Jones of Chicago, the somewhat erratic but very talented Pan-American champion and member of the 400-meter U.S. 1952 Olympic champions, usually gives Faggs a good push. Although she took a painful header last week, Barbara got up, brushed the cinders off and will defend her place on the team on Saturday.
The only girl consistently to trade top honors with Faggs is Mae's own protégée, young Isabel Daniels, also at Tennessee State on an athletic scholarship. (The one and only Notre Dame of women's track, Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State University in Nashville has a total of eight girls on scholarships. All train hard under the experienced eye of Coach Ed Temple—no loafing is tolerated when so many hopefuls are beating on the doors.) Daniels took her share of the honors Saturday as she romped away with the 50-meter run, pushed hard on Faggs's heels in the 100-meter and ran on the Tennessee State relay team.
As these two girls rushed for the tape, they left behind many talented but less experienced hopefuls. Sixteen-year-old Marcia Cosgrove, of Renton, Wash., fresh from victories on the West Coast, ran out of steam in the 100-meter semifinal but recouped her energies to take a creditable fourth in the 200-meter final. "See you in Washington for the tryouts" was Marcia's way of accepting this defeat.
In her teen-age jargon, Marcia spiels on and on about why she likes to run: "I tell you, I think it's just fabulous. It's just the most wonderful experience. I get so keyed up before a race that I just stand there at the end of the track and say to myself, 'I can't do it.' I can't even bend over to do calisthenics. It's like that until just before they say go to your blocks. Then I'm all right all of a sudden."
Marcia idolizes her coach, Ken Foreman (men's track coach at Seattle Pacific College), and Marcia has been quite an experience for Foreman. "Marcia is a typical girl," chuckles Ken. "She works hard, but she'll talk your ear off. We'll be jogging around the track, and I'll be getting all the inside on what she dreamed last night or the latest high school fad or Elvis Presley's latest. It's been quite a revelation to me, I'll tell you."
Gayle Dierks is another young girl from the West who came, saw and was conquered by the experienced Tennessee State women. Gayle didn't make the finals in her events, but she still has a "burning desire to run and win."
Two years ago Frank Potts, coach at Colorado University and one of the deans of American track and field, spotted Gayle at an AAU Junior Olympic meet and was attracted by two things: 1) her free natural running style and 2) her obvious determination to win. Potts called Gayle into his office and questioned her closely about her ambitions as a runner. He found out that she had been running ever since she was in the second grade and that, in spite of the fact that she had never had any coaching or encouragement, she had made up her own training schedule and stuck with it. Potts was impressed and asked Coach Dick Brenneman from her home town of Englewood to help Gayle.
If the Russian coach Korobkov is surprised by what the American sprinters achieved, he couldn't have been more surprised than the Philadelphia crowd as they watched the unearthing of two very classy broad jumpers, also from Tennessee State. Not in years has the U.S. come up with two such leapers, and there's reason to hope that if 21-year-old Margaret Mathews—who jumped 19 feet 4 inches—and 14-year-old Willie White—who kept right on Margaret's heels with 18 feet 10¾ inches—repeat their performances at the tryouts, they should both make the team and keep things hopping at Melbourne.
Out in the middle of the field, a good safe distance from the rest of the contestants, blonde Karen Anderson, the best javelinist we've ever had, picked up her weapon. With a long run-up and bound in the air she hurled the javelin 159 feet one inch—a good throw but six feet short of her best, as Karen kept something in reserve for the Saturday tryouts. Karen, an attractive blonde with light gray-blue eyes, has a well-balanced head on her shoulders and feels sensibly about the Olympics: "I'm not going to roll over and die if I don't win a medal. Life will go on for me, I've got so many things I want to do."
As the long sultry afternoon dragged on at Franklin Field, Mildred Mc-Daniel, Tuskegee Institute's world class high jumper, chewed on oranges, poured water on her hair and kept poking her head under an umbrella to keep out of the sun. While her pal, Billy Jo Jackson of Texas, had nervous palpitations—"I just never know whether my stomach is going to stay with me over that bar"—Mildred would amble up to the jump and hop over the bar in her modified western barrel-roll style. "Gosh, Mildred," complained her rivals, "at least make it look hard for our sake." At 5 feet 4 inches, with her competitors sprawling their three chances in the pit, Mildred called it quits: "Not going to take a chance of hurting myself. I mean to make that Olympic team next week." Nobody this week was pushing herself to the limit—the Olympic try-outs are it.
It is a pity that so many may be disappointed when they learn about some funny business on the part of the International Olympic Commission this year—setting up of minimum standards for the women's track and field events. The coaches begrudgingly accept the IOC executive decision, noting the inconsistency, since no such standards exist for the men. Our long distance boys, marathoners and walkers go three deep to Melbourne even though they are hopelessly outclassed in international competitions. There are those who believe that this is as it should be—who feel that standards in any events, whether for men or women, are undesirable, for the question is much more fundamental than who is good enough to win and who isn't. Standards smack of the Russian attitude of "Don't compete unless you can win" and violate a basic ideal of the Olympics: that the Olympics are a matter of personal achievement and that the best of each nation should have the honor and opportunity to represent their countries. There are others who feel that standards, wherever applicable in the Olympic program, would eliminate those who haven't done the necessary preparatory work.
But to set up arbitrary standards in only one part of the program is unjust.
Apart from the injustice of these minimum standards, the whole women's team for nine Olympic events is limited by the U.S. Olympic Board to 10 girls. As a result, a promising youngster such as 17-year-old Pamela Kurrell, who won all of her events in the girls' division and won the women's discus throw by improving 38 feet on her mark of last year (three feet more than the standard), is one of several girls who ought to be brought along in international competition but may not get the chance to go to Melbourne.
With the American challenge boiling down to a good close battle in the sprints and relay events, an excellent chance in the high jump and a better than fair chance in the javelin, how capable of slowing down the Russian steam roller are the rest of the women in the world?
Fragile-looking as a feather but with quills stuck deep in her hide, Bertha Diaz of Cuba put on a show at Philadelphia as she flew away from her rivals to set a new American record of 11.1 in the 80-meter hurdles. With her Cuban record of 11 flat, Bertha ranks among the six fleetest hurdlers in the world. Only German and Russian girls have done slightly better.
The highest high jump mark in the world (5 feet 8‚Öù inches) is held by a 20-year-old Rumanian girl, Yolande Balas. Right on her heels at 5 feet 8½ inches but more consistent in performance is Britain's Thelma Hopkins. This shy Irish lass, a pre-dental student at Belfast's Queen's University, is one of the world's most versatile athletes. She has high-jumped 5 feet 8½ inches, broad-jumped 19 feet 10½ inches, covered the 80-meter hurdles in 11.1 seconds and run the 200 meters in 25 seconds flat.
In 1950, Thelma met Franz Stampfl, the coach who helped Roger Bannister achieve his first four-minute mile. Since then, wherever Stampfl has been (right now he is coaching in Australia), he has supervised Thelma's training through an exchange of tape recordings. Confident of her chances at Melbourne, Thelma believes, along with Stampfl, that "a six-foot jump for women is possible. So long as it is fun trying, I'll try. As soon as it becomes a chore I'll stop." As a 16-year-old, Thelma placed fourth at the last Olympics and since that time has had a great deal of active competition, because Britain's women stars go along with the men to the big international meets in Bordeaux, Prague and Moscow. That kind of experience will be hard to beat at Melbourne.
The element of topflight international competition is an important one. Our own Karen Anderson is perhaps capable of throwing the javelin as far as any woman in the world, but whether or not she can do so at Melbourne, 10,000 miles from home, before 100,000 people and up against her first real competition, is a big question. The Russian women are just as good as Karen and at the moment are much more concerned with a competitor they know all about: the Czech star, Dana Zatopek, wife of Emil Zatopek, the great Czech long-distance runner.
Emil—clever fellow—married his commanding officer's daughter, and he and Dana live in a flat in Prague (where Dana maintains a strictly hands-off policy with regard to Emil's "mouse house" room in which he keeps his tools). A determined competitor, Dana never ceases to train, even though she could rest on her laurels as the defending Olympic champion.
The enchanting youngster, Galina Vinogradova, will have only her Russian pals to beat at Melbourne in the broad jump, since the marriage and retirement of co-World Record Holder Yvette Williams of New Zealand.
For years the discus has been an exclusive first-second-and-third-place affair for the Russians. Their grip on the shotput has been almost as firm. Jackie MacDonald of Canada and 220-pound Earlene Brown of Loe Angeles have put the shot 45 feet, but that is still seven feet shy of recent Russian efforts. Mrs. Brown, a novice, won the Nationals with her 45-foot toss and should improve.
The Americans who make the team as sprinters will come up against not only the Russian girls but a couple of very swift girls from Australia. Thirty-year-old Shirley Stricklund de la Hunty, the world record holder of the 100-meter run, claims to be "running better than ever." She is now braving Perth's chill winter nights to train in an unheated gym near her home.
A fellow Australian, freckle-faced, titian-haired Marlene Mathews, has postponed her wedding plans with Fireman Bill Willard in an effort to win a gold medal for the host country.
Stiff competition lies ahead for the U.S. girls who survive this week's Olympic tryouts. According to their Olympic Chairman Roxanne Andersen, "we'll do much better at Melbourne than we did at Helsinki—but watch our smoke in 1960!"
Given one-tenth the support the Russians give their women (see following-pages) and still adhering to the American way, our girls could match the Russians next time.