While Americans looked anxiously toward the East and some young Americans headed that way on grim assignments, a planeload of U.S. athletes last Sunday flew from Idle-wild Airport on a mission unconnected with war and peace. It is one of the minor coincidences of history that the United States and Russia should meet for the first time in a head-to-head test of track and field strength at the moment when political strain between the nations has acquired almost unprecedented acuity. The struggle the American athletes face will be decided on points, and the Americans must be favored.
For most of the men aboard, the big meet in Moscow July 27-28 is unlikely to be much more than a brisk workout. For the women, too, it is only a brisk workout, but for a diametrically opposite reason. The American women have dim hopes, indeed, for victory. If the scoring for this dual meet is a composite of men's and women's points, it is probable that the American women's team will manage to lose whatever margin the American men can build up.
The United States' men's team has world record holders or their practical equivalent in every track and field event up to 1,500 meters. Although Russia in world standings is next to the United States in track and field, it is still clearly in second place. Probably the U.S. margin of superiority would be wider if some Olympic events were not, inexplicably, left out of NCAA competition. Despite this lack, though, the U.S. is still comfortably ahead and here is why:
In the dashes the best Russian performers are blond Ukrainian Leonid Bartenyev and Yuriy Konovalov of Azerbaijan. There are younger competitors who might replace either of them, but none can compete with the consistent 10.3, 10.2 efforts of Americans in the 100 meters or the sub-21-second 200-meter performances.
America's Glenn Davis and Eddie Southern often run under 46 seconds for 440 yards; Russia's best is Asian-looking Ardalion Ignatyev, a sturdy 5-foot 8-inch athlete who is joint holder of the European record for 400 meters (shorter by nine feet than the 440-yard dash) in 46 seconds flat. Ignatyev is recovering from a serious, unspecified illness and may give way to Muscovite Mikhail Nikolskiy, who can run under 47.5 seconds.
Russia has no one of international caliber at 800 meters, although Anatoliy Osminkin has been slightly under 1:50 for the distance. Tom Courtney, America's world record holder, and Don Bowden are capable of times two seconds under Osminkin's.
Even at 1,500 meters the U.S. domination may hold. Russia has a couple of metric milers—Lithuanian Jonas Pipyné and Yevgeniy Sokolov—who have done 3:41.1 and 3:41.7 (roughly the equivalent of 3:58 and 3:59 in the mile) but they ran these good times in 1957 and so far have not equaled them in 1958. While neither Jim Grelle nor Ed Moran has been under four minutes, it is not inconceivable that, on an uncrowded track and with the spur of international competition, either could beat the Russians.
Beyond 1,500 meters the track belongs to the U.S.S.R. Semyon Rzhishchin has been unbeaten for the last 19 months in the 3,000-meter steeplechase; Vladimir Pytrovich Kuts won the 5,000- and 10,000-meter runs at Melbourne and has found a worthy second in Pyotr Bolotnikov, who is of international class.
In the hurdles only Anatoliy Mikhailov (best time 13.8 for 110-meter highs) is under 14 seconds, a fairly common time on American tracks. In the 400-meter hurdles Glenn Davis of the U.S. is nearly two seconds faster than the best of the Russians, Yuriy Lituyev. The Russian high jumpers, bereft of their built-up shoes, can push but not beat Charlie Dumas, America's legitimate record holder. Yuriy Styepanov and Igor Kashkarov, sans built-up shoes, are fairly consistent at 6 feet 9.
In the other field events the Russian shotputters are several feet short of American class. Flowing-haired Armenian giant Vartan Ovsepyan, once Russia's best, has been off form and may be replaced by either Vladimir Losshilov or Vikytors Lipsnis, but all are under 56 feet. In the discus Algimantas (Algis to his buddies) Baltumisnikas has approached American performances with a throw of 185 feet 7, but that's nearly 15 feet shy of the best unofficial efforts of our two champs, Rink Babka and Al Oerter.
The U.S. still has a monopoly on 15-foot pole vaulters, with the exception of George Roubanis, a Greek competing for UCLA, but he will not be on the Russian side. Russia's best broad jumper has done 25 feet 6, good but not good enough.
The U.S. could lose both the hammer throw and the decathlon. Harold Connolly set a new world record with the hammer at the National AAU meet, but towering Mikhail Krivonosov lost to Connolly only by inches at Melbourne and is close to his world mark. Decathlon star Vasiliy Kouznetsov, 26, recently broke the world record in his event, but he will be lucky to beat Rafer Johnson, who may set a new record in Moscow.
The prospect for the American men is good. But here, for once, the American female is the weaker sex.