When the twin-engine Finnish Convair crossed into Russian territory the American athletes aboard peered curiously out of the windows, down onto a rolling countryside darkening rapidly. Then, with night, the ground was an unrelieved black, lit only at lonely intervals. The face of Russia seemed empty and ominous.
Athletes who had joined the group in Helsinki had warned the others that they could expect to be stoned when the ship landed in Moscow, but the American track and field team was greeted with flowers, not rocks. Discus Thrower Nina Ponomareva led some 200 Russians in a cheerfully noisy demonstration, although the team arrived after midnight. The Americans were hustled through customs in what must have been a world-record time for Russia, where the simplest things are difficult and the difficult impossible.
Soviet bureaucracy took a holiday as far as the American track team was concerned. American jazz was provided on the loudspeaker system at the central stadium where our athletes practiced last week, and officials laughed happily when some of the team members dutifully jitter-bugged to the music.
When the Russian athletes arrived from Tallinn, the Estonian capital where the national championships were held, they gathered in disciplined groups (by events) around the American performers. Soviet coaches with cameras took movies of every American gesture, but they are due for some surprises if they expect their own athletes to use the same warm-up methods, since some Americans—such as Charley Dumas, the world record holder in the high jump—invented exercises to suit the occasion. "They've got a dossier on me going back to 1952," boasted Parry O'Brien, U.S. world record holder in the shotput. "I've watched them practice and I've seen them in competition and they have my technique down pat, but I don't think they'll ever get over 60 feet by imitating me. It's a matter of the Russian temperament, I think. They don't have the faculty of squeezing all their nervous energy into a tight ball and exploding it in one tremendous burst of effort. They're great in things which require endurance and application but they're not temperamentally suited for the things which take this kind of explosive energy."
August 3, 1958
O'Brien's analysis of the Russian character insofar as it relates to track might have been a blueprint for the meet itself. In the events requiring an intense expenditure of effort over a relatively brief time the Americans were easily the best.
Some of the Russian good nature wore away during the first afternoon of the competition. Radio Moscow carried only the first three events of the afternoon. When the Soviets failed to win any of three, Radio Moscow abandoned the track meet abruptly, and shortly afterward the Moscow TV network did the same.
Although the original agreement between the United States and Russian track committees had been that the men's and women's meets would be scored separately, the scores were flashed on the big boards at each end of Lenin Stadium as a composite of the two divisions. The Russians whistled at an American athlete only once. Whistling is the Russian equivalent of a Bronx cheer, and it broke out shrilly when Gordon McKenzie, lapped by both Russian entrants in the 10,000-meter run and well out of the race when it was only half over, slowed to a walk. He was disqualified later on the grounds that it was illegal for him to slow to a walk during the race. Pincus Sober, the American referee, filed a protest against the ruling, but it was rejected. "I've heard of walkers being disqualified for running, but not runners for walking," he commented.
O'Brien's appraisal of Russian capabilities continued to stand up. Ira Murchison and Ed Collymore placed one-two in the 100-meter run, although the Russian sprinters Leonid Bartenyev and Yuriy Konovalov began surprisingly well, reflecting the thorough study they have made of starting techniques.
O'Brien himself provided the most startling vindication of his own theory. Like many of the Americans, O'Brien was sick for the two days immediately preceding the meet. During the first two or three practice sessions the team had only five or six community glasses to drink from in the dressing room, and Team Trainer Frank Medina said this caused a rash of sore throats to spread through the 60 athletes. O'Brien's sore throat developed into a sinus infection, and he did not exercise seriously during the two days preceding the meet. But when he entered the clean-swept shotput ring O'Brien, warming up slowly, put the shot 62 feet 9.56 inches on his fifth attempt, less than six inches short of his world record.
"This was one of the rare occasions during my career in which I was so concerned with my health that I became very nervous," Parry said later in his slightly pedantic style. "However I feel that in the final analysis this became an advantage. I built up a tremendous reserve of nervous energy which I was able to release in one burst."
No Russian shotputter could come close to O'Brien, who incidentally was by far the most popular member of the U.S. track team. Once, on a tour of the Kremlin with Glenn Davis and Rink Babka, he was stopped by a group of Hungarian, Czech and Polish tourists who clustered around him on the steps of the Novo Devichy monastery, calling him by name with obvious admiration. He had innumerable medals, such as all Russians seem to carry with them, pressed on him by admirers.
Harold Connolly, who won the hammer throw with a beautiful loft of 220 feet 8.88 inches, was another proof of U.S. explosiveness. Whirling with tremendous speed in the old body-twisting dance that precedes the release of the hammer, he brought admiring applause from the 60,000-old Muscovites in the 104,000-seat central stadium. On a later throw he slammed the hammer into the ground as he wound up and wincingly made some forceful comment not readily translatable into Russian; but he finished the competition and was apparently unhurt.
The field itself was beautifully manicured, and the meet was well run. This stadium is some two years old and is part of a complex of athletic installations built in the hope of an Olympic Games in Moscow in the near future. It resembles the Rose Bowl in Pasadena very closely—a uniform cement oval of seats with the red track surrounding a clear green center which holds a soccer field.
The Russian equivalent of "on your mark, get set" is "na start vnimaniye" (vnee-mah-nye), and the Americans, who worked with the Russian starter for two days before the meet, had no trouble acclimating themselves to the new words. The gun's report is unfortunately international.
There were not too many surprises in the meet, and maybe the biggest was the performance of the American girls. Led by hefty (220-pound) Earlene Brown, who finished a surprising second in the discus, the girls, most of them from Tennessee State University, showed unexpected strength. Earlene offered her teammates considerable encouragement in the running events. "Little sister, Ah want you to go veee-oooom outa there," she told Lucinda Williams, the No. 2 runner on the U.S. 400-meter relay team. Lucinda went veee-oooom to good advantage, and the U.S. girls won the relay in a new American record time. In the 100 meters came another triumph when Barbara Jones established a margin of inches with an "explosive" spurt over Vera Krepkina.
The remarkable determination of the American team—it was solemnly warned before the meet by Coach George Eastment that "There are international tensions in the world and today is very important"—was best expressed by Rafer Johnson, competing against the Russian decathlon world record holder Vasily Kuznetsov. After the first day, in which he built up a precarious lead, the exhausted Rafer faced a second hard day in which Kuznetsov was favored in three of the five events. "But I'm gonna win," he said. "I got to."
Win he did, and in a manner which brought the Soviet fans (noticeably cool on the occasion of other U.S. victories) to their feet in a roar of enthusiasm. When only nine of the 10 punishing decathlon events were completed, he had set a new world mark; he finished with a record-shattering total of 8,302 points. It was one of the great athletic performances of modern times, and was so recognized by Moscow fans on this gray, watery afternoon.
The final day brought one other pleasant surprise to the U.S.: an upset victory by the Los Angeles housewife, Earlene Brown, in the shotput. But Charley Dumas dismayingly lost the high jump—and perhaps the meet. Then the U.S. lead melted when the long-distance events piled up points for the Russians.
Final score, U.S.S.R. 172, U.S. 170. Our men won 126-109, and our girls were most honorably defeated, 44-63.