The United States, once the unquestioned champion of the world in track and field competition, has become a second-class track power.
Avery Brundage, a big, heavily muscled man of 71 who was once the unquestioned champion of the United States in all-round track competition, is the authority for this blunt statement. Mr. Brundage is now the President of the International Olympic Committee, among other things, and he is not a man to mince words.
"We are becoming a nation of spectators," he said the other day. He was sitting in a spacious office in the LaSalle Hotel in Chicago. He wore a white shirt and a belligerent expression, and he sat erect in a swivel chair behind a wide desk.
"We are soft," he said, looking across the desk at a visitor, who put out a cigarette immediately. "You take Olympic medals as a standard and we were overtaken long ago in track and field. Australia, on a per capita basis, won 10 times as many medals as we did in the last Olympics. And the European countries are progressing much faster than we are."
February 2, 1959
He stopped a moment and swung the swivel chair around so he could look at a multiarmed statue of an Oriental god which adorns his office.
"I think it was Voltaire who said that history is a parade of nations climbing the stairs of civilization, passing other nations descending," he said. "Go back to the early Olympic Games—1896, 1900. We practically monopolized them. Before the war we had won as many Olympic medals as all the rest of the world combined. Since then if it weren't for our Negro athletes we would be out of the picture."
Brundage has a blocky, strong face, and he speaks with the deep conviction of a man used to running things.
"The trend here is toward a race of nonparticipant spectators," he said. "We're all lazy. I'm lazy. A lot of things have happened to bring this about. I go back to the time I was competing myself here in Chicago. Almost every week we had some sort of meet—picnic, neighborhood—out in the suburbs. We had track teams sponsored by athletic clubs. Many, many athletes competed. Now that era has passed. And there's the auto.... The auto takes people out into the country for recreation and to the golf clubs. Chicago had maybe two or three golf clubs 40 years ago. Now I imagine there must be 200. To be a champion athlete means hard work and long, arduous hours of training, and with the improvement in our standard of living fewer people are willing to submit to the demands of training. They want to sit in the stands and be entertained."
He swung back to glare across the desk again at his visitor. "We can indict the colleges on that," he said. "They emphasize spectator, not participant, sports. They run programs for prestige and gate receipts and not for what should be the primary purpose—the participant. You can't blame the athletes or the coaches or the athletic directors. It's right up at the top—the presidents and chancellors and the trustees. Those are the people who allow these conditions to exist."
He tapped a pile of letters.
"The whole thing is absurd," he said, "Why should a university be out paying athletes? A university is an educational institution, and it should not lower itself to hiring athletes. Athletic scholarships exist nowhere else in the world. No foreign university would tolerate it, and we're excusing it more and more. I don't see any reason for giving an athlete any consideration he doesn't merit on grounds other than his athletic ability. I remember 50 years ago, when I was in college. They might enlist the college iceman to play in a football game but it was all in fun, and they didn't give him a cap and gown."
He tapped the letters again.
"I get these," he said. He held up a French newspaper and translated. "Avery Brundage closes his eyes to scandal. What does Charley Dumas study outside of high jumping?"
He put the paper down and sat quietly for a moment.
"Well," he said, "what does all this have to do with track and field? The accent on commercialization means the colleges have to fill their stadiums. They have to concentrate on the commercial side. So the tendency is to concentrate on the few very fine athletes instead of the whole mass of students. Only a few can succeed, so they concentrate on the few. I suppose it all began with the big stadiums. The colleges had to win to pay interest on the bonds, and they built up large, expensive machinery—publicity staffs, coaching staffs, all the paraphernalia. Publicity increased to such a degree that certain legislators would say, develop winning teams or your appropriations will be cut. Alumni became fanatical. It was entirely off the track of education. Other countries' educators became horrified by it. I hear it every time I'm in Europe."
He stood up then and walked across the big office, moving quickly and easily, the big body spare and strong-looking and not showing his 71 years.
"To reverse this trend, you have to go to the school system," he said. "Get teachers and superintendents and school boards with the right point of view. Put more emphasis on physical education. I remember I was in Germany after World War I. This was a country completely defeated, weakened by runaway inflation, undernourished, starved. We stepped in and gave them some financial help, and they spent a great deal of that money in building schools and athletic facilities. I was in one of the schools they built, and there were nearly as many exercise rooms as there were classrooms. At one stage in a child's development exercise is more important than schooling, and they knew it.
"What happened? By 1936 those German boys and girls who had been anemic and underfed were some of the finest physical specimens in the world, and they won more Olympic medals than any other country in the world."
He stopped pacing to look at some of his collection of Oriental art. "This takes up all the money I have left after what I use on Olympic business," he said, smiling. He sat down again and shuffled through the letters on his desk.
"I spend all my time answering these," he said, holding up the small pile. "Letters from all over the world. What I should do is take time to write a book explaining amateurism. Or two or three books. That's what we no longer understand in this country. Not just in track and field. When Washington and Jefferson went into government, they went there to see what they could contribute to the United States. They were devoted to service and the rewards it brings. Now the politicians go there to see what they can get."
He stopped and looked quizzically across the wide desk. The room was dim in the late winter afternoon in Chicago because Brundage had no lights lit.
"Someone once said that no one ever wrote well for money," he said, peering through the glasses he wears. "What do you think about that?"
His visitor started a protest but Brundage held up a big hand.
"Wait a minute," he said. "Wait a minute. Let me finish. Sure, you make a living writing. But you're doing something you're devoted to, aren't you? You do it because you love to do it. You don't do it for reward. Money or prestige. You'd be doing it whether you were paid or not. Amateurism is a broader thing than its application to sport. I told a sports editor the other day: You're not running a sports page; this is just an extension of the entertainment section. Professional football, baseball, basketball. That's vaudeville. Most people think an amateur is someone not good enough to be a professional but, actually, most amateurs are better than professionals. They have a devotion to their subject—politics, writing, whatever—not to the rewards to be gained from it. I imagine you could say some professional athletes are really amateurs, because they are most interested in excelling—not in the rewards they get from excelling."
He stood up again then. He is, by some definitions, a curmudgeon, but he is an impressive man, physically and emotionally. He looked out the corner windows in his office at the gray skyline for a long time.
"I laughed when I heard that our college people wanted to bar foreign athletes from competition in our national championships," he said. "I can remember a time when we weren't afraid of foreign competition. We shouldn't try to cut them off now. Maybe the foreign athletes in our schools will be an inspiration to our boys. They work hard. They've had better coaching, too. More scientific. Europe has made tremendous strides, and we haven't. I suppose we need something like what happened to Australia. I went over there when they were preparing for the Olympic Games and dropped an atom bomb on them. They weren't ready. But they got ready, and the effect of the Olympic Games on Australia was phenomenal. The Olympic spirit took over everyone, from the newsboys on the street to Menzies. it brought them back into the world. Of course, they have a less comprehensive amusement program than we have. We have so many things to do. We're nonparticipant spectators. And the auto—don't forget it. I saw a squib in a newspaper the other day after I had made a talk about how we are getting soft. You might quote it. Some father had written in to a paper. I don't remember it exactly, but I had said the automobile was making us soft and he wrote in to say, tell Avery Brundage to come out to the high school my son attends and he'll find out the auto helps. My boy has to walk a half mile each way to his car because there are no parking spaces near the school."
He stopped and came back to his desk and picked up an Oriental vase and looked at it carefully.
"It goes back to the school system," he said finally. "Maybe what they should do is conduct classes in amateurism."
Mr. Brundage's forthright opinions on the state of the nation in general and track and field athletes in particular have earned him little affection from the public. And most coaches in the United States do not agree with him on the parlous condition of this sport in America.
Among the most successful coaches in the United States is a pleasant, well-spoken gentleman from Villanova. Jumbo Jim Elliott was himself a great athlete in his undergraduate days, and since then, for over 20 years, he has coached the Villanova track team. He has developed stars like Fred Dwyer, Don Bragg, Charlie Jenkins, Phil Reavis, Ed Collymore and the nonpareil miler from Ireland, Ron Delany. Jim, an articulate man, has strong feelings on the future of American track and, like Brundage, he is not loth to go on record.
"I guess the thing that burns me most," he said the other day, "is this idea that European coaches are more scientific than American coaches. I don't want to mention any names but I spent three hours not long ago talking to one of these famous coaches, and I can't remember a more boring three hours in a long time. You have to remember that these coaches spend all their time on the distance runners. American track coaches have to be diversified. We have a big break over them, I'll admit. Our high school coaches are knowledgeable, bright guys who know what they are doing, and we get well-trained athletes in our freshmen. But we have to coach sprinters, shotputters, pole vaulters, distance men, broad jumpers—all the people who make up a track meet. We can't spend all our time trying to develop one man into the greatest three-miler in the history of track."
He was sitting in the big, comfortable den in his home in a suburb of Philadelphia. The walls are decorated with pictures of former Villanova track stars, and the bookcases are loaded with cups testifying to Elliott's skill at golf.
"We are getting more and more good kids from the high schools," Elliott said. "American track performances are improving all the time. Look at this kid John Thomas, a 17-year-old high jumper who'll do seven feet any time now."
He looked at some notes on a file card.
"I'm not worried about America's future in track," he said. "And I'm not worried about foreign athletes taking over, either here in our own meets or in the Olympics. Our high school marks are the best of all time. I figured out the other day there were 116 new state high school records set in 1957, 150 in 1958. That sound like we're getting soft? From 1947 to 1956 the average winning time for the mile in state meets was 4:38.1. In 1957 and 1958 it was 4:31.9. In the same periods, the quarter-mile time dropped from 51.8 to 50.2 seconds. The high jump went up from 5-10 to 6-1 and the shot from 49 feet 6 inches to 53 feet 9 inches."
He tossed the cards away and leaned back. Elliott is an ebullient, enthusiastic man, and he made his points vigorously.
"Sure, the Europeans are ahead of us in distance running," he said. "That's because of our economy. Over there an athlete may be subsidized by a municipality, the state, a political club. He has a job, but his real job is running. You figure a real distance runner doesn't reach his prime until he's 27 to 30. Our kids can't devote that much time to track when they finish college. They get married and go out and make a living. They can't spend five or six hours a day training—they can't even do that when they're in college. It's not because they're lazy; they simply don't have time."
THE BEST IN HISTORY
Elliott walked across the room to look at a framed picture of one of his track teams. A legend in heavy black type proclaimed the team the best in track history.
"Look at our athletes in other events," he said. "Thomas and Charley Dumas in the high jump. Bobby Morrow and Dave Sime and half a dozen others in the sprints. Glenn Davis and Eddie Southern in the quarter."
He turned and grinned.
"And Ed Collymore," he said. "Wait till you see Collymore run the quarter. He'll surprise both of them."
He walked to the wide window looking out over the wooded Pennsylvania countryside. A heavy, wet snow was falling, and he watched it for a while.
"The field events," he said. "Why, when an American track team goes abroad, the Europeans must take a million feet of film so they can copy our technique. Does that sound like they have us outcoached? We've got the best performers in the world. We don't have to be afraid of foreign athletes, whether they compete in our national championships or attend our universities. And I don't see anything wrong with their attending American universities either. I think maybe there should be an age limit on them, though. I mean, it isn't fair to bring a 25-year-old man over here and enter him as a freshman to compete with 17-and 18-year-olds. But take Delany. When he came to Villanova from Ireland he was a 19-year-old kid, a 1:52 half-miler. He developed over here, and I don't see anything wrong with that."
He turned from the window. "We'll find out how we stand this year," he said. "There's lots of track coming up and lots of foreigners competing."
The biggest invasion of foreign track talent into the United States since the 1932 Olympics is scheduled for this year,-with the big push coming in the outdoor season when Russia returns the American visit of last year and Chicago is host to the Pan American Games. But the foreign challenge begins during the indoor season, with five of Europe's best middle-distance runners scheduled to compete. England's Brian Hewson and Mike Rawson, European champions in the 1,500-and 800-meter runs; Dan Waern of Sweden, who holds the world record at 1,000 meters; Paul Schmidt of Germany, an excellent half-miler who was third in the European championships; and Zbigniew Orywal, the Pole who won the U.S. indoor championship at 1,000 yards last year, are all entered in U.S. indoor races this season.
Competition of this caliber provides a strong test of American runners. Possibly the best of the American runners at 880 and 1,000 yards is a tall, beautifully built senior from North Carolina, Dave Scurlock. Scurlock has a wonderful, fluid running style and, more important in the heavy traffic of indoor running, a good sense of tactics. Arnie Sowell, who is in training at an Army base in Texas, will certainly be on a par with the Europeans if he is in condition.
Of course, at the mile, no runner can be considered a very serious threat to Villanova and Ireland's Ron Delany. The thin, ascetic-looking Irishman (see cover) is the world's best miler indoors, with far more experience than any of his competitors, foreign or domestic. And it is beginning with the mile that the American paucity of distance runners becomes apparent. Possibly the brightest hope for the United States is Bill Dellinger, who ran 1,500 meters in 3:41.5 this summer in Europe. Dellinger, who ran a weak race last Saturday in Washington, dogged Delany's footsteps in the first big indoor meet in Boston and may yet develop enough to give America a domestic miler of international quality.
Foreign students at American colleges are likely to win all the races at two and three miles. Best of the lot is thin, intense Alex Henderson, an Australian at Arizona State College. Henderson is the holder of the American outdoor record at two miles, and if he remains in the East long enough to become acclimated to board running it is doubtful that any homegrown talent can challenge him. Max Truex, the tiny, busy distance runner from California, and Deacon Jones, a feather-thin Iowan, are the best native Americans. John Macy, of Poland and the University of Houston; Velisa Mugosa, of Yugoslavia and NYU; and Al Lawrence, of Australia and the University of Houston, are all powerful distance runners.
The advent of Bobby Morrow, Texas' great Olympic sprint champion, adds a fillip to the sprint events, which, as always, are an American monopoly. Morrow has never run indoors, but he is a quick and consistent starter, and the sprints do not demand the tactical sense the longer events do. Ira Murchison, the stumpy little Western Michigan sprinter who has probably the fastest start in track, was slowed as the season began by amoebic dysentery but should be ready for most of the meets. Duke's brilliant but often-injured Dave Sime is in his first year of medical school and may not have enough time to reach peak condition for the indoor season. Keith Gardner, a Jamaican attending the University of Nebraska, will compete in both the sprints and the hurdles but he is unlikely to win consistently in either. Lee Calhoun, Elias Gilbert and Francis Washington are all great hurdlers and, too, are all used to indoor races.
Glenn Davis, the finest runner in the world at the quarter mile, will compete indoors this season. He faces very strong competition from Villanova's Ed Collymore and Rudy Smith of Bates. Collymore, who has enough essential speed to compete in the sprints and who is a big, strong runner as well (with a victory in the 600 at Boston), is the toughest competition for Davis.
The pecking order in the field events remains unchanged. No shot-putter in the world today is in the same class with Parry O'Brien, who would like to break the world indoor record he set in Europe. The pole vault, despite Russian victories outdoors in Moscow last summer, is primarily an American event, with world record holder Bob Gutowski and the very strong Don Bragg. Although the Europeans have climbed rapidly in the high jump, no one can truly challenge Charley Dumas, and if Dumas should miss a step there are youngsters like John Thomas to take over.
All in all, the picture is not as gloomy as Mr. Brundage sees it. It may not be as bright as Jim Elliott believes either. The truth of America's track strength lies somewhere in between; the season coming up should tell us just where.
For a unique color photograph by John G. Zimmerman that captures the crowded panorama of indoor track and field competition, turn the page.