The keynote of the Olympic trials at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif. last week was emotion: the wild elation of victory, the stunned sorrow of defeat, the curious, almost palpable empathy between the huge crowd and the striving athletes. The prize for success was a place on the 1960 U.S. Olympic track and field team; the penalty for failure was often heartbreak.
You felt the emotional tie between crowd and athlete when quiet, gentle applause followed Bill Nieder in his long, lonely walk across the infield and out of the stadium after the world record holder in the shotput had failed to qualify in his event. You felt it again when many of the spectators laughed with the same unalloyed glee that possessed John Thomas after he had cleared 7 feet 3% inches to set a world record and win the high jump. And you felt it at the tag end of the two-day meet when most of the 65,000 people who came on the last day stayed to watch Don Bragg pole-vault 15 feet 9¼ for a new world record.
Bragg, an ebullient, out-and up-going type, burst from the sawdust pit after his record jump and ran back along the runway, leaping like an exuberant kangaroo every third step. His girl, Terry Fiore, cleared the wall in front of the stands like a good low hurdler and ran into Bragg's arms down near the end of the runway. Bragg tossed her a bit higher than Thomas' high jump, caught her on his shoulder and ran in small, happy circles. The crowd, which had roared at Bragg's record, applauded this, too.
Beyond emotion, this was a meet of superb performance. In 13 of the 17 events, the old U.S. Olympic trials record was bettered, and in a 14th it was tied; new American records were set in three events and new world records in three. And in nine events the winning time, height or distance bettered the winning mark at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne.
July 10, 1960
But times, distances and heights are a poor measure of dramatic impact. In this meet an electric tension gripped spectators and athletes alike in every event. Jim Beatty, who ran his usual well-thought-out, intelligent race to win the 5,000 meters (see cover), said later, "I was so nervous my hands trembled. I thought I could win; I had confidence. But I was shaking all over when I went down to the starting line."
Beatty, for once, departed from the schedule set for him by his coach, ex-Hungarian Mihaly Igloi (SI, June 6). "I was supposed to hang behind the leader," Jim said. "But the pace was too slow so I went out ahead. I wanted to run some of the kick out of the others. It was a big field. I had to." Beatty won easily with a fine sprint on the last lap. Then, 15 yards past the finish, he raced across the track, leaped into the stands and embraced his wife and his mother.
Some of the drama stemmed from defeat. Bobby Morrow, running beautifully in a gallant effort to earn another trip to the Olympics, faltered only 30 yards from success in the 200 meters. He got a tremendous start and looked much like the Morrow of 1956 for the first 150 yards. Indeed, he was a step or two ahead of the strong, fleet Ray Norton coming out of the turn. But Norton, who won both the 100 and 200 meters in the trials, was perfectly in control of the race. He has the ability to turn his speed off and on as you might open or close a faucet, and now he turned it on and pulled away from Morrow and the rest of the field to win in a world record 20.5, tying a mark set by Stone Johnson in a heat. Morrow retained the lovely, steady rhythm of his stride for a few more yards but then, shockingly, his legs began to go limber and he finished spraddle-legged and tired, barely holding on for fourth place.
Morrow was one of the few veterans in this mature field of athletes who failed. Thirteen of the 53 who qualified for the team (see page 72) were repeaters from 1956. Many of them looked as strong or stronger than they did four years ago. Typical was Lee Calhoun, who won the 110-meter high hurdles in 13.4 seconds, sailing over the barriers cleanly in the graceful, bending lift of a great hurdler. Calhoun, winner in the 1956 Olympics, found his task easier at the age of 27 than he had at 23.
In the 400-meter hurdles Glenn Davis, another Olympic champion, matched his 1956 trial time of 49.5 seconds in winning. Davis, thinner than he was four years ago, won easily and might have turned in faster time had he been pressed. Dick Howard and Kansas' Cliff Cushman tied for second in 49.8—a career-best for both—and another Olympic veteran missed out by a deep chest when Eddie Southern had to settle for fourth. Southern cleared the last hurdle in second place but landed off balance and broke stride. Before he could recover, Cushman and the very strong Howard had rushed by him on the road to Rome.
Al Oerter, the 1956 Olympic discus winner, finished second in the trials to giant Rink Babka (267 pounds), whose winning throw was 192 feet 3½ inches; Oerter, tired and tense, managed 188 feet 3. In third place was Dick Cochran of Missouri, a newcomer to the stress of big-pressure' competition, who spent the week before the trials in a Palo Alto hotel rather than in the Stanford dormitory where most of the athletes stayed. "I didn't want to be exposed to all the psyching," he said, "I didn't want to know what the rest of them were doing."
Possibly the least concerned with the performance of his rivals was Bragg, who set that new world record in the pole vault. Bragg is not particularly fond of the grass runway in the Stanford Stadium, but he refused to let it disturb him. "I'd run up a ditch," he said. "It makes no difference. Speed and form and strength will win." He thought about that for a moment, and his face became serious. "I'm just talking," he said. "I'm just trying to hold on to my confidence."
He held on to it very well. He missed only one vault—at 15 feet 3 inches—and cleared 15 feet 5¼ and the record vault, 15 feet 9¼ on his first attempts.
"It had to come," he said after his exuberant dance with his girl. "God has been teasing me. I've worked eight years to make the Olympic team and to get a world record. No one can imagine the tension and anxiety in an athlete's mind in the week before a meet like this, even when you're one of the favorites. I used my head today. I moved my grip an inch closer to the end of the pole—that's the difference between 15 feet 9 and 15 feet 5 or 15 feet 6. And I took my time on my vaults. First I pray, then I think, then I guts it out."
He grinned suddenly and happily. "I got two more goals," he said. "A gold medal in Rome and playing Tarzan in the movies. If I can learn to pole-vault I can learn to act."
Some of the competitors, like Ralph Boston, who had a marvelous series of 26 feet 4¼ inches, 26 feet 6½ inches and 26 feet¼ inch in the broad jump, appeared impervious to pressure. And Al Cantello, the short, muscular marine lieutenant who won the javelin throw at 277 feet 7 inches, showed little emotion before the meet. He got his winning throw on his first try. "Actually, I was being cautious on that first attempt," he said. "So much was contingent on my making the team. My mother will be going to Rome, and I want to get married there after the Games. So I had to be sure. Then I bombed the next two, and they didn't go as far." Bill Alley clinched second on his first throw, fell on his second attempt, wrenched his back and spiked himself so severely in the calf that next day it required six stitches to close the wound. Alley had second place anyway, but he ignored the injury and came back to get off a prodigious throw that traveled over 282 feet; unfortunately, unable to control the injured leg, he fouled. "Man, I wanted to win," he said later.
Win, win, win
This almost fanatic desire to win of course, marked every event. Tom Murphy, the husky, squarely built half miler from New York, won his race in a career-best time of 1:46.7. Jack Yerman, the winner in the 400 meters, also ran faster than he has before: 46 flat in his heat, 46.3 for first in the finals. In this race young Ted Woods, who had won the NCAA title in 45.7 and who had worked hard all week, ran out of gas and barely made the Olympic team as a relay member when he finished fourth. Earl Young, a tall, crane-thin sophomore from Abilene Christian College, finished second, running strongly on a pole lane that had been chopped up by the big 1,500-meter field in the race just prior to the 400. Otis Davis finished third. He ran too far off the pace early and had to close from last place down the stretch. He may beat both Yerman and Young in Rome.
Franz Stampfl, the famed Austrian coach who has observed track meets in Europe, the U.S. and Australia, rated American performances in the 1,500 meters (Dyrol Burleson won easily in 3:46.9), 5,000 meters and 400 meters as something below par. "Your optimism in those events," he said, "is wishful thinking."
But most of the athletes felt much the same as Parry O'Brien, the 1956 Olympic shotput champion who finished second in the trials to Dallas Long. "I was overly nervous," said O'Brien. "I was not at my best. I am always nervous in the trials. But I will not be nervous at Rome. I feel I cleared the big hurdle here."