Inspired by the completion of the Portland Memorial Coliseum, a glass-and-concrete-and-steel arena with 9,000 theater-type cushion seats, a group of University of Oregon alumni raised $21,000 and last Saturday night put on the first indoor track meet in the Northwest in 21 years. The group—called the Nervous Nine when only $8,000 in advance sales came in—had the foresight to enlist Oregon's Bill Bowerman, one of America's outstanding track coaches, as meet director.
"We figured we had to have at least three really outstanding events," Bowerman said, "so we tried for six." He got all six, and the meet was a success—financially, because more than 7,000 spectators poured in on Saturday night to cover the expenses, and artistically, because a calm, thin Olympic champion named Murray Halberg flew 7,000 miles from his native New Zealand to run a two-mile race indoors in 8:34.3—faster, by nearly 12 seconds, than anyone had ever run it indoors before.
Not quite 5 feet 10 inches tall, and weighing just 136 pounds, the sandy-haired, soft-voiced Halberg became a world celebrity last summer at the age of 27 when he won the Olympic 5,000-meter race in Rome. He has been running competitively for seven years, having taken up the sport after a jarring collision in a Rugby game paralyzed the nerves in his left arm (it is still lame today and he carries it tucked close against his side as he runs).
Halberg's competition last Saturday included two of the world's outstanding distance runners, American Olympian Max Truex, 25, and the 29-year-old Hungarian expatriate Laszlo Tabori, who is due to receive his American citizenship some time this year. Since both of his rivals possessed extensive experience in running the 22 laps that constitute an indoor two-mile, Halberg decided his best strategy was to use his superior condition as an immediate and continuing advantage. (It is now midsummer in New Zealand and Halberg is in peak running shape, whereas Truex and Tabori are just beginning their season.)
January 23, 1961
"I was starting from the inside lane," Halberg said after the race, "and if you don't move quickly you may be pushed off the track by others crowding in from the outside lanes. If I had started from lane 4 or 5, I'd have stayed back and looked over the field for a couple of laps." As it was, he streaked away from the field and never looked back until he had covered 15 laps. It was here that another bit of Bowerman foresight added to the meet's success. Bowerman had taken the trouble to obtain the services of Dick Bank, an outstanding track-and-field announcer from Los Angeles, and Bank began informing the already excited audience that they were seeing the annihilation of a world record. Despite his terrific early pace Halberg sprinted the last 440 yards in 57.3 seconds as everyone stood and cheered him on, waving and shouting. Tabori finished second with a career-best 8:47.6 ("I am happy"), and Truex third in 8:57 ("He sure is smart. He killed us off").
Halberg's run was the more remarkable since it was his first on a real board track; but then, the track was remarkable, too. Designed by Bowerman, it is the first plywood track ever built and costs less than half the price of a standard spruce track. The athletes liked it, and Halberg himself, after running some test laps the afternoon before his race, stretched his narrow bony face into a wide grin. Mischievously he went into a boxer's crouch and swung his arms back and forth: "It's got lots of spring, and I like the banked curves." He tested the surface gingerly with his brand-new, short-spiked indoor shoes. "A bit like running on ice," he said. "You can feel the spikes making tiny puncture holes." Accustomed to training on grass tracks in New Zealand "because there hasn't been enough money to build cinder tracks there," Halberg ran several workouts the week of the meet on an asphalt path in a park near his hotel. He gets some practice on asphalt at home in Auckland by running 5½ miles to and from his job as a laboratory technician at a New Zealand brewery. "You should train on as many surfaces as possible so that something new, like these boards, isn't hard to get used to."
Beatty and Burleson
The ever-popular one-mile run had a first-class field, too, in which America's two best milers, Dyrol Burleson and Jim Beatty, met for the third time, and in which for the third straight time the stocky little Beatty outsprinted his tall, slender rival at the finish, in a disappointing 4:07.4. Burleson, who was leaving with Halberg the next day for a three-week tour of meets in New Zealand, punishes himself mentally after any defeat, and after this one he said glumly, "Somebody else ought to get this New Zealand trip, somebody who deserves it."
In another of Bowerman's "six outstanding events," the 60-yard dash, stubby little Roscoe Cook, only three weeks after finishing the Oregon U. football season (he is a halfback), streaked down the track to tie the world record of 6.0. Oregon State's Darrell Horn leaped an impressive 25 feet 6¼ inches in the broad jump. Olympian Jim Grelle, an Oregon alumnus, finished second in the 1,000 to Sig Ohlemann, an Oregon junior, and just ahead of Archie San Romani Jr., who is now an Oregon sophomore. And Olympians Otis Davis and Eddie Southern had a ball in the 500. Bowerman ran the race in staggered lanes in an effort to avoid the mad tangles that occur on the early turns in this wild race. But Davis and Southern became confused and lost count of the laps. "I didn't realize we were on the last lap until I came around the curve and saw that tape," grinned Davis, "and then it was too late." The two favorites were passed on the outside by a Washington University junior, Rick Harder, who won in a slow 59.5. "That was lots of fun," laughed Southern. "I hope to run lots more of these. I just need a little practice, but this indoor running is exciting."
It was so exciting for everybody, in fact, that the Nervous Nine immediately scheduled a second Oregon invitational for March 3.