We are a bit off form, you know," said Gabriel Korobkov, the ruddy-faced coach of the Soviet three-man track team which last week began a month-long U.S. indoor campaign with a splash never before equaled by a foreign invader. "It is too soon in the year for us to be ready because our competitive season has not started yet," Korobkov added.
This is an article from the Feb. 11, 1963 issue
Korobkov's soft talk proved to be a massive piece of diplomatic subterfuge that must have turned even the most demanding Kremlin official pink with pleasure. As the indoor season got under way in earnest before 16,000 shocked spectators at the Millrose Games in New York, the trio of Soviet athletes—High Jumper Valeri Brumel (SI, Feb. 4), Broad Jumper Igor Ter-Ovanesyan (SI, Aug. 6, 1962) and Middle-distance Runner Valeri Bulyshev—delivered a blow to U.S. track prestige that may take all winter to absorb. Furthermore, their depredations on U.S. soil were only part of a sad evening's tale. Canada's inexhaustible Bruce Kidd won the two miles in the spectacular time of 8:41, the second best clocking ever indoors. Germany's Jutta Heine (SI, Jan. 28) and Maria Jeibmann won the women's sprint and 440. Even John Uelses, who won the pole vault at 16 feet 1, was born in Berlin.
But primarily it was U.S.S.R. night at Madison Square Garden. Ter-Ovanesyan, the dark-haired, debonair physical ed student who had never before beaten Ralph Boston, defeated his old nemesis by exactly one foot, setting a world indoor record of 26 feet 10 inches in the process. It was Ter's first victory over any American opponent in nine tries. Bulyshev, who combines the handsome looks of an animated James Mason with a deceivingly smooth running style, seemed perfectly at home on boards, which he was trying for the first time. In winning, he clocked 1:50.8, the fifth fastest 880 ever run indoors. And world record high jumper Valeri Brumel leaped 7 feet 2 to score his seventh consecutive victory over American John Thomas. The Russians' visit could hardly have gotten off to a better start, and there were very good reasons why.
On their last winter invasion here in 1961 the Russians made the mistake of arriving only 72 hours before their first meet, and, except for Brume, not in prime condition. In three meets Brumel turned in some memorable performances, including a record leap of 7 feet 3½, but Ter-Ovanesyan was unsure of himself in his first meet and fouled on all six of his tries. Steadied down, he lost to Boston after a superb try in the AAU indoor championships. Yevgeni Momotkov, the group's long-distance entry, never did get going.
This time the trip was planned with considerably more care, and its propaganda value may prove immense. The Russians arrived in New York a full eight days early. Obviously, they wanted to adjust to U.S. conditions, but there may have been an additional reason: to allow Korobkov time to lull the opposition into a false sense of security. Korobkov and company slipped out of town and up to New Haven where Yale University has an 11-laps-to-the-mile indoor board track. Shortly afterwards Yale Track Coach Bob Giegengack sounded a word of warning back to New York.
"Look," said a concerned Giegengack, "there seems to be some misunderstanding about just what kind of shape these boys are in. From what I've seen up here I can tell you they're in good shape. They're not behind anybody."
What Giegengack saw the Russians do was almost nothing, but to his knowing track eye this meant everything. Bulyshev took only one spin around the board track and, feeling that one lap on boards was sufficient preparation for his first race, limited himself to light jogging on cinders for the rest of the week. Brumel and Ter worked out very lightly. They spent most of their time sleeping and hardly ever glanced at a crossbar or a jumping pit.
"They did exactly what I tell my boys to do when they're in good competitive condition," said Giegengack. "Just kept loose."
It was Bulyshev who gave first notice of how loose the Russians were. His long, brown hair floating out behind him, his knees kicking high in front, he settled neatly—and, for a while, meekly—into third place in the Millrose 880. Ernie Cunliffe, a strong runner who must set a fast early pace because he has no finishing kick, jumped into the lead at the start, with Jim Dupree, the 1962 NCAA champion from Southern Illinois, right after him. Apparently unconvinced by Bulyshev's credentials—he finished second in the 800 meters at the European championships last summer—the two front-runners challenged for the lead, trying to kill each other off. But as the gun for the last lap sounded, Bulyshev came to life. He swept by Dupree on the backstretch and charged up behind Cunliffe as the two came into the last turn. Tiring badly, Cunliffe made the tactical error of swinging wide off the turn. Bulyshev pounced at the opening like a subway rider after an empty seat, grabbed the inside lane and led Cunliffe to the finish by three-yards.
"The time was good, no?" chortled Bulyshev through Interpreter Korobkov. "But I was not out to run a time, I was out to run a race."
"I'm afraid Jim and I completely discounted the Russian," Cunliffe admitted. "We lost our edge fighting each other. But don't discount his race. That's a terrific time indoors."
In three of the five previous meetings between Boston and Ter-Ovanesyan, the American had to break records to win. After Ter's fantastic second jump on Saturday night, Boston faced up to the old challenge bravely, but this time without his usual competitive tools. Ter's advantage proved too much.
"I've been doing sprints and light technique work," Boston reported from Los Angeles, where he is a research technician in metabolic medicine at Mt. Sinai Hospital. "But I haven't jumped for distance in two and a half months. I've been aiming for the Pan Am Games in April."
Boston's lack of preparation hurt him. He leaped 25 feet 10 on his first attempt and two inches less on his last, but he fouled on all four of his intervening jumps. Ter-Ovanesyan fouled twice and passed once, but the second jump was all he needed. An extremely springy runner, he hurtled down the runway, slammed his right foot into the white takeoff board and actually may have landed 28 feet away, almost a foot farther than his world outdoor record of 27 feet 3 inches. However, as he plunged feet first into the black dirt of the landing pit, Ter lost his balance for a moment and fell back. This cost him perhaps a foot, perhaps more. Even so, his jump topped Boston's former indoor mark by 3¾ inches.
Igor was satisfied but not particularly elated with his first victory over Boston.
"Sure I felt I could beat him," Ter-Ovanesyan, who needs no interpreter, said. "If I didn't feel that way I never would have a chance against him."
John Thomas, meanwhile, was putting up a dogged struggle to prevent a Russian sweep. The tall Negro cleared 7 feet on his first try. When Brumel brushed the bar going over on his first attempt and brought it down on top of him, the crowd, hungry for an upset, cheered loudly. But their joy did not last. With a casual flip of his right hand to indicate to officials that he was ready, Brumel made a slow, shuffling half-circle to the top of his run-up, suddenly shifted into a sprint and with one aggressive bound and roll was up and over. After Thomas had missed his first try at 7 feet 1, Brumel cleanly cleared that height as well. Thomas made 7 feet 1 on his second attempt, but it was the highest he had scaled since 1961 and he was capable of going no higher. Almost arrogantly, Brumel sailed over 7 feet 2, then permitted himself a slight smile and a languid wave to the crowd. The Russian sweep was complete.
The Russians—who will compete this week in Los Angeles and stay on through the National Championships on February 23—may well dominate the indoor season, but Millrose spectators could still relish a fine performance by wispy Tom O'Hara, a native of Chicago and a junior at Loyola University. O'Hara, 20, is a 5-foot-9, 130-pound redhead whose torso is frail but whose legs have the thick muscular development of a sprinter. His speed and his ability to withstand punishing workouts probably will bring him a sub-4-minute mile before the winter is over. Last year he chased Jim Beatty to 3:59.7 and 4:00.9 indoor miles, and Friday he pounded past Cary Weisiger coming out of the last turn to win the Wanamaker Mile by three yards in an excellent 4:01.5.
"If he didn't look as if he was in the 10th grade I wouldn't feel so bad," fumed Weisiger, "but I never dreamed I'd run under 4:02 here tonight and lose." Many another American and world miler is going to be surprised by O'Hara, who has been running for only four years but who already looks like one of the best distance runners ever developed in the U.S.