When, like a rising river, an Olympic Games year rolls around and the U.S. starts its track-and-field preparations in earnest there is no predicting where the levee is likely to burst. Before one Olympiad the country might be flooded with enough world-class sprinters to chase down all the jackrabbits in the Southwest. Another time it might be hurdlers, hurdlers enough to staff a corps de ballet. This year, as past weeks have indicated and as last weekend's National AAU Championships at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. confirmed most emphatically, it is going to be milers. Strong milers, fast milers and, most surprisingly, young, young, young milers.
Three weeks earlier, in Compton, Calif. (SI, June 15), eight runners, led by Dyrol Burleson and including a 17-year-old high school junior, had run a mile under four minutes. Last week a similar group of eight, this time led by 21-year-old Tom O'Hara and also including the same 17-year-old high school junior, produced an even faster race at the Olympic equivalent of the mile, 1,500 meters.
For two seasons now O'Hara, freshly graduated from Loyola University in Chicago, has churned his miles—at least outdoors—in Dyrol Burleson's tall and slender shadow. He had lost to him six times in six races. In the AAU race, however, O'Hara resolved to dig himself out of this vexing rut.
"I figured if I was going to beat Burleson this would have to be the race," he said. "I rested all week, I pointed for it, I peaked for it."
Trial heats the day before had reduced the starting field in the 1,500-meter race to nine. At the start O'Hara and Burleson both settled back in the middle of the pack and followed the fast quarter-mile pace (58.3) of a bearded, balding, bespectacled British runner named Peter Keeling. On the backstretch of the third quarter-mile lap O'Hara and Burleson moved up quickly just off the lead, and then, coming into the start of the final go-round, O'Hara jumped in front, pulling Burleson along behind him. They turned into the backstretch and were suddenly challenged by a tall, gangling form in orange—Jim Ryun, the Wichita, Kans. high school boy who looks more like a stork in shorts than the fastest scholastic miler of all time. Young Ryun attempted to push by O'Hara's right shoulder, but the leader slipped his throttle forward a notch and Ryun slipped back. Burleson did not. He came up to O'Hara on the last turn, and as they entered the 80-yard stretch the two were abreast—but with Burleson gaining, inch by tenacious inch, with each long stride. For a moment the race threatened to become a repetition of the pattern that had produced victory for Burleson so many times before, but suddenly there was an abrupt variation. Lowering his head and stretching out his muscular thighs, O'Hara found a new burst of speed and drew away. As he reached the finish, O'Hara's arms were flung wide and his head held high in a gesture of exhilarated triumph.
"I was worried before the race," admitted the winner later, "but after you get beaten so many times you try to stop thinking about it. I was stronger this time and I used better tactics."
"He just walked away from me at the end," said Burleson. "It was a great win for Tom."
O'Hara's time was 3:38.1, a new American record and the fastest 1,500 meters run in the world this year, and if it was a great race for Tom it was also a signal achievement for the seven who followed him across the finish line. Burleson, Jim Grelle in third place and Ryun in fourth also bettered the former record. Even North Carolina's Cary Weisiger, who had held the old record of 3:39.3 but who finished eighth in this race in 3:40.9, had run the equivalent of a 3:58.4 mile.
While the 1,500-meter run was a superb climax, the meet had exciting moments leading up to it. The levee seems to be bursting with talent at several key points. In the pole vault six men breezed over the former championship record of 16 feet 4½ inches, set a year ago by Brian Sternberg, and the winner, Fred Hansen of Rice, cleared 17 feet for the third time this year. Randy Matson, 19 years old and just past his freshman year at Texas A&M, won the shotput with a grunt-provoking heave of 64 feet 11 inches, another meet record.
"I quit worrying about trying to finish second to Dallas Long," he said, "and just tried to beat him." He beat Long by a foot and a half and the seemingly ageless Parry O'Brien, who was an Olympic champion when Matson was 7 years old, by almost four feet.
Bob Schul, the 26-year-old Miami of Ohio undergraduate, won the 5,000 meters in 13:56.2, well over his U.S. record of 13:38 but good time for a hot, humid day. Schul's skill as a distance runner is rather astonishing in that he is an asthmatic who must return to the dry air of California to do his intensive training. Fully as astonishing was the fact that he was chased hotly across the finish line by Spokane's 18-year-old Gerry Lindgren, who led right up to the last half lap.
"I like to get out in front so that I'm not behind all those big guys," said Lindgren, who is 5 feet 6 and weighs 120 pounds. "I don't know much about distance running."
It was a weekend of rejoicing for some. For others, who not so long ago were Olympic heroes, the frantic theme of higher, farther, faster was a trifle unsettling. That fellow in the sunglasses with the glistening black hair and the shimmering muscles, for instance. Remember Don Bragg? Four years ago at Rome, Bragg won a gold medal with an Olympic record of 15 feet 5 inches in the pole vault. Last week he sat in a first-row seat as near as possible to the pole-vault pit, with his shirt off, soaking up sunshine and the greetings of those who knew him as No. 1 in the antediluvian age when vaulting poles were made of Swedish steel, instead of fiber glass. Bragg regards fiber glass as an affront to vaulting technique. He retired from competition to watch with disdain as others whiplashed to world records extravagantly beyond Bragg's most extravagant dreams. He laughed, a trifle harshly, when 12 of the entrants in last week's meet decided not even to start vaulting until the bar had been pushed up to 15 feet 6 inches, one inch above Bragg's Olympic record.
Eight vaulters cleared 16 feet. At 16 feet 8 inches Hansen's pole snapped as he soared upward on his second jump, tumbling him head over heels into the foam rubber pit. He hardly seemed to notice. Using a heavier, stronger fiberglass pole, he cleared that height with plenty to spare on his last try. Hansen, who is 23 and a graduate student at Rice University, tends to pose—unwittingly—at the head of the runway. His fingers play with the top few feet of the pole as though it were a piccolo. In his last attempt at 17 feet he backed off the runway twice before he finally grabbed the pole, hurtled down the runway and snapped himself up and over the bar.
Unhappily, there were signs of tarnish where our track-and-field armor is often the shiniest. In the 100-meter dash Bob Hayes won in the time of 10.3, but was easing up with a pulled hamstring muscle in the left leg as he floated through the tape. He will not compete in this week's Olympic trials, but undoubtedly will be invited to the final trials in September. The 400-meter run was won in a less-than-sensational 46.0 by 30-year-old Mike Larrabee, a California high school teacher. "I just came to run and have fun," he announced after his victory. Another aging winner was Hayes Jones, 25, who unretired to win the 110-meter high hurdles in a lackluster 13.8. The 800-meter run went to 25-year-old Jerry Siebert in 1:47.5, almost two seconds over the seven-year-old U.S. record. Where are the Calhouns and Davises, the Courtneys and Sowells of yesteryear?
And where was Jim Beatty, once this country's indomitable distance runner? He was a lagging third in the 5,000 meters. "I'm not so much worried about finishing third as in the way I finished third," he sighed. "I was absolutely flat. I'll work hard tomorrow, then rest and hope I have more left for the trials."
Russia's Valeri Brumel is not likely to be concerned about the winning high-jump mark of 7 feet 1 inch, 4¾ inches under his world mark. The event was won by California's Ed Caruthers, with John Rambo and John Thomas placed second and third at the same height due to more frequent misses.
Bostonian Harold Connolly won the hammer throw with a fine toss of 226 feet 5½ inches. "Something between 225 and 230 is sure to win the Olympics," Connolly said, "but what I'm after is a world record." The present one is his own. 231 feet 10 inches, but last week the second-place finisher. Ed Burke of California, was almost 11 feet back. In Rome, Connolly had an off day and finished eighth. If the U.S. does not produce more depth in this event it could happen again.
Some of the poor performances might be attributable to the track, just recently laid down in Rutgers University's 22,000-seat football stadium. It is en-tout-cas (two-thirds crushed brick, one-third cinder) and was still a trifle loose. "It was like running on puffs of smoke," announced Sprinter Hayes. But the fast times in the 1,500-meter run tend to shift the blame out of the track itself and into the feet and legs of those who were running over it. The crackling-fast 1,500-meter run also trumpeted a warning to the rest of the running world.
"How do you keep up?" groaned former U.S. record-holder Weisiger. "Four years ago in this race I ran 3:44.3 and finished fourth. I improved that time by well over three seconds, and this year I finish eighth."
Even O'Hara was looking apprehensively over his shoulder. "That Ryun," he said. "I hate to think what kind of a future he has."
Why stop at Ryun? The whole U.S. has a future at 1,500 meters, and for the first time since 1908 it looks as bright as an Olympic medal—maybe even a gold one.