Two months ago the prospects for a successful indoor track season seemed about as rosy as winter slush. The combination of post-Olympic ennui and post-truce hostilities between the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the Amateur Athletic Union made promoters wonder where they would get enough athletes to fill their programs or enough ticket buyers to fill their seats.
They need not have worried. What threatened to be one of track's dullest winters in years shows every sign of being its brightest and most exciting. Last week in San Francisco a crowd of 11,412 showed up at the Cow Palace for the first indoor meet of the season. No legitimate indoor records were jeopardized, but as a preview of things to come the meet was a rousing success.
First of all, it was revealed that there will be girls, lots of them. There will be plenty of visitors from abroad, too, the largest and most exotic group the indoor season has ever enjoyed. There will be imaginative new events that would have tickled P. T. Barnum. And finally, to assuage fears of the serious indoor track enthusiast that more cake than bread will be available, there will be lots of plain, nourishing competition.
What there will not be are very many relay races. The runners for these events generally are provided by the colleges, but shortly after the Olympics the NCAA, in what it fancied to be a deft thrust in its administrative swordplay with the AAU over who should do what with what and to whom, raised the specter of ineligibility for collegians who competed in an open track meet sanctioned by the AAU. A few colleges will ignore the NCAA, some collegians will try to compete as unaffiliated entrants and a handful of colleges with good teams, such as Texas Southern and Maryland State, are not members of the NCAA and will be running. The effect of the NCAA action, however, will be to reduce the number of high-ranking collegiate competitors appearing in open meets. The AAU's antidote: bring over between 30 and 40 foreign athletes from Japan, Russia, Australia, Poland, New Zealand, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Rumania, Great Britain and, for the first time, Kenya and Ethiopia. Virtually all of these will be athletes who performed with distinction at the Tokyo Olympics.
The most significant addition, to fill in for the relays, will be a genuinely first-rate batch of women. From Rumania will come graceful Yolanda Balas, world record holder in the high jump; from Great Britain pretty Mary Rand, who won the broad jump in Tokyo; from Russia the fierce and husky Tamara Press, Olympic shotput champion. Australia has sent two of its bronze medalists, Judith Amoore (400-meter run) and Pam Kilborn (high hurdles), and in their first try the Australian girls set new indoor records. In San Francisco, Judith won the 440 by 50 yards in 55.8, Pam the 50-yard hurdles in 6.4. Runner Amoore, a little blonde, was recently married and is now on a honeymoon of sorts. Unfortunately, she could not afford to bring along her husband.
"But we did try to make up a honeymoon package of England's Robbie Brightwell and Ann Packer," claims Colonel Don Hull of the AAU. The hitch there was that Brightwell, fourth in the 400-meter run in Tokyo, and his wife of two weeks, who won the women's 800-meter run, were declared professionals after they capitalized on their fame by endorsing various products.
High Jumper Valeri Brumel, Russia's Olympic champion, will be back for his third campaign on the boards. New Zealand's Peter Snell, the world's best middle-distance runner, probably will appear at least once on the West Coast, most likely at the Los Angeles Times meet on February 13. Belgium's Olympic steeplechase champion, Gaston Roelants, may run in the Times meet's two miles. Harald Norpoth of Germany, second to Bob Schul of the U.S. in the Olympic 5,000, will compete indoors, and so—probably—will Wilson Kiprugut of Kenya, a surprising third behind Snell in the 800 meters in Tokyo. Making a late-season appearance will be Australia's Ron Clarke who, despite a strange lack of confidence, has set world records at three and six miles and 10,000 meters. Here already for early-season appearances are Britain's John Cooper, a tall, strong, wide-shouldered 400-meter hurdler who finished second to Rex Cawley of the U.S. in Tokyo, and Alan Simpson, a miler with a powerful finish who was fourth at 1,500 meters. Both competed in San Francisco.
The most surprising visitor, however, could be the two-time Olympic marathon champion from Ethiopia, Bikila Abebe. If he proves to have the adventurous spirit that meet promoters are counting on, he will be asked to run in the winter season's weirdest event. There is a likelihood that Madison Square Garden fans some night will see the slender Ethiopian paddle around the board track a few times, then head out into the swirl of traffic on New York's Eighth Avenue and up to Central Park, returning slightly more than two hours later to complete indoor track's first marathon in 55 years. Were it not for the magnetism of Abebe, the race would be enough to make a real track fan pocket his stopwatch in disgust and march straight out of the Garden.
Even if marathoning by moonlight does become part of the program, it will not be the only offbeat event of the indoor season. Last week's meet at the Cow Palace provided two that could have originated at a cub scout jamboree. The first was a bit of business called an open 160-yard dash. In it the seven entrants were fired off the starting line one at a time, and each was racing solely against the clock. The race proved to be too much of an ordeal for Olympians Paul Drayton and Mike Larrabee. They finished second and fourth behind a stocky 26-year-old high school teacher from Culver City, Calif. named Bill Toomey. His time of 16.8 is a world record that seems quite safe for the rest of the year.
The other competitive goody was an elimination game called devil-take-the-hindmost. This was a mile run raised to its most punishing, sadistic extreme. Starting with the end of the third of eleven laps, the runner in last place after each go-round was waved off the track until two runners were left. As each lap ended, there was a frantic scramble for position, the winners (the losers?) continuing the agony for another 160 yards.
"We were trying to figure out how to keep the crowd excited," explained Assistant Meet Director Payton Jordan, the Stanford track coach, before the meet. Jordan need figure no longer. The crowd loved the race.
San Francisco also had plenty of what the winter must finally count on if it is to be thoroughly satisfying: the country's returning Olympic heroes. On hand were 15, but practically all were sadly out of shape. "I took four weeks off and gained 14 pounds," moaned 400-meter gold medalist Mike Larrabee before coming in second in the quarter mile.
"I've been on the banquet circuit," was 10,000-meter champion Billy Mills's cheerful complaint. "I've had hardly any chance to work out, and my weight went up five or six pounds." Mills wore a dark blazer with brass buttons to dinner on the eve of the meet. "You see," he pointed out to 18-year-old distance runner Gerry Lindgren. "I button the top two buttons now. It hides my pot."
The Kansas Indian was entered in the mile. "Actually my wife, Pat, entered me. She figured I had less chance of being lapped in the short race," he said. No one even had a chance to pass Mills, let alone lap him. He led from the start, held off a last-lap challenge by Britain's fast-closing Simpson and won by a stride in a slow 4:08.1.
Lindgren was also out of shape. The ankle he injured prior to finishing ninth in the 10,000 in Tokyo is still sore, that and the deep snow in his home town of Spokane have limited his usually prodigious workouts. But he does not enter Washington State until February 1 and therefore hopes to compete in several more meets before the NCAA ban cuts off his winter competition. Last week Lindgren was soundly beaten in the two-mile run by George Young, an Olympic steeplechaser whose competitive schedule is limited only by his teaching job in Casa Grande, Ariz. Young whipped around the last lap as if he were entered in the open 160, and won by 40 yards in 8:50.7, a very brisk early-season time.
Like Lindgren, husky Randy Matson, who won a silver medal in the shotput in Tokyo and first place in San Francisco with a good heave of 63 feet 4, can also compete in his specialty until February 1, at which time he resumes his interrupted sophomore year at Texas A&M. And, like Larrabee and Mills, Matson is wrestling a weight problem; but he has too little of it. In a post-Olympic lethargy he abandoned most of his weight-lifting program and slipped down 15 pounds to a svelte—and weak—240. Some of the Olympic athletes have retired, a few will be back in school and others will be a while getting into shape. If they take too long some very determined non-Olympians will cart home most of the silverware. Whoever wins, it will be business as usual this winter—only more so.