There is a delightful quality of whipped cream and rich, sweet cake about the sport of track as served indoors. Taken in moderate portions it is a flavorful adjunct to its more formal and far more significant outdoor cousin. When given a big build-up, however, it courts the danger of becoming too much of a good thing: like dessert without an entrée, gravy but no meat—or last week's National AAU indoor championships.
A year ago the AAU track and field committee was confronted with two very specific problems: 1) what to do about the flagging national zeal for women's track and 2) how best to counterattack the National Collegiate Athletic Association's threatened boycott of the indoor track season. The solution arrived at by the AAU was so simple as to seem ingenuous. The organization would become the Sol Hurok of sport and, like that impresario, round up the best foreign talent. Not only was a record number of athletes imported (almost three dozen), but there was a record number of women, 210 from here and abroad.
As nice as this was, the AAU had problems, not the least of which was money. The large scale of operations called for uncharacteristic expenditures of AAU funds. Other meets, which shared the visitors with the AAU, picked up part of the expense, but the AAU had to carry the bulk of the cost. Also troublesome was the question of how to use all the talent assembled. It hardly seemed gracious to invite the world's best women athletes, spot them around in various invitational meets, then bring them together in Sundance, Wyo. or some similarly remote place of the sort our own girls have become only too used to, for a final bash at the U.S. championships.
So for the first time the AAU decided to hold the men's and women's nationals under the same roof. Because there were so many events, they also decided to stretch the meet over two nights, with the women's events concentrated on the first, along with one or two headline male competitions. This idea was sound in every respect except one: Friday night far outshone Saturday night, yet it attracted a relatively small crowd. In fact, attendance for the two evenings (4,978 for the first night, 12,535 for the second) barely exceeded one full house, and the AAU's rental fee went up at least $5,000. This brought the total cost for putting on the meet to a roughly estimated $36,000, about twice that of the most elaborate one-night meets.
"It was worth it," said the AAU's executive director, Colonel Donald F. Hull. "We feel that bringing over so many foreign women has served its purpose. It's going to help women's track. This is no hodgepodge. These are the best women in the world. The people who came to our championship this year saw the greatest woman shotputter in the world, the greatest high jumper, the greatest broad jumper."
Quality of performance was certainly there. The Friday night crowd saw Russia's Tamara Press, Rumania's Iolanda Balas and England's Mary Rand, all Olympic champions and world-record holders, not to mention the winter season's favorite son, Billy Mills, who won a superlative three-mile race, and Ralph Boston and Igor Ter-Ovanesyan, who staged another of their down-to-the-millimeter broad-jumping duels.
In fact, the spectators were lucky to see Mrs. Rand, who fouled two of her three attempts during the afternoon qualifying round in the broad jump and failed to make the evening's final. Fortunately, a plea by Chicago's Willye White, a snappy-looking redhead and America's best woman jumper, gave Mary, and the spectators, a reprieve.
"There were three takeoff boards," Willye explained. "From the head of the runway it looked O.K., but when you got down near the pit you could see all three of them. It was kind of confusing. It was wrong. I thought Mary should be given another chance and that's what I told the committee."
This was all the push the officials needed to put Mrs. Rand in the finals. "I'd rather not jump, except maybe as some sort of guest, but they want me to," said Mary with a shrug, "so...." Whereupon she won the title with a meet record leap of 20 feet 4 inches. The generous Miss White finished fifth.
With all that glamour on the boards and in the pits, Lieut. Billy Mills might have been excused if he had felt demoted to a supporting role. But Mills was in no mood to accept this fate. All winter long, crowds had greeted the presence on the track of the Olympic 10,000-meter champion with fervent whoops of delight. Too often Mills would then take a beating. He was kept out of shape by command appearances at dinners, and he usually had to run in events not geared to his speed—the mile and two-mile, which to a distance man like Mills are almost sprints. By Friday a very determined Mills, bent on proving that Tokyo was no fluke, was ready. He had managed to sneak in the hard work distance running requires, and this race, at three miles, was more to his liking.
"I had been training with an eye to the outdoor season and the dual meet with Russia," he said before the race, "but lately I've been able to work out regularly and I feel strong." Strong was hardly the word for it. Mills jumped into the lead at the start. With Canada's Dave Ellis sticking to him, they ran the first 31 laps in tandem, as if they were riding the same bicycle-built-for-two. Mills swept through the first mile in 4:24.9, went past two miles in 8:58.8, and then dislodged his pursuer with a 61.5 final quarter that carried him to the finish four yards in front. He ran easily throughout, his kick was long-legged, smooth and seemingly effortless. His time of 13:25.4 was a U.S. citizens' record, just seven seconds above Ron Clarke's world indoor mark, and the second fastest three-mile ever run indoors.
"It feels pretty good to win," said Mills, who had carried his embarrassment of cheers with resigned tolerance. "I've had to take some pretty good lickings."
The spectators who arrived with high hopes for an exciting evening of track on Saturday night missed so much of the meet that when they filed sullenly out of the Garden there was a general feeling that, however energetic, however commendable, however imaginative, however free-spending, the AAU had goofed again.
To be fair, the evening was not a complete washout. On hand to win his third American indoor title was Russian High Jumper Valeri Brumel who, much like Mary Rand, gives off as many competitive sparks as a Fourth of July pinwheel. Brumel was not pushed and could jump no higher than 7 feet 2 inches, but he is a magnetic showman who thrives on dramatic moments. Since winning an Olympic gold medal last fall, he has even developed a relaxed exhilaration in combat that was lacking in his previous visits to the U.S. After each success he is out of the foam-rubber landing pit in a single bounce, waving to the crowd and grinning as if to say: "What fun this is. Why don't you all come down and try it?"
For the devoted track fan who feeds on the finer points of the sport, there was considerable satisfaction in Villanova's meet-record 7:28.2 in the two-mile relay, not so much from the winner's time as from the manner in which Seton Hall's Germann twins, Herb and George, chased the Villanova runners to the finish line. Herb was given the unenviable assignment of trying to stick with Villanova's Tommy Sullivan, who posted a sizzling-fast 1:50.2 for his half-mile leg. Herb, behind by at least 12 yards as he began his leg, struggled courageously, but was a grudging 20 yards back when he passed the baton to his twin brother. Stride by stride, George sliced the margin between himself and Villanova's Irish anchorman, Noel Carroll. The latter was timed in a fast 1:51.4, but George made up 10 yards with a close-to-1:50 stint of his own.
For the record the AAU, awakening to a new era in track promotion, tried something different. Its effort to bring in an exotic array of foreign talent, male and female, and to give women's track the showcase that the men's championship provides was laudable. But, however crammed with vitamins it may be, an indoor track meet lacks the nourishment to last two nights.