The fact that the AAU national indoor championships held last week in Albuquerque finally could be called successful and not disastrous was striking tribute to the remarkable recuperative powers of sport. It was proved once again that even the most vigorous administrative bungling is seldom a match for the resilience, energy and enthusiasm of athletes.
To begin with, Albuquerque's high altitude—5,100 feet at Tingley Coliseum, where the meet was held—was hardly an inspiration to great performances, but nonetheless eight world and nine championship records were tied or broken. National television viewers were treated to only a 12-minute scrap of delayed taping, but the 18,000 spectators who cheered their way through 26 men's and women's events on and around the coliseum's gleaming red board track could hardly have cared less. Most of the big names actually listed in the program as entries were back home in France, Kenya, Canada, Russia and various parts of the U.S. instead of on hand in New Mexico, but young, exciting and completely fresh new personalities bounded forth to serve as more than satisfactory replacements. People like Richmond Flowers Jr. (see cover), the practically perfect athlete who, though still just a freshman at the University of Tennessee and plagued by a sore back, grabbed off second places in both the sprint and hurdles. Or Billy Gaines, a short, stubby but brilliantly fast high school sophomore of 17 from New Jersey, who tied a world record in the 60-yard dash. Or Lajos Mecser, a redheaded Hungarian distance runner, who utilized what little oxygen there was left in Albuquerque's rarefied air with such efficiency that he won the three-mile title with a fast finish that left everyone else breathless. Or some 150 lithe and graceful girls who trod Albuquerque's fast and springy boards in a display of skill that paid off in some unusually fast times. Or, finally, tall and muscular Bob Seagren, a teenage sophomore at Glendale (Calif.) College, who achieved indoor track's first 17-foot pole vault a full hour after the rest of the weekend's lively activities had passed into the record books.
Despite the comic-opera phase it was to pass through later, this year's meet seemed to be off to a good start last May, when it was announced that, after 40 years of practically uninterrupted residence, the championship was to leave New York's Madison Square Garden and move to the Southwest. Albuquerque's Junior Chamber of Commerce offered a $15,000 guarantee to provide transportation for the contestants and a fine 10-laps-to-the-mile board track that glows under the coliseum's bright lights like an oblong dish of raspberry Jell-O. In accepting Albuquerque's bid the National AAU not only took a first step toward making the championship a truly national one but also set up the interesting challenge of athletes vs. high altitude that must play such an important part in our preparations for the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.
There was immediate cause for concern, however, in the dates chosen for the meet, March 4 and 5. The selection served as a classic example of the uselessness of being in the right place at the wrong time. This first weekend in March clashed with the staging of the IC4A indoor meet on the East Coast, with the Big Ten championships in the Midwest and with the traditional opening of the outdoor track season on the West Coast. These burdens, added to the already existing one created by the AAU's long-term feud with the National Collegiate Athletic Association, gave meet sponsors a real problem in trying to line up a first-rate field. But this wasn't grief enough. According to AAU policy, expense money can be dispensed only from its home office in New York. This left meet officials in Albuquerque with the recruiting firepower of a cap pistol.
"About all we could do was send out entry blanks," griped meet chairman Dick Kerekes, an Albuquerque civil engineer, as he riffled through a program on the eve of the meet, dolefully scratching out such names as France's Michel Jazy, Kenya's Kipchoge Keino, the University of Kansas' distance runner John Lawson and half-miler Bill Crothers of Canada. "Without the power of the purse we could beg a guy to come here but then had to say, 'Oh, yes, and call the AAU to make sure you don't have to pay your own way.' "
One man Kerekes was lucky to get was Wilson Kiprugut, the Olympic 800-meter bronze medalist from Kenya, who was in Toronto, accompanied by his manager, John Kidiwa. All he knew for certain was that he owned a plane ticket to Albuquerque.
"We did not hear from anybody," says Kidiwa. "All we did hear was a rumor that they were not even holding Wilson's event, the 1,000-yard run, because too few had entered. We came ahead anyway."
"That doesn't make sense," claims Colonel Don Hull, the AAU's executive director, a genial man who holds the kind of job only an efficiency expert could love. "The Canadian AAU had entry blanks for the meet. All they had to do was ask."
Keino, according to Kidiwa, was hoping to make his third trip to the U.S., but his airline ticket arrived too late for him to arrange the time off from his work. "We sent him a ticket by wire," claims Hull, "but he never picked it up at the TWA office in Nairobi."
One of the indoor season's hottest box-office attractions, Miler Jim Ryun, was exposed to a sales pitch so lacking in enthusiasm that it seemed almost like an invitation to stay away. He and his schoolmate, Lawson, received letters from the AAU's Missouri Valley Association inviting them to Albuquerque. The letters ended "Please find enclosed check for $100 to cover traveling expenses." No checks were enclosed. There had been other communications with the boys' coach, Bob Timmons, but these made no difference. Long before the check less letters arrived, Ryun and Lawson were committed to run in a Kansas meet.
Already hounded by an expanding vacuum of topnotch entries, Chairman Kerekes was dealt the most humiliating blow of all just five days before opening night. On Sunday afternoon a large welcoming committee trooped out to the city's spanking-new stucco air terminal to greet the plane that was to bring in an eight-member task force of Russian athletes. On hand were two emissaries from the governor's office as well as Archie Westfall, the mayor ex-officio, military dignitaries, a battery of television cameras and a large crowd of inquisitive natives.
Only a drum majorette and the oompah-pah of a marching band were missing. Oh, yes, and the Russians. While an embarrassed group of greeters were huffing at each other in Albuquerque the Russian delegation, suddenly recalled, was on its way home to Moscow. No one had bothered to notify Albuquerque of the change in plans.
Equally as distressing to New Mexicans was the loss of a rich deal with CBS that evaporated as mysteriously as the Russians. "I was obliged to sign over TV rights to the AAU," Kerekes said, continuing his mournful game of Can You Top This? "But I was in New York last February and was offered $30,000 by CBS for television rights. I didn't have the power to negotiate, so I turned it over to the AAU. All I know now is that one moment we had $30,000 and a TV show and later practically nothing."
"The CBS offer was lost," goes Hull's rejoinder, "because the final decision to hold the meet in New Mexico came too late. Besides, I never thought CBS was very serious about the deal. We tried to arrange something with all the TV stations, but they were already committed."
The AAU's loss in the dash to the picture tube is embarrassing. Two weeks earlier the New York AC meet had monopolized a full 90 minutes of ABC's time and this weekend ABC is televising the NCAA indoor championships. The AAU's pathetic show last Sunday must have produced ear-to-ear grins at the NCAA's office in Kansas City.
If AAU officials were slow afoot, the entrants in their championship decidedly were not. The first important final of the opening night, the three-mile run, produced a notable duel between runners and thin air. Judged only from the winning time, the air came out first but, considering the handicap, the results were excellent. Lajos Mecser followed a dawdling pace for two miles, then spurted into the lead and, grimacing frightfully, lashed himself through a closing mile at 4:22.4 to win in an overall time of 13:40.4,22 seconds over the meet record but equivalent to something much faster. Mecser came out of the race with a headache. Tracy Smith, who had chased Ron Clarke to a two-mile record the previous week, finished second in 13:42.4. He still felt lightheaded an hour after the race.
"My coach, Mike Igloi, told me to really sprint into the lead with five laps to go," said the 20-year-old Smith, "but when the time came my legs just had no life and I couldn't do it."
Tom Laris, who has suddenly blossomed at two miles after a disappointing four years at Dartmouth, finished third in 13:47.2. He felt severe stomach pains in the latter part of the race.
"My legs felt fine, but it really hurt across here," said Laris after the race, throwing an arm across his abdomen. "Where am I supposed to hurt?"
With the three-mile run disposed of, the theme of the meet became "Damn the altitude, full speed ahead." The 1,000-yard run was successfully defended in meet-record time (2:07.8) by curly-haired, 27-year-old Ted Nelson, who accomplished a good share of his training walking eight miles a day while reading meters in the Los Angeles area for the Southern California Gas Company. Billy Gaines tied the world record of 5.9 seconds in his heat of the 60-yard dash and the following night barely won the event in a photo finish with Flowers. He and Flowers then posed for another photograph, which may have a decisive effect, one way or another, on the Alabama gubernatorial primary May 3. Gaines, a Negro, and Flowers, general, will be running for governor on a platform of racial moderation, embraced cordially as flashbulbs popped like a battery of Chinese firecrackers.
Records popped along with flashbulbs as the men set new meet standards in the shotput, the 60-yard high hurdles, the 600-yard run and three relays. Art Walker won the triple jump with a leap of 54 feet 9½ inches, a world record. Then Bob Seagren gave the men's events their second world record. All season he has been pushing his close friend and roommate, John Pennel, to one indoor record after another in the latter's bitter assault on 17 feet indoors. At midnight Seagren cleared the bar set at 17 feet¼ inch while Pennel looked on with what must have been a severe sense of frustration. John was first to pull Bob to his feet and offer congratulations.
"Wait until I get my new pole," Pennel finally announced. "I'll go 18 feet."
"Don't talk, just do it," laughed Seagren, his record temporarily secure.
The girls were better than the boys, setting new world indoor marks in five of the seven running events. Tennessee A&I's tall, slender Edith McGuire, the Olympic 200-meter champion, won the 220-yard dash in 24.1, and her teammate, Wyomia Tyus, the Olympic 100-meter winner, covered 60 yards in 6.5 seconds. Charlotte Cook, 18, a redhead from Compton, Calif., won the 440-yard run in a pacesetting 54.2. .She was all delighted smiles after sailing through the finish tape, then burst into tears when she heard that her winning time was a full 1.4 seconds under the old world indoor record. Hungary's trim brunette, Zsuzsa Szabo-Nagy, by now a relatively familiar sight in the U.S. after two winter visits to the indoor circuit, won the 880-yard run in 2:08.6, a 1.6 improvement over the pending world indoor record. She led America's 16-year-old girl wonder, Marie Mulder, to the finish by a good 15 yards.
"When I heard the time for the quarter was 63.5 I sort of dropped my head in surprise," said Marie, who tailed Mrs. Szabo throughout the race. "When I looked up she was gone."
Perhaps the AAU could learn a lesson from the youthful Miss Mulder: "Don't ever take your eye off the track ahead." be saved by fresh personalities, high leaps and faster races. Eventually they will have to keep their eyes fixed straight ahead and do some fast stepping of their own.