Now you can't, now you can

For a long time America's best gymnasts did not know whether they were eligible for the U.S. meet or not. They were, luckily
May 15, 1966

It was a year ago that the Phillips Petroleum Company of Bartlesville, Okla. put in a bid to sponsor the Amateur Athletic Union gymnastics championships. This seemed the patriotic thing to do. The fact that the year happened to be 1966 was merely a coincidence, or so say the number-conscious people at Phillips 66. Believe what you like, but if there was any chicanery in the souls of the down-home Oklahomans—who guaranteed expenses for the meet and therefore guaranteed themselves a loss of more than a few dollars—it was pure innocence compared with the disgraceful politicking that preceded the championships. Bartians, as the natives call themselves, were really taken by the "a-jile" kids. The kids were taken even worse by the officials who govern their sport.

The trouble, which was as far removed from parallel bars and balance beams as colonels are from corporals, began four weeks ago at the United States Gymnastics Federation championships at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. The meet was fine, but the real competition came afterward when the officers of the AAU took on the officers of the Federation in a tug-of-war over the prostrate forms of the enlisted athletes. Rumors had been circulating among the would-be entrants that they could be banned by the AAU for taking part in the meet but—assured by older and wiser heads that there had been a Senate resolution calling for "an immediate and general amnesty" between the AAU and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (partners in the feud with the Federation)—they decided to give it a tumble anyway.

Within a week some 20 men had been notified by the AAU that they were ineligible for the AAU championships and, hence, any chance to qualify for the team that would represent the U.S. in the World Games in Dortmund, Germany next September. That the girls who participated in the championships were not punished was merely in keeping with the inconsistencies that have confused so many other amateur athletes, and not only gymnasts, in recent years.

Perhaps the most confused athlete last week was Lieut. Greg Weiss, a former national champion from Penn State who is currently in the Air Force.

"Two years ago," Weiss said, "when I could get no reply from the AAU, I attended a Federation clinic in Tucson. As a result I was not allowed by the AAU to go to the Nationals or on the trip to Europe or to compete in the North Americans, even though I was the defending champion.

"Then one day out of nowhere I got a call from Colonel Hull [Colonel Donald F. Hull, executive director of the AAU]. He said, 'How would you like to compete in the Little Olympics in Mexico City?' All of a sudden I'm acceptable. Then comes the Federation meet, and I'm blacklisted again."

Just two days before the AAU championships the five-man panel appointed last December by Vice-President Hubert Humphrey to mediate the dispute between the organizations governing amateur sports ruled that all but two of the gymnasts who had been declared ineligible were, forthwith, persona grata. Weiss was not, nor was fellow Olympian Rusty Mitchell, who went into coaching.

The new charge against Weiss was that he had misbehaved in Kobe, Japan after the 1964 Olympics. "I know there was some sort of trouble in Kobe," Weiss says, "but I couldn't have been involved because I was home in the States at that time." With a defense like that, it was hard to continue the ban on Weiss. Again he was cleared for duty.

The meet began in an atmosphere that only a secret agent working both sides of the street could appreciate. "You have to be careful who you talk to," one athlete said. "If I talk with a friend from the Federation, I have to be careful that no one from the AAU thinks I'm getting too chummy with the other people. If I see a friend from the AAU, I have to be careful about the Federation crowd. It's silly."

Happily, the good sense of the athletes prevailed over any conspiratorial thoughts they might have entertained. They and their coaches decided to live it up for a change. "This is supposed to be the most important meet of the year, but we just can't take it seriously," said one coach. "We've decided to have a good time and the heck with the politics."

Even defending champion Makoto Sakamoto was caught up in the relaxed atmosphere. "I'm not trying hard enough, and that's badness," said the 5-foot 2-inch, 115-pound freshman from USC. Despite efforts to bear down, Makoto often found himself swapping tales and small talk with his brother Tadashi, who had flown in from Fort Sill, Okla., and with other contestants.

In the end, Makoto got keyed up enough to win his fourth straight all-round title, beating out Steve Cohen of Penn State by 2.5 points. The women's competition was still closer. Linda Metheny of Tuscola, Ill. defeated Marie Walther of Kent State by .068 of a point.

So how did the Bartians react to all this? They stayed right through the finals that did not end until 12:15 Sunday morning, and now they hope Phillips 66 wins the Olympic Trials for them, even if they are in 1968.