Until last week track coaches pretty much agreed there was a classic way to equal or break the world 440-yard-dash record. Somebody terribly fast, like Adolph Plummer or Otis Davis or Mike Larrabee, would blast out of the starting blocks and into the turn. He would continue to accelerate until he hit the backstretch, where, lengthening his stride and coasting just a bit, he would concentrate on rhythm and form and, most important, would conserve precious strength for the last 100 yards. At the far turn he would open up again and drive to the finish, where he would break the string with one final desperate lunge, utterly spent, his legs like rubber and his lungs fighting for air.
Runners who followed this script had come to dread that last 100 yards because of the physical beating they took, and coaches had grown used to running out on the track to catch their collapsing athletes before they crashed to the cinders. Then, Saturday afternoon in San Jose, Calif., along came Tommie Smith (SI, May 22), the very picture of tranquillity as he breezed through two strings, one set at 400 meters, the other at 440 yards, and all theories about the classic quarter mile suddenly had to be revised.
Smith not only seemed to be picking up speed as he finished, but in the process he was setting two world marks—44.5 in the 400 and 44.8 in the 440. He beat his teammate and close friend, Lee Evans, who himself missed Plummer's world 440 record by only .4 of a second, by five yards that were rapidly approaching six. Shortly afterward he assured everyone that his own new records would not last for long.
"I still had something left," Smith said. "My start was bad and I didn't have a good first half. The next time I'll run a faster 220 in the beginning and my time might be better."
May 28, 1967
Smith at the moment holds world records in the 220-yard dash over the straightaway (19.5) and the curve (20.0), so there is reason to believe that he can do better than 21.7 over the first half the next time he goes after the quarter mile. Certainly his coach, Bud Winter, can see nothing to hold him back. "All I can say is that he's even more amazing than I thought, if that's possible," said Winter, shaking his head. "I wouldn't be surprised if he runs a 42-plus or 43 whenever he sets his mind to it. In fact, I'll be most surprised if he doesn't."
But Winter, who is losing Smith, a senior at San Jose State (he will have Evans back next year), was quick to emphasize the effect Evans' presence had in the assault on the record. Evans led throughout the first 300 yards, and even when Smith drew abreast of him in the far turn he was confident of winning. "I thought to myself, here comes Tommie," Evans said, "but it really didn't get to me. I was strong and I wasn't tired. Then he passed me and I just couldn't keep up."
"I always run a whole lot better when I'm behind," said Smith. "But today I ran a whole lot better because Lee was the man in front of me. I know him so well, you see—his personality, his determination—that I knew the only way I could win would be with something extra."
"Lee would have won against anybody else," said Winter. "It's just that he ran against somebody who may be superhuman."
Ever since Evans transferred to San Jose hoping to shoot for relay marks as Smith's running partner, it had seemed clear that the two would have to race against each other someday, somewhere at 440 yards. Three times they had met—but at 220. Smith won a close first match, Evans the second in a near dead heat but Smith won the third in 20.8 to Evans' 20.9. Three weeks ago Winter called each separately into his office and told them that he was pairing them off at the quarter in the team's final home meet of the season.
"We kept them apart as long as possible," Winter said. "But with Tommie approaching his last race on the San Jose track, it seemed logical they should meet. They both agreed and appeared more than anxious to go through with it."
Evans relished the chance. Determined to prove he was superior to Smith at 440 yards, he grew visibly more nervous as the days passed. On Friday he said he was as ready as he could be. "I haven't lost a 440 since I was a junior in high school," he said, "and I'll never forget it. I'm always sick after a quarter, but I threw up that time because I had lost. Tomorrow you'll see pain written across the faces of Tommie and me, but mine will be a lot worse. The race will be decided in the last 110 yards, and those are what I've prepared for. I know it is going to hurt bad, but when it finally comes I have to block it out of my mind. I have to forget that pain completely."
Smith, playing it cool (he wasn't), talked instead of how it was just another race for him. "My specialty," he said, "is the 220. If we were running a 220 I would be much more nervous than I am now, but what burns me up is all the trumped-up animosity they're trying to say exists between Lee and myself. Everybody seems to forget that we're good friends, that I take him home after practice most every night and that I watch TV at his house with him and his family. You don't do things like that with somebody you dislike. They've blown this duel all out of proportion. Lee and I both agree on that."
The two also shared a contempt for Plummer's existing 440 record (44.9). "The record should go, regardless of who wins," said Smith. "It should have gone last year." "The time," said Evans, "just doesn't seem worthy of a world record."
Smith, following a regular routine, turned in a spectacular 33.5 for 350 yards on Wednesday, followed that with a 35.7, then took Thursday and Friday off. Evans, working hard on speed and endurance, took only Friday off. Smith drove Evans home Friday in his yellow 1966 Chevrolet and later returned to the track and parked his car along the seven-foot-high fence topped by barbed wire. For a long moment he gazed through the fence, until Meet Director Tracy Walters, who was putting the final touches on the track, called to him to come in. Not even stopping to see if the gate was unlocked, Smith climbed the fence, picked his way over the barbed wire and jumped inside, while Walters shuddered at the thought of what might have happened.
"It's funny," said Smith, "but that's kind of typical. I'm just having difficulty concentrating on anything but the race. Nothing after it means anything. I completely forgot an ROTC class on Thursday, and I've never done that before. I'll just be glad when it's over."
The day of the race was bright and sunny. The wind hardly rustled a leaf. "Somebody is for us," said Winter, moments before the race began. "Never in 20 years at San Jose have I seen the wind so still at this time of the day. It's two miles an hour down the backstretch. No need to pull up the windbreaker along the fence."
The crowd of more than 4,000—largest ever to watch a meet at San Jose State—had come to see the record broken, and it warmly applauded the runners as they were introduced. They included Bob Talmadge and Ken Shackelford, also of San Jose State, who last week teamed with Smith and Evans to break the world record in the 880 relay and the American record in the mile relay, and Dale Martin.
Smith showed none of the nervousness of the previous day, waving at the crowd at his introduction and even calling to a friend in the stands. Evans, on the other hand, was deep in concentration. He did not smile or look about. His hands on his hips, he stared at the ground until the starter ordered the runners to their marks. As Smith crouched in the third lane, with Evans in the fourth and Shackelford and Talmadge on the inside, the crowd grew silent. The occasional snap of a camera shutter seemed almost as startling as the gun report that was to follow.
At the start Evans burst into the lead and maintained a solid three- to four-yard margin over Smith down the back-stretch. Smith disposed of Shackelford coming out of the first turn, but after 110 yards trailed Evans by a full .3 of a second. He narrowed it to .2 at 220 yards and seized command as both runners sped out of the last turn. His eyes shut tightly behind his sunglasses, Smith was in complete control to the end, while Evans, the pain as evident as he had promised, obviously was struggling. Shackelford's time was 47.4, Talmadge's 48.6 and Martin's 50.2.
"It was a great race," Winter said, "not because it set a record, but because two men with opposite approaches were shooting for a common goal. Lee is an 880-type runner who can drive over a distance. Tommie is a 220 man. He runs as fast as he can for as long as he can."
With the two new marks Smith boosted his number of world records owned or shared to eight. When it was over, he said, "If I had run a 44.8 and Lee had run a 44.7 and won, I still would have been happy. I was running against the clock. Lee, I'm sure, is disappointed only because of his time and, personally, I think he deserves part of the record, because without him I could not have set it.
"I must say in all honesty that I had no idea who was going to win," he added. "I wasn't certain at all of coming out ahead. But I don't think this is the ultimate for either of us. For me, personally, the star I've been reaching for is the Olympics—and that seems a little closer now. As far as the goals, though, I hope I never run out of them."
Soon the only goals to surpass may be Tommie Smith's own records.
HOW SMITH AND EVANS COMPARED
Smith, whose race is clocked at left, got away slower than Evans, running his first 110 in 11 seconds to Evans' 10.7 (right). But Smith covered each of the succeeding 110-yard sections in a faster time, recording 10.7 to Evans' 10.8 at 220, 11.8 to 12.3 and 11.3 to 11.5 at the end.