When a big, boisterous, noisy crowd full of good will, cold beer and high expectations grows suddenly quiet, look out—something wonderful is about to happen: Houdini tied up at the edge of a river, Notre Dame on the two-yard line, Marv Throneberry settling under a high pop-up.
Twice last Friday night at the Los Angeles Coliseum an official, his gun arm raised high, said loud and clear: "Get on your marks...." and the echo boomed off the high-banked stadium and the crowd went quiet—absolutely, breathlessly quiet. And why not? First Jim Ryun, strong, fit and completely unprepared for anything spectacular, flabbergasted himself by running the second fastest mile in history with almost no help from the field and on a slow, slow track, missing his own record by just 1.9 seconds.
And then again came the hush. There, coiled in their starting blocks, 220 yards from the finish line, was a collection of high-kneed, arm-pumping speed, more of it, probably, than has ever been assembled on anybody's starting line. There were nine sprinters, and the one who did not break a world record might very well finish dead last. Forget the record. The track took care of that. But the race was the thing and, as the nine pounded toward the finish line, Tommie Smith, tall, lithe, graceful and, until that instant, unbeatable, was a stride behind Jim Hines—and staying there. The young bull from Texas Southern University, who gave Charlie Greene his first honest whomping over 100 meters just the week before (SI, June 5), was at it again. Hines won the race he said he would win, and he beat the man who had lost only twice in two years over 220 yards. It was that kind of speed.
Indeed, it was that kind of meet, with the talent so plentiful and the competition so keen that you could be excused for wondering if big-league sport had never before happened to Los Angeles. The combined Coliseum-Compton Invitational had, in fact, so many superlative athletes—17 of them were currently world-record holders—that spectators rushed in. just as they had in the pre-Dodger, pre-Rams and pre-Laker days, when you could match a couple of American Beauty roses and 80,000 would come to see it.
Until Friday night, track had been declining steadily as a draw in the face of competition from the pros. But one side of the stadium was alive with people who wanted to see something special in the pole vault from Bob Seagren, or to watch those co-holders of the world record, Texas Southern and UCLA, mix it up in the 440-relay, or Ralph Boston, hot off a 27-foot-plus effort, in the broad jump, or quadruple record-holder Ron Clarke, fresh in from Australia, or the unbeaten South African sprinter, Paul Nash, newly arrived from London, or Hurdlers Willie Davenport and Richmond Flowers or....
No need to go on, really, because Jim Ryun was entered, and when Jim Ryun is going to run in any meet the attention people pay is almost all to him. The promoters went to work on this angle early. ALL RYUN ASKS IS A FAST PACE Said one headline before the race, implying that anything over a 3:54 would be a creeping anticlimax. Actually Ryun had no idea how fast he would run the mile. "I feel good," he said, "but I've done no speed work at all. Frankly, I've got a long way to go this year."
Hmmm. Slow track, no one to press him, long way to go—now does that sound like the stuff from which to fashion the world's second-fastest mile? It does not, but with Jim Ryun such considerations become minor. He popped into the lead immediately, should anyone be inclined to go at the race in a leisurely manner, and he only let go at the end of the first 220, when Bob Redington, rabbit in residence, took over as pacer. At the half, Ryun and Redington were all by themselves and then, with one of those long-striding bursts that always brings a crowd to its feet yelling, Ryun said thank you very much and zoomed off alone. He sailed into the gun lap and burst down the back stretch. Not only was the crowd vocally up for the occasion, but the P.A. announcer, excusably smitten, seemed beside himself. "He's at 3:47, folks," he blurted as Ryun rounded the last turn.
"Oh, my God, what have I done?" was Ryun's reaction to that pronouncement. In truth, he was about three seconds slower than the announcer had said, but the time nonetheless was a highly stimulating thing to hear. Ryun's typically blistering last-lap kick became hotter still. And that, in case you should ever want to try, is one way to run a 3:53.2 mile.
Jim Hines is broad shouldered, with a deep, powerful chest, and he does not run the 220, he runs at it, as if some rascal had placed a brick wall between him and immortality. Hines will add pepper to any sprint he is in, partly because he is very fast but mostly because he has a knack of turning every race into a grudge match. "If we [Tommie Smith and he] ran 10 races," said Hines after the meet, "I'd beat him 10 times." And that, in Hines's mind, is fact, not boasting. Whatever it is, it seems doubtful that Smith and Hines will carry on a lot of cordial banter before the start of their next race.
By nature, sprinters are a cocky lot, and any one of them who is not convinced he is the fastest man alive is a dead duck before he starts. Hines is definitely not in the dead-duck category. Nor is such self-confidence entirely without logic. Last summer, for instance, Smith beat Hines by a hair in a 220 in Los Angeles. Explanation? "I wasn't in any kind of shape." said Hines, "and if I was, I'd have clobbered him. "Then, this winter, came three successive 5.9 sixty-yard dashes, this spring a 9.1 hundred and the 10 flat 100-meter in Modesto one week ago. No one has ever done them faster. What is more, "the 220 is by far my best race." Hines insisted after his win, despite the fact he has run few 220s.
It had to be, against the 220 field that gathered in the cool of the evening. Besides Smith and Hines, there was Paul Nash, whose times in all dashes are just fractions off the world records. The South African's only weakness, if it can be called that, is unfamiliarity with stiff, lose-a-step, lose-a-race competition. This has not been a problem for Willie Turner, a growing lad (he is 5'11" but his grandfather is 6'6") and a rank freshman at Oregon State who said how do you do? to the esoteric world of class sprinters with a 20.4 in the 220 at Modesto and followed this with a 10 flat 100-meter dash. He was second in both races, just a hot breath behind Smith and Hines.
And there was the starter and the big crowd waiting still and quiet. And then there was motion and all that energy exploding on the track and in the stands. Hines, who according to Hines is the best curve runner in the world, won the race on the curve. Most sprinters float the turn and come on strong in the straightaway. Not Hines. He assaults the curve, as he did Friday night. He burst into the straight with that rolling, powerful gait and had three yards on the field.
For the slow-starting Smith, this was nothing new. He is usually up against it coming off the curve, but he always comes on. So it was in this race, and the cries of "Come on, Tommieeee!" had the ring of genuine hope to them. And on Tommie came. Suddenly he was two strides behind, then one and still moving—loose, long-limbed, 20 yards to go. Plenty of time. Ten yards and still off a stride. And was Hines worried? "My kick is just as good as Smith's," he said. And so it was—on this night.