The U.S. took most of the medals as the Pan-Am Games got under way, and in women's gymnastics never looked better. But the pride of the Canadians was a home-grown girl who twice struck gold
August 06, 1967

Winnipeg is a conservative town. It sits out there among all that fine prairie wheat (Manitoba No. 1 Hard) hundreds of miles from anything its size, right in the middle of the wide, flat underbelly of Canada. It keeps a conservative grip on itself. People from Winnipeg pour vinegar on their french fries to cut the grease, and at 6:30 p.m. they close the beer parlors for an hour so Father will be sure to make it home for dinner.

"Try to blow a hundred bucks in an evening on the town in Winnipeg," said a man from Montreal. "It's impossible." A locally published booklet describes the city as having no race problems, no French question and a population of extraordinary charity. If these seem idle boasts, consider what happened last week when there was a call for help to run the Pan-American Games. With nothing to hate, 5,000 Winnipeggers, as they are called, volunteered. Mothers who scarcely knew their way past the supermarket were driving official cars. Prominent judges were scoring soccer matches and tending flags. Unsophisticated in the ways of modern labor, striking carpenters came back to install seats at the new swimming pool.

This is the year of Canada's 100th birthday, and every city in every province is asked to have a project to commemorate the centennial. There is one western town that, for its project, built a new sewer system. When the sewer was finished everybody brought his outdoor privy down to the center of town for a great bonfire.

Winnipeggers had no need to fool around with that sort of improvement, for Winnipeg is already modern enough. Its avenues are wider and its neighborhoods cleaner than most American cities of its size. Its buildings are sound, if architecturally uninspired, done low to the ground as though scrunched down for protection against the winter winds. Jim Coleman, a Canadian columnist, says Winnipeg is nine months winter and three months bad skating.

But it is not yet winter in Winnipeg. Not until next month or next Friday or so. The city that less than a century ago was a fur-trading post known as Fort Garry was alive and throbbing last week with its birthday offering for Canada, the fifth Pan-American Games, and extraordinary charity was at work all over town. For example, a visitor from the U.S. was called into conversation with a man at the next table in Pierre's restaurant on Portage Avenue. The man said he was an automobile dealer. Before they were finished he had invited the visitor to pick a car to use while he was in town, free of charge.

Winnipeggers have ballet and symphony and repertory theater—they think of themselves as the cultural midriff of Canada—and the public library has a marquee just like a movie house. But the masses generally settle for U.S. television and movies, trips to the Assiniboine Zoo and the Winnipeg Grain Exchange. They have never had anything to compare with the entertainment scope of the Pan-Am Games. According to James Daly, the executive director, he secured the games for Winnipeg by showing movies of the crowds at exhibition baseball (the St. Louis Cardinals came one year) and bingo games.

Every available facility in Winnipeg was put into use for the 3,000 competing athletes from 26 countries, and Winnipeggers, hungry for action, swarmed in. Even for preliminaries they jammed the beautiful new $2.7 million pool, the largest swimming facility in Canada. They watched with awe as American boys too young to shave and American girls too young to date set records, beginning for the U.S. what is sure to be the most extravagant accumulation of medals in the 16-year history of the games. And they watched with foot-stomping patriotic delectation as their own Elaine Tanner, herself just 16, broke two world records.

They jammed the St. James Arena, too, for the gymnastic competition, applauding as if they knew what it was all about in a sport about as easy to keep score on as Russian ballet. In the end they forced a move of the gymnastic competition to the larger Winnipeg Arena where, on the final night, there was a standing-room-only crowd of 10,000, as the U.S.'s Mark Cohn, a magna cum laude graduate of Temple University, won the side horse, and Linda Jo Metheny, a 19-year-old University of Illinois physical-education major, won four gold medals in her shocking fuchsia tights. A case could be made that the popularity of gymnastics was attributable primarily to the symmetry of the gymnasts and the uniforms they wore, which were nothing much. A case could even be made that women's gymnastics was the closest thing to a girly show old Winnipeg had ever offered. But that would reflect on a vastly improved American team that won 11 gold medals, five by the men. It would reflect, too, upon Canada's beautiful Susan McDonnell, who bawled her pretty eyes out after winning her event, the uneven bars.

The games were barely started before officials hastened to revise projected estimates of total receipts. The original pessimistic figure of $400,000 was doubled. Soon Mayor Stephen Juba was talking about getting a committee together to put in a bid for the 1976 Olympic Games. A nice enthusiasm, that, but not a practical one for a town of only half a million people and a spotty economy (the wheat crop this summer has been cut sharply by drought).

It is, in the end, a matter of knowing just how far to go, like the girl who showed up at the Canada-Cuba baseball game on the fifth day of the games wearing a flowery bikini under a transparent shirt. Somewhat self-conscious, she thought it necessary to explain to an admiring U.S. athlete that ordinarily she would not be so bold but "everything has changed so much in Winnipeg since the games started." The boy suggested they continue the discussion at dinner, seeing as how he wasn't competing until next week. The girl asked if he was Jewish. There is a large Jewish population in Winnipeg. No, he said, he was not Jewish. "Oh, I'm sorry," she said. "I'm Jewish and I'm afraid I haven't become that liberal."

The games began in a bathtub, Prince Philip, fresh from sunny England, standing in water up to his ankles in Winnipeg Stadium, his head bare to the gray rain. The 20,000 others hanging in there with him through the opening ceremonies laughed when he told them that the army corporal and Scotland Yard man who accompanied him considered the conditions fine. The rain, sadly, did not stop until the ceremonies were over.

The U.S. gold rush began the next day when a 29-year-old Army staff sergeant from Columbus, Ga., Hershel Anderson, won the medal in free-pistol competition. By the end of the first week the U.S. had 101 medals (to second-place Canada's 35), 52 of them gold (to Mexico's 19). Nothing unusual, except that Lieut. Margaret Thompson of the U.S. Army became the first woman to win a Pan-Am gold medal for shooting.

The U.S. wrestling team made its third-straight Pan-Am sweep, winning gold medals in all eight classes. Among the winners was light heavyweight Harry Houska, who pinned every man he wrestled and handled Cuba's Juan Ortiz Caballero Ortiz like a rag doll in the final. Middleweight Lieut. R. Wayne Baugh-man wrestled with an injured shoulder and torn rib cartilage and still beat Canada's Ed Millard for the title.

U.S. domination of the swimming events was as complete. Launched in age-group programs before they could tie their shoes, the amazing U.S. kid swimmers included girls who had to tie strings across the straps of their suits to keep them up. They included kids, too, who were talking retirement before they were half through their teen years.

As a comforting note to the aged, Don Schollander was there to compete, too, a tottering old man of 21. Schollander is at Yale now. He won four gold medals in Tokyo in 1964 and he still holds four world records. He says he is probably a faster, stronger and smarter swimmer than he ever was, but he has other interests now that he has been a Yalie for a while. He competed in only two events at Winnipeg; he helped the 400-yard freestyle relay team win, and then he lowered his world record in the 200-meter freestyle to 1:56.0.

Schollander is an exception in competitive swimming, where records go out with such astonishing quickness, disappearing even faster than the kids themselves. There were few at Winnipeg besides Schollander who will have to be reckoned with later, but Mark Spitz is one. Son of an ex-lifeguard and swimming since he was 9, this 17-year-old high schooler from Santa Clara, Calif. set a world record in the 200-meter butterfly (2:06.4) and already had a pending mark in the 100-meter butterfly.

Another American with a busy future is blonde Debbie Meyer, 14, from Sacramento. Too young to hold hands but plenty old enough to swim the hours away, Debbie swam like there were two of her. She set a world record in the 400-meter freestyle (4:32.6) and was especially brutal in the 800, where she knocked 14 seconds off the world mark.

The princess of the swimming competition in Winnipeg, however, was a 5'3" Canadian named Elaine Tanner. A gradually reforming tomboy who used to get her hands injured playing football and handball with the boys, Miss Tanner got to be known as "Mighty Mouse." Grandmother did not approve. "A mouse is a mouse is a mouse," said her grandmother. But now a mouse is a Canadian heroine.

Elaine beat U.S. girls in setting world records in both backstroke events. She started out swimming the backstroke by accident. Her father, a lithographer, would say, "Let's see you swim that funny stroke, Elaine," and she would do it. Elaine, who giggles a lot, backed out of the chance to recite the oath for the team at the opening ceremonies, fearful she would mess up, but ultimately she was the biggest item of attention in the games. Winnipeggers were not only seeing world records; they were seeing them set by a Canadian, which was double the pleasure. She was swamped by requests for interviews and autographs and pictures and she complied. "She is so nice, so sweet and so perfect it's nauseating," said a photographer from Vancouver. Eventually Elaine lost in her specialty, the 100-meter butterfly, to the U.S.'s Ellie Daniel, but that did not diminish the glow. Elaine Tanner was the biggest thing in Canada.

Chris Lang, a Winnipeg bank executive, analyzed it for friends one night at a restaurant called Hy's Steak Loft. "If we could bottle Elaine Tanner," he said, holding up a fork, "we could make a million dollars, just like the man in the paper said. Everybody identifies with her now. Everybody will say 10 years from now they saw her do it. Nothing like this ever happened to Winnipeg before. And think how much better an influence she will be on kids than Beatles or Monkees."

Meanwhile, in team competition the U.S. was showing the results of increased effort in those sports in which it hopes to become a contender at the 1968 Olympic Games at Mexico City. In water polo, for instance, a fast and highly strategic game when played properly, the U.S., with its more aggressive and faster swimming, upset favored Brazil 4-3 and stayed unbeaten through the first week of play. The team was led by a 6'5", 210-pound goalie and U.S. Air Force technical sergeant from The Netherlands named Anton Van Dorp who once played on the Dutch national team. In the water, his mustache flourished so that he looked like Keenan Wynn taking a bath. He was able to keep his upper body above the surface for periods that seemed almost incredible as he prepared to intercept shots.

The U.S. girls' volleyball team was also unbeaten in the first week. Coached for two years by Harlan Cohen—who at 5'9" was shorter than many of the girls on his team and lighter than a few—it bore no resemblance to the ragtag outfit that competed in Tokyo in 1964. And the girls also looked better as girls.

There was much praise for Canada as the games moved nicely through the first week. Incidents were rare among athletes, but surely there has never been competition as widely divergent as this that did not have difficulties. Ironically, the home team had more than its share. Four members of the Canadian baseball team were ruled ineligible as professionalism, inspiring a rush of journalese on the proposition: Just what is an amateur, Harry? An assistant Canadian track coach pleaded guilty ($50 fine) to stealing a flag off a pole at Kenaston Boulevard. It was no more than others were doing; at the end of the first week the flag theft count was nearing 100. A couple of kids even stole the official Olympic flag but, after being tormented by a shaming editorial, they returned it to the Winnipeg Tribune sports editor. A Canadian basketball player was said to have kicked a Mexican in the face, but the kicker called it mere retaliation for an earlier indiscretion on the part of the kickee. In soccer, that always inflammatory sport, there was some kicking done to the referee in the Colombia-Mexico match and an Argentine was ejected after he kicked a Colombian right in the 26th minute. Interestingly, the only complaints from the Cubans, who could have hoped for a better fate against Mexico's water polo team—they lost 3-2—came all the way from Havana, where newspapers blamed a U.S. referee for a loss to Mexico in basketball. The paper identified the referee only as Roger, and under a headline that said: CUBA VICTIM OF REFEREEING, it reported that Roger "showed his animosity." The Cubans, apparently, lost the water-polo match on their own.

From a U.S. standpoint the only regrettable words were those spoken by Arthur Ashe, who opened his mouth wide enough to fit his tennis shoe inside when he complained at being seeded No. 5. He thought the seeds were "damn silly" and that he should have been No. 1. Ashe's remarks made all the papers and they were most unfortunate because he then went out and got whipped by Brazil's Tom Koch in the semifinals. Koch was seeded No. 1.

In competition U.S. and Cuban athletes showed more maturity than the Cuban press. There was a moment when the captain of the Cuban girls' basketball team, angered at fouling out of the game, refused to shake hands with the U.S. captain as she stalked off the court (the U.S. was winning). Later, her Cuban good nature returned, and she went down the United States bench shaking hands. The U.S. baseball team lost twice to the Cubans without incident.

Medical examinations were taken as a matter of course to prove that all the girls in camp were really girls, and at night at the cabaret in the Pan-Am village the boys got a chance to take advantage of that fact. A few of the U.S. swimmers ran into some of the local talent at a movie and were invited to a love-in in the park in front of the Parliament Building. They weren't impressed. "It was ridiculous," said one ancient teenager. "Nothing but 14-year-olds."

PHOTOExultant after sweeping the side-horse vault are U.S. gymnasts Linda Jo Metheny (center), the winner, Donna Schaenzer (left) and Marie Walther. PHOTOLapping two others on her way to a record win in the 200-meter backstroke, Canada's Elaine Tanner glides to finish in Winnipeg's huge new pool. TWO PHOTOSChampion Mark Cohn of the U.S. swings in perfect harmony off the side horse during the finals at the Winnipeg Arena. Earlier (right) Mexican and Cuban swimmers thrashed away at each other in a grimly-fought water-polo match that Mexico won 3-2, without, for a change, a protest from Cuba.