It was somewhere around 3 o'clock last Saturday afternoon—and 80° in the prairie sunshine—when the U.S.'s Tom Von Ruden and Canada's David Bailey set about the serious business of running each other into the ground. They gathered a few other runners around them, strictly as props, set the distance at 1,500 meters—which is a lurch or two under a mile—and took off. On the track surrounding them were the flags and festive Winnipeg trappings of the Pan-American Games and, broiling on a platform off to one side, a Canadian army band sat waiting to play the national anthem of the man who won.
On the first lap around, it was all Bailey, while Von Ruden loped along next to last, slack-jawed and making small, chuffing sounds like a logging train.
Von Ruden always runs like this. He hangs his mouth open and lets his eyes go blank, looking vaguely like Little Orphan Annie, and his cheeks flop loosely. He looks down at the track a lot, as though somebody ahead of him might have dropped some money, and occasionally he glances behind him. He was running that way coming into the scoreboard turn, with roughly 100 meters to go. Just ahead of him, Bailey was slamming along on full power, all confident and in trim. Then it happened.
While a crowd of several thousand groaned in a mixture of delight and dismay, Von Ruden's eyes suddenly snapped into a look of purpose. He took one last gulp of hot air, closed his mouth and turned his face back on. Then he came wheeling past Bailey in a flash of long, iron thigh muscles, suddenly running so fast that it took him roughly halfway to Hudson's Bay to get stopped. Bailey was so unnerved by it all that he let Von Ruden's teammate, Sam Bair, slip into second spot. And over on the stand, the bandmaster got up heavily, his shirt pasted wetly to his back. He rapped for attention and said something appropriate, like, "O.K., you guys, The Star-Spangled Banner again."
You must understand right away that Von Ruden's time, 3:43.4, although not a world record (that belongs to the Pan-Am Games' most famous absentee, Jim Ryun), was a Pan-American record and, in its way, quite significant. It showed that the United States has developed 1) an embarrassment of wealth in key track-and-field events; 2) that while the U.S. has been busy with such traditional summer activities as riots and pennant chases, we may have solved a nagging problem connected with next year's Olympic Games. In its low-key way, Von Ruden's run was an indication that the U.S. could possibly two-platoon the 1968 Olympics with a lot of impressive people just like him.
The object of the Pan-American Games, and similar international gatherings, is to keep world athletes from getting too restless between Olympics by assembling them and letting them run, jump, swim, walk, throw things and belt each other around. The ultimate purpose in all this is to enable almost everybody to get medals and go back home in triumph and calm down for another season. Still, the unhappy truth is that one nation or another always grows to dominate a particular meet. Further, it is impossible—outside the framework of the Olympics—to get all the top stars into the same arena at one time, no matter what you call the games.
The United States had unblushingly clobbered everybody at the last Pan-Am in 1963, taking home 109 gold, 49 silver and 35 bronze medals. This time, the U.S. had come to Winnipeg with 402 fresh athletes and had left another brigade of them at home—among them Ryun, who now decides where he will set his world mile records by cycles of the moon, Gerry Lindgren, Tommie Smith, Jim Hines and Charlie Greene. Their absence might have given the impression that Canada was due for a contest.
But then, even before Von Ruden came hammering down the Saturday homestretch, U.S. athletes began to beat everybody, in spite of such vigorous training activities as shaving-cream fights, love-ins just outside the fence of the Pan-Am village and some abandoned dancing at the nonalcoholic, Coca-Cola-powered cabaret inside the fence. The string of victories got embarrassing halfway through the contests. At the University of Manitoba Track Stadium just outside town, one matron flounced huffily and said, "I swear, if I hear The Star-Spangled Banner just one more time, I shall scream."
A sort of vague, hard-to-define undercurrent of resentment began to build all around the fringes of the games, particularly when the United States won some events it wasn't supposed to win.
"Look," said a Canadian, dismayed, "who ever heard of the U.S. winning water polo? Or women's volleyball?"
By last Saturday morning the Winnipeg Free Press commented, "On the basis of gold medals won, the United States has locked up its fourth consecutive Pan-American Games—but the fight for second place is still open...."
And if the U.S. was trying hard to keep an un-ugly image and the other nations were mildly dismayed, it was the Cubans who couldn't stand it most. If there is one thing they are not exactly wild about as a nation, it is standing at respectful attention while the band plays that grand old favorite about the rockets' red glare.
At one point, Jan Landa, who is 16 and leads a pack of cheerleaders at Winnipeg's Windsor Park Collegiate High School, took her crew down to the basketball gym to lead cheers for Cuba ("We're for Cuba, couldn't be prouder. If you can't hear us, we'll yell a little louder"). Jan and the girls bought their own sweaters and sewed letters on the front of them, so that if everybody got in line correctly they spelled out CUBA.
"Canada is my country, sure," said Jan. "But when the Cubans came here they were a little downhearted, maybe because they came from a Communist country and had no friends."
But the sweaters and the shot of friendship did not help much. The United States won in basketball, naturally, and everybody stood around while they played that song again.
Still, for all the background muttering, the one thing that will set track fans to whooping is a genuine heroic performance, regardless of nationality. And—halfway through the games, when things might have gotten routine—along came Van Nelson, a sort of skinny superman who surprised almost everybody. Nelson is 21 years old, 5'10" and 133 pounds, a biology major from St. Cloud State College, which is hidden cleverly somewhere inside Minnesota. He is so relaxed and confident that he is all disconnected, standing there in a rack of loose rib cage and knee bones, looking out at the world through soft, blue-green eyes. He warmed up for the 10,000- and 5,000-meter events by sleeping and jogging and drinking enough Coca-Cola to fuel three Twiggys.
"My coach worries about me," Nelson said. "I mean, I'm so relaxed. I guess confidence was just built into me when I was born. Mostly, I just stand around at the starting line and look at the others and figure I can beat these guys, and then I go and do it."
That is what surprised everyone. In the 10,000-meter run Nelson slouched around the track, running in second and third positions for most of the race. "A lot of people took one look at me and said I was through," he said later. "Boy, I guess it's the expression on my face or something. I guess I look like I'm in pain. But I'm concentrating on my running, that's all."
With two laps to go, Canadian Dave Ellis, who had been setting the pace, suddenly broke away to a 25-yard lead. Then the pack thundered down to within 200 yards of the finish. But Ellis had not counted on the fueling power of Coca-Cola. Nelson got all his arms and legs in synchronization and came flashing past easily to win by five yards.
"I intended to win here in Canada," he said, relaxed and all disconnected again. "I think maybe I'm the least publicized of all the U.S. runners—nobody has ever heard of me."
Nelson will not be anonymous anymore. On Wednesday night, he again loped along like a blond dark horse until there were four laps to go in the 5,000-meter run. Then he suddenly turned on and won by 40 meters—the only U.S. track-and-field athlete to win two individual gold medals.
"Just think," he said happily. "I'm only 21 now and that means my age will see me through three Olympics. I'll be just 31 for the third one.
"Right now," Nelson said, "there are three of us in my class: Gerry Lindgren, Tracy Smith and me. I have only raced Lindgren once before and he beat me. But I think I could take him now."
And if Nelson was nicely flushed with success, Winnipeg was delirious over its games. At stadiums, pools, gyms, tanks, pits, velodromes and tracks spotted all over town, crowds were calling the Pan-Am Games the biggest thing to hit town since the fur traders.
"Boy," said James Daly, the executive director, "we even have crowds watching field hockey. Who ever heard of anyone watching field hockey? And we had more people at tennis in one day than all of the Davis Cup matches in Montreal. The Pan-American Games will be the turning point for Canada. Ideas will fan out from here in all directions."
Daly was more correct than he knew: behind the scenes, quietly, a revolution in sports medicine began taking shape.
"This is the solution to training," said Aldo Scandurra, head manager of the U.S. track-and-field men's team, early in the week. "Winnipeg, at 700 feet elevation, is the key. Some of our runners training at high altitude for the Mexico City Games are discovering a reverse-twist effect. Coming down to low altitude they can beat everybody.
"Look at Von Ruden and the 1,500 meters," he continued. "He trained at Alamosa, Colo. at 7,500 feet. Bailey trained here. If Von Ruden runs away from Bailey, that's it—because the two men are evenly matched."
And Von Ruden, fresh from the hills of Alamosa, was inclined to agree. "You feel as though you have a little something extra left at the end of a race," he said. "Of course, you hurt just as much, and psychology still has a lot to do with it. But there is something extra there."
On Friday, the day before he went for the big one, Von Ruden helped run a series of altitude and oxygen tests on a teammate. He and University of Wisconsin Physiologist Jack Daniels hooked up Tom Dooley, who is a heel-and-toe walker, to a device that looks an awful lot like a mobile electric chair. Then Von Ruden drove around the practice track in a car with Daniels sitting on the hood while Dooley walked alongside, breathing expired air into rubber bags.
"We have never tested a walker before," Daniels said happily, gathering in three bags full of air and leaving Dooley dripping wet and exhausted. "Perhaps we will find that if we train them at high altitudes—such as Colorado—they will be able to come back down to sea level and walk everybody else loppy-legged.
"We already have tested Von Ruden and Ryun," he said, "and we found one important thing so far: that Ryun is not superman. That is, he doesn't have an extra lung or anything abnormal like that. He is simply a superb athlete. And Ryun told us he found that the secret is to go back down occasionally and race at sea level. Of course, he beats everybody anyway."
"I don't know if it's just because you feel better training at altitude or not," said Von Ruden. "But when you come out of the mountains and you hear your time for the quarter, you're pleased."
Still, the theory could be full of pressurized bugs yet to be worked out. Nelson, whose idea of altitude training is to run around the lakes in Minneapolis, was not too sure he agreed. And he had those two gold medals, which gave his opinion some weight.
"I myself haven't been at high altitudes," he said. "But I do train outdoors all year round. I run in that bitter cold air at 20° below zero in the winter—and it's hard to gulp in that air. Maybe that's the same as running in the mountains."
All this may or may not settle the course of future U.S. training methods, but the Pan-Am Games proved somebody's point. When the hectic show ended Sunday, the United States had collected 30 gold medals in track-and-field, winning 22 of 24 men's events and eight of 11 women's events, had set 15 games records and tied two existing world records. Overall, for the 13 days of competition, the bag was 120 gold medals, 63 silver and 44 bronze.
The medal counting followed the big event of Saturday night: the baseball finale between Cuba and—of all people—the United States. Each had won a game, and Cuba, which regards baseball as a sort of passion play with gloves, was favored to win.
"I know, I know. The United States has never won in baseball," said Steve Sogge, who is 20 years old, plays third base, outfield and catcher and doubles as a quarterback for the University of Southern California. "And we have never ever beaten Cuba. In fact, the Puerto Ricans came up to us and said, 'You've just got to beat Cuba, because we know we can beat you guys.' Then they lost, and there we were—in the finals."
The Cubans tried everything. After all, it was the only event left. They occasionally marched through the stands, waving banners and chanting, "Coobah, Coobah," backed by happy Winnipeggers who thought it sounded better as "hoobah." When the Cuban pitcher threw a series of bad balls, the team would advance on him in a menacing circle from the infield, shaking their heads angrily. They all danced around the dugout a lot, and periodically the manager would stalk out and tell the umpire, through an interpreter, to shape up.
But you know what happened. On Saturday night Steve Sogge came up in the bottom of the ninth and singled neatly into center field with the bases loaded, as though there was a Giants' scout in the audience—which, in fact, there was. The U.S. won 2-1.
Winnipeg went home and to bed with perhaps the biggest sports hangover in its history. Athletes had been leaving town at the rate of 200 a day, and there were not many of them left for the closing ceremonies Sunday afternoon. But the crowd was enthusiastic as ever. There were flags and parades and the band played, it seemed, with just a little more gusto than it had earlier. The tunes? The national anthems of the games' first host, Argentina, its present host, Canada and next host, Colombia.