They do not grunt or wheeze any louder than the others, they only seem to. Being more vulnerable, they smell of medicines and carry muscle relaxants, and they are said to get high on Geritol. They have the look of men who now know the meaning of responsibilities and 6 o'clock feedings. They are the leftovers, athletes trying to come back, or already back, or just dreaming. The young guys call them the "old guys." Some of the old guys are even past 30 and therefore not to be trusted. They are not to be trusted, because they are liable to take a few tickets to Mexico City away from the young guys. The young guys think the old guys should stay home and watch television.
Having been Olympic heroes already, the old guys follow a familiar pattern: they are seized every fourth year with an Olympic fixation. The way back is a route one of them calls "The PTA"—Pain, Torture, Agony. They will suffer it to retrieve the Olympic status that was once theirs.
Those seized for 1968 were in Sacramento last weekend for the AAU championships. Al Oerter, for example. There will probably never be a major discus competition without Al Oerter making it in his whitewall neck protector. And Ralph Boston, popeyed and limby, his legs growing from his armpits, making great springy steps down the long-jump runway.
Every Olympic year the AAU meet, like the NCAA before it, becomes a tryout where six finishers in each event qualify for the Olympic trials. The trials take place this weekend in Los Angeles, are repeated in September at Lake Tahoe, and the ultimate survivors go on to Mexico City, which is what the old guys had in mind when they appeared at Sacramento.
June 30, 1968
Some of them quickly disappeared. Mike Larrabee is now 34 years old, with three kids and a T shirt that says RUN FOR FUN. Mike won the Olympic 400 meters in 1964. Last week he did not get past the trial heats. He said that was all right, because he was just a fan now who happened to like watching a race from the inside out. John Thomas, the Boston tall boy who has twice won Olympic high jump medals, made an imperious figure in the motel lobbies the week of the meet. He was not nearly as exciting on the track. He did not qualify. Unable to do better than 6'9" (Ed Hanks won at 6'11"), Thomas sat down wearily on the grass and said, "Well, that's 12 years finished." Other former Olympians expired early. Sprinter Paul Drayton and Hurdler Willie Davenport could not qualify. Hurdler Blaine Lindgren and Pole Vaulter John Pennel were rumored on a comeback, but neither showed.
Even at his best Larrabee probably would not have beaten Lee Evans (winner by inches over Vince Matthews in 45 seconds flat) in the 400, and Lindgren and Davenport would have had tough going against Earl (The Pearl) McCullouch, high-hurdles winner in 13.5. In fact, erosion has begun to show even on some of the grand old PTA members like Oerter and Boston.
Boston calls this his season of farewells and goodbys and au revoirs and auf wiedersehens. He is now 29, an Olympic gold medal winner in 1960, a silver medal winner in 1964 and tired. He had not jumped 26 feet since last April. He said he was behind in his training, and his new job as guidance counselor at Tennessee A&I ("I help lost souls") takes up a lot of his time. Thus inhibited, Boston jumped 26'7¾" last week, his best of the year. The trouble was that 21-year-old Bob Beamon jumped 27'4". Still, Boston finished second and qualified for the trials.
So did Oerter, who is now 31. Oerter, winner of the discus gold in 1956, 1960 and 1964, has lost 15 pounds and some ground to fellow Olympian Jay Silvester, who himself is 30 but keeps improving. A month ago Jay threw 218'4", a world record, and there were tears all around as he happily hugged his wife and 5-year-old daughter Lisa, who loves track meets. Last week Oerter was not quite back in form: he threw 194'6". He said he was building for September. Silvester did not choose to wait: he threw past 200 feet twice and won at 203'9".
There are others in the PTA crowd who have aged well. George Young, pushing 31, was only four seconds off the world steeplechase record with a time of 8:30.5, a new American mark. Probably the most amazing Olympic incumbent, however, is little Mel Pender, who likes to call himself "The World's Oldest Sprinter." Pender had a big week: he was made captain in the Army and he tied the listed world record for the 100 meters (10.0). Alas, he was just one of a crowd. In an outlandish display of sprinting, seven Americans tied or broke the 100-meter record during preliminary heats. So did Jamaica's Lennox Miller and France's Roger Bambuck. It all began with Jimmy Hines running a 9.8 trial heat with the help of a brisk wind. With or without the wind, no one has ever run 100 meters that fast. Said Hines: "I can run faster if I have to." Pender led the next windy heat at 10 flat, and Lennox Miller followed with a wind-aided 9.9. Then the wind died down, and Charlie Greene tied the record officially at 10 flat.
In the semifinals Hines ran a record-breaking 9.9, official this time because the wind was within the legal limit (4.47 mph). In the same picture, same fraction, therefore same record, though second in the same heat, was Ronnie Ray Smith. Pender was barely an earlobe behind Smith, actually closer to Smith than Smith was to Hines, but they had to draw a line somewhere and they drew it in front of Pender. When Pender saw the picture he argued that he, too, should have been awarded 9.9 and the record. He lost his argument.
Then the suave, smooth, cool, supremely confident Charlie Greene ran 9.9 in his semi and came back in the final to edge Jimmy Hines by the width of his chest in an almost anticlimactic 10 flat. Just past the tape Greene, as though totally and finally destroyed by the succession of ultimate efforts, collapsed and fell. He lay motionless for a long time, but then, with the help of officials, slowly regained his feet, rubbing a cramped muscle in his left calf.
There were two other prominent members of the 1964 Olympic team who have seldom been heard from since: Bob Schul, winner at 5,000 meters in Tokyo, and Billy Mills, who won at 10,000. Mills said he had been establishing himself as "a merchant of economic immortality" (insurance salesman) in San Diego and had been training only fitfully. On June 7, however, he had run a creditable 28:49.2 in the 10,000 at San Diego. "I don't like to train," he said. "I like to compete. I'm beginning to wonder how much training is water under the bridge and how much is actually useful. That's blasphemy to a guy who's used to running 150 miles a week. But, except for my back, I feel good. I hurt my back getting in and out of my little car. Bucket seats, you know."
In the 5,000 Schul, now 30, finished fifth (and thereby qualified for the trials) well behind the winner, Pfc. Bob Day, a 23-year-old. Schul was not dissatisfied. "I felt it in my legs. And the shoulders were tight as hell, which is unusual for me. But it's coming. I wouldn't be surprised if I had my best year since 1964."
Mills ran in the 10,000 the following night. At the start he appeared strong and stayed near the lead in a tight bunch with another 23-year-old Army Pfc., Tracy Smith, the eventual winner, and three others. Mills looked good through 10 laps. Then abruptly, after 2½ miles, he moved off the track and began raising and lowering his arms as if to relieve a cramp. "I couldn't breathe," he said, lying on a table in the trainer's tent. "For two or three laps I could feel my back tightening up, then it went into my arms like a paralysis, and I couldn't breathe. A couple more laps and I'd been no good at all. My legs felt fine, and I feel fine now, but I think the back has to be looked at."
With a doctor's statement attesting to the injury, and assuming some good performances between now and September, Mills is likely to get a second chance to make the team when the final trials are held at Lake Tahoe. In the meantime he will take his family and join Jim Ryun in high-altitude training at Flagstaff, Ariz.
Ryun is up there now. He was up there on Thursday when his half-mile world record was finally recognized by AAU President David A. Matlin and Colonel Donald Hull, executive director of the AAU. The record had been gathering dust for two years before Gerry Lindgren spoke out in Ryun's behalf and against the feud between the AAU and the NCAA that had resulted in the delay of recognition.
A delegation of the men's track and held committee of the AAU, headed by Chairman Hilmer Lodge, Bob Giegengack and Payton Jordan, demanded that Matlin and Hull submit the record for international approval. At first the two refused. The delegation appealed to their sense of fair play. Then they appealed more strongly by saying they would walk away and let Matlin and Hull run the meet all by themselves. That seemed to do it.