The Olympic trials held last weekend in the Los Angeles Coliseum were 1) very useful, 2) useful but not very necessary, 3) a nice way to collect a buck for the cause. Choose one. Or two. If anyone takes these questions too seriously, turn in your paper and we will give you something else to do until recess. For you others, try to go on, remembering that regardless of your selections you cannot derogate the evidence that some excellent young athletes, black and white, have come out of the incubators of American track and field this Olympic year and, black boycott or no, the U.S. is going to be well represented in Mexico City.
The trials did not by any means serve the expressed on-the-front-of-the-one-dollar-a-copy-program purpose, which is to say they were not the trials. The final final trials will be held within arm's length of the Nevada baccarat tables at South Lake Tahoe, Calif. September 9 through 17, after those who qualified have had a chance to live there at 7,377 feet and see what high altitude does to the blood, the legs, the lungs and the inferiority complex. The others, those who did not qualify, are too few to mention.
Certainly the trials were a nicely decorated exhibition. Painted replicas of muscular Grecian Olympians on giant sheets of canvas adorned the east end of the Coliseum. At the opening ceremony, sky divers trailing varicolored smoke dropped onto the infield like the first assault wave from Venus. Pigeons flew, bands played, choirs sang. Certainly, too, in drawing 50,000 customers for the two days the trials were good for the Olympic cashbox at a time when expenses are up, primarily because of the three-month training program at Tahoe. Contributions alone are never enough. Every little bite helps.
It is certainly not true, of course, that the trials did not eliminate anybody. It just so happens that circumstances make selection a lot more demanding this year. As in getting to the heart of an artichoke, one cannot be too careful what one strips away. Because of the altitude problem (who will acclimate quickly enough to be ready for Mexico City? who will not?), it is a wise decision to get as many good athletes into the training camp as possible.
July 7, 1968
At Los Angeles the first six in each event plus four plus more, if necessary, qualified for Lake Tahoe. Harry Edwards, the Black Boycott leader, says that this was so they could get down to where a few of the white cats could qualify and be available for fill-in service should the boycott succeed. Although the logic in that is good enough to make such precaution advisable, the fact remains that in 15 of the 24 events the great majority of those good enough to qualify is lily white, and the conclusion to bring such an expensively large number to camp was foregone when the altitude became a factor.
Then there was the matter of automatic byes for the dozen or more Olympic potentials who were injured—Jim Ryun, Preston Davis, Willie Davenport, Richmond Flowers, Ralph Boston, Bill Mills, et al.—and another two dozen who were behind one way or another and still need a chance to prove themselves. They will get that chance in "development" meets in August. In 1964 the number of prominent lames-and-halts at this stage was very low. Only Bob Hayes and Ulis Williams come immediately to mind.
The winners last weekend were, nevertheless, not happy with having to prove themselves all over again in September. They were assured nothing for winning except that they would be on the team "if they maintain a degree of excellence" through the next trials. They complained that this meet was therefore meaningless.
"What is the use of finishing first when sixth will get you to the same place?" mused Tracy Smith, who then convincingly won the 5,000 meters. "What if I finish fourth in September?" puzzled Wade Bell, the 800-meter winner. George Young, who won the steeplechase, said it would do his currently active ulcer no good to have to wait another three months for a decision, although it would appear at the moment that there is no one in the world who can beat him except maybe a Russian or a Kenyan or a Belgian wine salesman named Gaston Roelants.
But would a team be more meaningful without Ryun and Boston and those others? Or more meaningful without Earl McCullouch, who, while leading, caught a spike on the eighth high hurdle, stumbled and almost fell, and finished seventh? Or distance-runner Gerry Lindgren, who scratched from the 5,000 meters the first day of the trials because of a strained Achilles' tendon? "I broke it," said Gerry. Broke your Achilles' tendon? someone asked. Was it a clean break? "No," said Lindgren. "A dirty break." He tried again the next day in the 10,000 but had to drop out after five and a half miles.
Actually, the selection procedure should not have been a surprise to anybody, and it was not to some. "I've been pointing for September all along," said Discus-thrower Al Oerter, the three-time Olympic gold medal winner who has not yet reached 200 feet this year and has not beaten Jay Silvester in two years—and did not do it again last weekend. Nor can avarice (in the form of gate receipts) alone be called the motive, else Hilmer Lodge, chairman of the U.S. Olympic track-and-field committee, would not have insisted that the final finals be moved from the Coliseum to Lake Tahoe, where conditions will come closest to approximating Mexico City and where gate receipts will be peanuts.
For all their complaints the athletes performed well. In nine events—pole vault, high hurdles, 400-meter hurdles. long jump, shotput, discus, 200 meters, 400 meters, 5,000 meters—they were equal to or better than those who won Olympic golds in Tokyo. And for all its meaninglessness the meet produced some highly entertaining moments. Pat Traynor of the Air Force, who claims to hate the steeplechase because he is a lanky floater of a runner who does not snap over the hurdles and hazards like a George Young, gave George a run for his medal. Ten yards off the pace into the last lap, Traynor closed to within five on the backside and came up on Young until he was only two yards behind in the stretch. But Young pinned him right there, twice matching surge with countersurge, to win by two steps.
Pole-vaulter Bob Seagren did not miss until the height got to what would have been a world record—17'8". He said he could not shake the nerves. "Each jump felt like the first one. I'd get at the end of the runway, and I'd feel it—I never relaxed." One reason he did not relax was a UCLA sophomore named Jon Vaughn, who is almost as handsome as Seagren and is fast becoming almost as good. He is, therefore, a tonic for Seagren, who tends to get careless against ordinary competition. Vaughn did not miss, either, until 17'8". Seagren almost made his first try at that height but was too shallow with his vault, scraping the crossbar coming down. He said his third was his best—"I planted well, came off the pole well"—but he missed then, too, and so did Vaughn. The height was returned to 17'4" for a jumpoff. Seagren cleared, Vaughn did not.
The 100 meters was so close the contestants wandered around for five minutes congratulating each other on being the winner. Mel Pender congratulated Charlie Greene ("Oh, did I win? Did I really win?") and then somebody congratulated Pender, and photographers moved from man to man. Then the photo finish was revealed, and the winner was Jimmy Hines. It has become expected of Hines and Greene to be at each other's chests at any tape. "The duel," said Hines, "is still on." Greene, whose prerace routine calls for him to stay up until 4:30 a.m. so he won't lie in bed getting tense thinking over the situation, said he had "dynamic problems." Mentally fatigued, he said. Too much head wind (8.5 miles an hour), he said, which bothered him more because he is 27 pounds lighter than the other guy. "I wasn't spurtin' and sweet like last week," he said. "But don't forget. I'm still the national champion."
Boycotter Edwards' forces did not have much to capitalize on until the second day, when Tommie Smith was assigned lane eight for the 200-meter finals. The lanes are decided by picking numbers from a hat. In conversation with a friend before the race, Smith agreed it was a good spot for him because he did not like tight turns anyway. The eighth lane has the most gradual turn, though vision (seeing the other runners) is not as good. Smith, running beautifully, won in a breeze, with Jimmy Hines second. When Smith came near the judges' stand Stan Wright, the Negro Olympic coach, called to him and said, "Tommie, that's the best race I've ever seen you run, the best I've ever seen you come out of a turn."
Then, suddenly, Tommie did not like lane eight anymore. In an ugly scene at the officials' table, Smith and his wife and John Carlos lashed into the officials, principally Lodge and Coach Wright, who was head of the lanes committee. Carlos had complained the day before that he deserved to be in the 100 meters, though he had finished out of the running in the AAU championship trial heats. They were supported by others of Edwards' followers in the stands behind them, and in this group sat Edwards with Bill Russell, the basketball star. Russell was in Los Angeles to discuss movie roles. He said he was a boycott sympathizer but, unlike Edwards, when the national anthem was played Russell stood up.
Edwards' suddenly vocal followers flashed placards—WHY RUN IN MEXICO AND CRAWL AT HOME—and made baiting, insulting remarks to the men at the table, made them especially when cameras and microphones were at hand. Uniformed police stood by half-smiling and not knowing quite what to do. Mrs. Smith told Coach Wright that he should start being a black man first and an American second. The grievance was hardly worth all the fuss, but as another Negro coach put it, "It presented an opportunity. That's all, an opportunity."
There was mounting evidence that the boycott movement, if conceived in righteousness, is now passing into a virulent stage that—by grim paradox—bodes ill for those it is supposed to be serving. If the signs are accurate, compassion has given way to coercion. At the athletes' training quarters at Cal Poly in Pomona and in hotel lobbies in Los Angeles there were whispers of black lives being threatened by black hands. Wright walked around the Coliseum on both days in the shadow of two men who gave a good impression of being FBI bodyguards. They were protectors, said Wright. His life has been threatened in several letters. Wright has four children. He is not for the boycott. One prominent Olympian stayed in his room rather than go to dinner with two white men and two other athletes. Asked the reason for his change in plans, the athlete made the sign of a gun with his thumb and index finger. He said he had been threatened.
Athletic training quarters are generally carefree places, the tenseness of the competitors relieved by horseplay and friendly kidding around Ping-Pong tables. At Pomona, however, the atmosphere was always heavy. There was the abiding and exotic and massive presence of Harry Edwards, stalking around in a camouflage-colored jacket over a brown T-shirt, pants that were tight and short, a black beret, beads and sunglasses. Edwards' meetings with knots of black athletes were carried on under the eucalyptus trees, out in plain view. The talk that came out of these meetings, however, was not so much that they would boycott but what they would do after they got to Mexico City—like sitting down during the national anthem, and sewing their own emblems on team uniforms and generally raising hell to "embarrass The Man."
For those who opposed the boycott or, though sympathetic, tended to different points of view, it was clearly not a pleasant time. Ralph Boston, the great Olympic broad jumper, was asked by a black newsman if he had been "used" by whites seeking to discredit Edwards. Boston said he thought he had, that originally he had been afraid to meet Edwards because he had been led to believe Edwards had two heads. "I've met him, and he's only got one head, and it's a very good one," said Boston. Nevertheless, Boston is not a boycott advocate. He said he would, in fact, very much like to carry the U.S. flag on opening day in Mexico City. "I think it would be a wonderful way to end my career. It would mean a lot to me." He would go along with a boycott if a majority of principals so decided, but he very much resents being threatened or coerced into a point of view. "This is supposed to be a matter of human rights, isn't it? And as a human, I should have the right to do what I want and say what I think is right for me. That's what it's all about. Respect for a man and what he believes in whether he agrees with you or not."
Boston is not, by any means, the only independent in the black crowd. Mel Pender has said over and over that he is going to Mexico City regardless. Someone fingered the button Jimmy Hines was wearing on his sweat shirt (OLYMPIC PROJECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS) and asked him if it reflected a decision to boycott. "It doesn't mean a thing," said Hines. "Somebody just stuck it on there before the race." He said he understood there would be no boycott. "I was hoping all along there wouldn't be."
So, there will 1) be a boycott, 2) not be a boycott. Choose two.