They were starting to come through the track barricades after him, and everywhere Jim Ryun looked a camera stared back at him. In warmups he was running through a litter of newsmen and photographers—a UPI man here, a Reuters man there—all seeking to record his special agonies. In the Olympic Village bands of people buzzed around him, in some cases tugging his shirttail right out of his pants, and when he stopped to talk to friends the people kept going round and round him like satellites.
All this attention is understandable, although it would be easier to understand if Jim Ryun had the star quality and perhaps the look of eagles of a Bob Seagren, who vaults, or that cool, excuse-me-while-I-go-win-a-gold-medal stance of Mark Spitz, who swims. What Ryun has is a sort of Bambi-revisited look, big dark eyes behind black-rimmed glasses, a lean body all loosely assembled, a polite frown, the head thrust forward earnestly. But now, in these terrible days, Ryundays, Jim Ryun is having superstar quality thrust upon him.
This is because he runs very fast, as everyone knows: the mile in a world-record 3:51.1, the 1,500 meters in a world-record 3:33.1. And perhaps part of the reason why people are so drawn to him is that he looks magnificent doing it, so full of aloof, lonely pain with every step. When Ryun runs, the world runs right along there with him. In the past year people have come to suffer along with him, too: through injury, through mononucleosis, which he had this past spring, and through the bleak period of fighting back. And now he is the mainstay of these XIX Olympic Games (see cover) so far as Americans are concerned, a symbol that everything may yet be all right with the country.
Ryun did not seek the role. It is, as one coach observed last week, an awful time for something like hero worship to happen. What Ryun must do now in the midst of it is run as well as he can for three straight days. First, a trial heat in the 1,500. The next day a semifinal heat. Then, this Sunday afternoon at about 3:30 p.m. Mexican time, if he has indeed survived to the finals, he must take his place with the other runners of his own world class in that Olympic bowlful of people (and with millions more watching him on television) and deliver. He must control the pack through the quarters, control the runners with his own pace or the threat of his own kick until he has them whipped—and then finish first. He has to win. He feels that anything less will not be enough, not silver, not bronze. "If you don't make it you are nothing," he says.
October 20, 1968
There must be few if any runners who have gone through the tortures of getting ready under as much merciless, cold-eyed publicity. This has become a peculiar campaign, a get-inside Jim Ryun assignment. Look into Ryun's head and get pictures of him asleep, awake, eating, shaving, walking, tying on his track shoes, running. Get Ryun throwing up; we understand he gets sick after he runs. In Mexico an assistant coach finally turned to one of Ryun's friends, Photographer Rich Clarkson, and said, "Get him out of here. Take him away somewhere. Keep him out of the village as much as possible."
The team had arrived on a Monday. On Tuesday morning Ryun went to the university stadium to practice. "I walked in with George Young and Conrad Nightingale," he said, "and all of a sudden the reporters and photographers came down on me. We couldn't run. There was no room. Every one of them wanted an interview. I tried to tell them that there was to be a press conference that night, but it didn't work. And we just had to train. Finally we started running. We would charge the photographers just a little bit—run right at them—to get them back three or four feet so we could run."
There was a press conference that night. Writer Jerry Megahan of The News of Mexico City called it the most heated thing this side of the Spanish Inquisition: "a little like inviting sharks to, a grunion hunt." Ryun fielded a few questions, starting with that old unoriginal beauty: What did he think the winning time would be? Well, Kipchoge Keino of Kenya had run 3:39 over 1,500 meters at 7,680 feet, Ryun said, and that sounded like a very good time. And he added that athletes like Keino, who live at high altitude, would have a natural advantage in Mexico City. Whoops. In the light of that statement, would Ryun say that this was an unfair Olympics? Ryun colored a bit. He would not. What he would say was that everyone had to run at the same altitude and that results would generally reflect abilities.
A couple of days later Ryun slipped out of the Olympic Village—leaving his belongings behind—and moved into a thing called Villa Coapa, a sort of spare Olympic Village East down the road, where his fiancée, Kansas State University cheerleader Anne Snider, was staying with her mother and father and a massed formation of sisters, one brother and a sister-in-law. He began to train part of the time by running along on the highways nearby. They were not exactly Tartan, but they were a lot more private than the Tartan training track.
Each day there were the usual little "psychs," as Ryun calls them. "Ten or 12 people came to me and said that Keino ran a 3:43 in practice and that he looked very easy at the finish. And that Wilson Kiprugut ran a 1:45 over 800 meters. Stories like that go on all the time. But my attitude is that they would never come to me and tell me this unless they were concerned about me. Other than Bodo T√ºmmler of West Germany—Bodo and I get along very well—I stay away from everyone. I find it difficult to talk with Keino. He just does not want to talk."
Still, it was clearly becoming harder for Ryun to build up the acute sense of lonely concentration he wanted. "I try to keep myself mentally alert," he said, "so in case somebody moves on me in the race I am sharp enough to move with him. The big field will be a problem. If it is a slow race they will be very much bunched. The big problem will be in running a smart race.
"The day of the race I'll probably worry a lot. I'll get up for breakfast. Then I'll go back and sleep for a while. I'll want to go out and do things—like walk around the village and play cards. I'll keep going back in my mind to the little things, positive things. I will select certain races and play them back inside my head. My best races. And I'll think to myself that if I ran this well in those races, I should run well in the Olympic Games."
One morning Ryun and Anne and Anne's family slipped away to Mexico City's National Museum of Anthropology, where nobody seemed to know Ryun from the Aztec statues. They had a lunch of hamburger steaks and strawberry milkshakes and talked about artfully dodging the receiving line at the U.S. Embassy reception the night before. "The Ambassador read us a four-page greeting from President Johnson," Ryun said. "It was something about doing good at the Olympics."
"Do good," he sighed. "It bothers me that the public thinks I am such a great individual. I think I shouldn't be such an overwhelming favorite. People who have been around for a while should at least understand that it hasn't been a very healthy year for me and they shouldn't pick me as the favorite."
Ryun waved goodby to the family and got into a car to go back to the waiting mob at the Olympic Village. Was the pressure building up? Yes, he sighed again. Moodily, he stared out of the window. Finally he took a deep breath and put his head against the car window and closed his eyes. He slept all the way back to the village.