A HIGH TIME FOR SPRINTERS—AND KENYANS
A young Mexican was found
on the floor of a cathedral in Mexico City last week, all broken up over being made to set a record for descending the bell tower. The Mexican said that four pushy Cubans had gotten him off to a flying start. At the hospital where he was taken for repairs he told police that the Cubans chased him into the cathedral and up the tower after he refused to go along with their plan to execute an athlete—any athlete, apparently—on the United States Olympic team. The Cubans wanted to create an "incident." The young Mexican was to have been paid for the service, but he said he reneged.
The absence of a juicy conspiratorial homicide—real or fancied—did not, however, reduce in the least the spectacle the XIX Olympiad was making of itself. After one week of natural progress the Games had lived up to every fear that had been expressed for them—except, perhaps, the fear of the Mexicans themselves. The troops that ringed Olympic Stadium on opening day in anticipation of continuing the blood war with student rioters were mostly there for the sun. A passing German girl was whistled at, and when she looked she could see in the tall grass the lounging soldiers, dressed for battle, and a sergeant with a switch trying to keep them awake. The students, bless them, had called a truce for the duration.
October 28, 1968
But what is peace except a very relative condition? There was no peace for those who feared the altitude. There was, instead, the awful sight of the great Australian distance runner, Ron Clarke, gray as dust, an oxygen mask pressed to his face as he lay unconscious by the track for 10 minutes after the 10,000 meters on the first day of competition. Everybody knew Mexico City was 7,349 feet high and that there was this crazy thing called "oxygen debt." Who had not heard the story of the International Olympic Committee meeting five years ago when Mexico City was chosen for the Games? One of the IOC members was supposed to have asked, "Will the altitude be a factor?" and the Mexican representative stood up and answered, "No," ending discussion.
Well, Ron Clarke has set 17 world records in his lifetime of running, and by sheer volume of statistics he could be considered the best distance runner of all time. At 31, he was having his last fling at an Olympic gold medal. He was fit and confident of victory and he ran the 10,000 beautifully until, with three laps to go, he tried to give it a little extra. His legs began to deaden, and then his arms. His vision blurred. He said he felt as if his heart was rapping through the wall of his chest. While Kenyan Naftali Temu was running away with the gold medal, Clarke ran just to finish. "The straightaway looked two miles long," he said, and at the finish he collapsed. Australians, weeping, clustered around him.
Clarke used to make light of runners who collapsed after races, having never found it necessary himself. "I apologize to them all," he said. That night in the Olympic Village he complimented Britisher Dave Hemery for his showing in one of the heats of the 400-meter hurdles. "Good show, Dave," he said. Only it was not Hemery he was seeing, it was John Boulter, the British miler.
Two days later, after a series of electrocardiograms to make sure he was not risking his life, Clarke ran 5,000 meters more, and in the finals two more days later did better (fifth place). He established a fast enough pace so that Tunisian Mohamed Gammoudi—who had trained for a solid year in the Pyrénées to accommodate his particular fears—could hold off Kenya's star, Kipchoge Keino, for the gold. Whenever they met in the village after that, Gammoudi would run up and kiss Clarke on the cheek.
The Kenyans, meanwhile, seemed to mock the altitude and those who were succumbing to it. Like the Ethiopians and the Mexicans, they came conditioned by an accident of geography—they live way up there, too. When they finished their races, while others stopped to suck oxygen and moan on the grass, they ran on up the ramp leading out of the stadium, waving and smiling to the cheers of their countrymen as if they had participated in nothing more debilitating than Chinese checkers. Amazed journalists began writing about the "super Kenyans" and to ask them silly questions like, "Do you believe black athletes are trying to dominate the Games to prove their superiority over whites?"
The fact was that in events over 800 meters the times were (with one exception, the 1,500) as bad as predicted, and even the top Kenyan and Ethiopian runners—Keino in the longer distances, Temu, Mamo Wolde—have done better at altitude. The tip-off on the advantage of being born to it was provided by young Amos Biwott. A Kenyan schoolboy (he is 18) and unsophisticated in the ways and means of steeplechasing, Biwott attacked the hurdles like a high jumper, doing little hitch kicks as he went over. He declined to set foot in the water hazards. Over those he made grand leaps to stay dry. But nothing could tire him, not even his own technique. He won the gold medal in a breeze, and his more stylish countryman, Ben Kogo, was second.
Americans had won both the 5,000 and 10,000 in Tokyo. Here in Mexico they were nowhere in sight at those distances. George Young, trained to his best and, like Clarke, expecting to win—and convinced he would have won at sea level—finished third in the steeplechase, and had to run a magnificent race to do it.
Still, there was Jim Ryun. Ah, had we forgotten Jim Ryun? The best saved for last. It would be Ryun who would salvage Olympic gold and end the frustrations of the American distance runners, this time at a distance closer to reality for the man who takes his air at sea level: 1,500 meters. On the last day of track and field competition Ryun went out to challenge the ubiquitous Keino, who had been beaten badly in the 10,000 but by only a stride or two in the searing 5,000. Keino seemed tired at last after his week of almost continuous competition. In a semifinal the day before, Ryun had run him down in the last lap and had looked too strong for Keino while winning easily. What had seemed significant about the race then was that Keino appeared to be trying.
At the start of the final Sunday afternoon it was obvious that this was going to be a very fast race, whether Keino liked the pace or not. At first it seemed he did not. Schoolboy Ben Jipcho, unwittingly serving as his countryman Keino's rabbit, moved out quickly, with Keino and Ryun hanging back. Then, in the second lap, Keino sprinted wide and came up on Jipcho as Ryun settled into ninth place. Early surging is not his style. The German contender Bodo T√ºmmler held third place behind the two Kenyans.
Suddenly the race began to get away from Ryun. On the third lap the pack divided. Keino led one group and Ryun led the other, but Keino was five yards ahead of his and accelerating. His intention was clear: spread so much Tartan track between himself and Ryun that Ryun would not be able to collar him in the stretch. Having been out-kicked in the 5,000, Keino was not about to have the same disaster overtake him in the 1,500. Now aware of the advantage Keino was making for himself, Ryun picked up speed and for a while ran between the two packs. At the bell for the last lap he moved up to fifth place in the first group.
Ryun at this point was 40 yards back. That is a lot of ground to make up even if you are Jim Ryun. If you have to make it up in rarefied air against a Kipchoge Keino, you probably won't. On the backstretch Keino glanced around to see if Ryun was coming. Ryun was, passing T√ºmmler, stumbling slightly as he did so, but his progress was gradual and minimal. Keino had too much left. At the tape he was grinning broadly and Ryun was 20 yards in his wake. The time was a somewhat spectacular 3:34.9, only 1.8 seconds off the world record, .7 of a second faster than Herb Elliott's Olympic record set eight years earlier at Rome. It was easily the fastest 1,500 meters ever run at altitude.
Accompanied by Jipcho, who kept touching him and patting him on the back as if the sparks might be passed on, Keino took a smiling, waving victory lap, holding up his forefinger to signify Kenya's new preeminence in distance running. Ryun, walking slowly to keep from staggering, moved up the ramp and out of the stadium. His race, in retrospect, had been just slightly less spectacular than Keino's. Only Elliott's Olympic time was faster. Peter Snell, winner at Tokyo, would have been several strides behind him. Ryun found a bench and sat there for a long time alone. A friend came to him and Ryun looked up, his face still contorted by the effort he had made. "God, it hurts," he said.
It was not many minutes after that that Mamo Wolde, an Ethiopian palace guard like Abebe Bikila before him, trotted into the stadium an easy winner in the marathon. Bikila, who won in Rome in 1960 and Tokyo in 1964, dropped out this time after 10 kilometers, but he is getting older now and he has been ill. Wolde's victory made it five golds out of five for Africans in running races over 800 meters. Of the five, only Gammoudi does not make his home at high altitude, but he seems to be in the enviable position of being able to train there whenever and for as long as he likes.
What did the distance races prove for future generations of Olympic site selectors? They proved that nations that spend a couple of million dollars to get a team acclimated at special camps are not guaranteed a nickel's return. They proved the absolute folly of sea-level runners trying to sneak up on the problem by arriving at altitude the day before competition. They proved that the element of danger is not as remote as some people thought. Maurice Herriott of Great Britain, who had finished second in the steeplechase at Tokyo, passed out seven times in 48 hours after his race in Mexico and was still red-eyed and rubbery days later. They proved that Dr. Roger Bannister may not have been kidding when, in answer to the question of how long it would take a sea-level runner to acclimate to Mexico City, he brusquely replied, "Twenty-five years."
The trouble with Mexico City, of course, is that it does not just sock it to you in the lungs, it goes for the stomach, too. The incidence of infection among visitors is so great that "You got it yet?" has become more common as an Olympic Village greeting than "How you doing?" Precautions had been plentiful—cooks and kitchen workers wore sterilized clothing, silverware was delivered to the tables in sealed cellophane bags—but they were not foolproof. Most of the afflicted competed anyway (the swimmers generally did not seem to mind), but on occasion there was tragedy. Jack Bacheler, America's only qualifier in the 5,000 meters, was hospitalized and could not run in the finals. Wade Bell, the tough little Oregonian who was favored to win the 800 meters, was out for two days with severe cramps. He threw up on the track before his trial heat race and was reluctant to run, but he tried anyway and did not qualify for the finals. He came off the track listing far to one side to relieve the pain. He complained that a muscle relaxant should have been given him, but Olympic officials are hot after drug takers just now and he was refused. He walked alone all the way back to the village, crestfallen.
Beyond Mexican riots and Mexican altitude, the third and what should have been one of the more obvious threats to Olympic peace was the likelihood of a demonstration by a small group of American Negro athletes led by John Carlos, Tommie Smith and Lee Evans. They had been hinting at it for months but communication between them and the U.S. Olympic officials broke down long ago, and the officials seemed satisfied to fill the void with a kind of tacit, Pollyanna belief in the surfacing power of harmony.
The Olympic 100 meters passed without incident because Jim Hines was the winner and Hines does not buy all that the militants try to sell. Then Smith won the 200. He won it in courageous style. He had torn a groin muscle in the semifinals and had to be iced down and taped from the waist to the bottom edge of his running shorts in order to continue. In the final, two hours later, Carlos held the lead with 50 yards to go. At that point, as he is wont to do when on the verge of victory, Carlos looked around. He need not have bothered. Smith, settling down in the stretch, was streaking past him. Carlos broke stride, and then when he looked to his right the Australian Peter Norman was passing him for second place. It was a fine race, one that Smith could be proud of, but he will not be remembered for his 19.8. He will be remembered for what happened next.
On the victory stand during the playing of the national anthem, Carlos and Smith made their now famous black glove gesture. They were booed. At a press conference afterward Carlos flayed into white America in a familiar soliloquy, demanding as he did that reporters quote him accurately or not at all. There followed—after midnight the next day—the suspension of the two runners by the U.S. Olympic Committee, with a 48-hour notice to pack their bags and move out. The USOC at first wanted to keep the sentence light, no more than a censure, but the International Olympic Committee demanded more, although this was later denied in some quarters. In one version of the still untold story, the IOC dangled the possibility of expelling the whole U.S. team, swimmers, fencers, weight lifters and all. It said it could not let such abuses of the Olympic rules against political activity go unpunished, because if it did the Games would degenerate into sociopolitical symposiums.
The uproar lasted a day, with newsmen and photographers chasing after the two runners and conducting whose-side-are-you-on opinion polls whenever a new head popped out of a building. British journalists seemed especially eager to take a crack at being sympathetic, but since Carlos and Smith had prepared themselves well for martyrdom there was no doubt they came out the heavies. Carlos had spurned the support of the all-white Harvard crew—"Who needs 'em?" Not even all the black girls on the track team were quick to back Carlos, who had found it easy to antagonize people. He had stepped on a lot of toes, including those in the chow line, at the end of which he cared not to stand. The last and loudest word from Carlos was that he was going to sue the U.S. Olympic Committee.
The Carlos-Smith affair took much of the play away from the Games themselves, and away from some marvelous performances. Within a span of five minutes one afternoon stringy Bob Beamon long-jumped 29'2½", as if there never was a 28' barrier to fool with (nobody had ever jumped more than 27'4¾" before), and was so moved by his accomplishment that he slipped from Ralph Boston's congratulating embrace, sank to his knees, put his forehead on the ground and cried. Beamon, a New Yorker who performed briefly for the University of Texas at El Paso, is a slash of a man, 6'3", 160 pounds. He comes off the board like a huge, limby frog, his legs spread-eagled and his arms dangling between them. Ordinarily he does not come off the board at all, but a good foot or so behind it for safety's sake. It was only a matter of time before he began hitting it right, but not in his most soaring dreams did he expect this. The record leap came on his very first jump, just before a rainstorm (he took only one more of the permissible six jumps). "I was thanking that good man up there for letting me hit the ground right there," he said.
Not long after Beamon's astonishing performance Lee Evans, out unusually fast, ran a world-record 43.8 in the 400 meters. He had to run 43.8 to win, since just across the track young Larry James was running 43.9. With Ron Freeman, the U.S. swept the event. Willie Davenport completed a four-year comeback by winning the high hurdles (he had been injured in Tokyo and written off many times since), Randy Matson won the shotput on his first toss and Bob Seagren, daring to pass at such heights as 17'2¾" and 17'6¾", won the pole vault at 17'8½" on fewer misses.
Dick Fosbury, the Oregon man who thinks everybody else goes over the high-jump bar backward, created a small sensation in winning his specialty. Fosbury attacks the bar the way Japanese subway conductors jam the crowds in. He turns his back and puts his shoulder blade to it and does this astonishing flop. It may be laughable, and impossible to teach, but the Fosbury flop is sound aero-dynamically. His winning flop was 7'4¼", not quite an inch better than Ed Caruthers, also of the U.S. The leap gave the American men their fifth victory in the eight field events.
It had taken Seagren seven hours of nerve-jangling competition to win the pole vault. It took the 29-year-old California schoolteacher, Bill Toomey, 24 hours to win the decathlon: 12 hours a day for two days. He gulped aspirin by the handful the first day to feed his tension headaches. He sprained his thumb pole vaulting when he missed twice at the opening height ("Can you imagine? Eleven feet! My name would have been mud!") and he strained his hip high-jumping in the rain. By the luck of the draw, he also had to endure dope tests two days in a row.
But except for a brief period after the third event, Toomey led all the way. He strengthened his lead with a sensational 45.6-second 400 meters, and he long-jumped 25'9¾" against the wind (he had never done better in either event). He finished by beating off the late-challenging Hans-Joachim Walde of West Germany in the 1,500 meters to win 8,193 points to 8,111.
Five years ago Toomey made up his mind: he was quitting the 400 meters for the decathlon. "A strange choice, but I couldn't miss. Ten's my favorite number. Ten letters in my name, born on January 10th, always wore No. 10 as a ballplayer. It had to be the decathlon. The thing is, I never felt I belonged anywhere but around the edges until now. Not anymore, though. After 24 hours I earned that son of a gun."
Perhaps the most popular of American victories was that of Al Oerter, who brings his discus around every four years, quietly wins his gold medal and goes home. Oerter could have carried the U.S. flag in the opening ceremonies this year but deferred to Mrs. Janice York Romary, a fencer, when he found out she was to be in her sixth Olympiad. Mrs. Romary went out and shortened her skirt an inch and a half for the ceremony so she "wouldn't look like an old dowdy," and Oerter went out a few days later and won his fourth consecutive gold medal, which nobody outside of that standing high jumper and standing broad jumper, Ray Ewry (1900-08), has ever done in track and field—and one of his Olympics was unofficial.
For Al Oerter it has become so beautifully natural. He has developed with the discus what the grooved swing is to the golfer; he always looks good; he seldom fouls. At 32, a supervisor of computer communications for Grumman Aircraft on Long Island, his approach to his game is purely analytical. He had this one figured: a 13-month program to get him to Mexico City just about the time he would be throwing 207' to 208', and that would be enough to win. He did not do 207', however. He took off the horse collar that protects a chronic injury of the cervical disc and threw 212'—twice. They were tremendous, soaring flights that seemed always to make the next guy throw a pop fly or bury one in the ground.
This was to be Oerter's last Olympics if he lost. He brought his wife Corinne and the Oerter daughters, Crystiana, 9, and Gabrielle, 7, and they sat out in the rain to watch him. They kept wishing for Jay Silvester, the favorite, to trip. Not to get hurt, just to trip.
"Corinne said if this was it she wanted the girls to see it," Al said. "The day after I won she quit talking that way. She has mentioned Munich and 1972 about six times since breakfast." The Oerter timetable now calls for at least two more Olympics. He says he will continue to improve until he is 40.
As the track and field part of the Olympics ended, the U.S. team had won 15 gold medals, 6 silver, 7 bronze, for a total harvest of 28, which was 15 more than the Russians, 20 more than the eye-catching Kenyans and easily ahead of anyone else. And already out of the wings and into the pool that is certain to become their personal victory parade were the U.S. swimmers. When the women's medley relay team beat the Australians, barely, for the first swimming gold, 17-year-old Catie Ball said of the Aussies: "They swam much out of their class. Really."
The men's team was shot through with the turistas ("They're taking pills, but I don't see how you can avoid it, all this greasy food," said Coach George Haines) but won the 400-meter freestyle relay anyway. Donald McKenzie upset the Russians, Nicolai Pankin and Vladimir Kosinsky, in the men's 100-meter breaststroke. "I didn't think I could lose," said Pankin.
It was quickly determined, however, that the renowned Mark Spitz would not win six gold medals, as everybody thought. Spitz finished third and Zac Zorn finished last to Australia's Michael Wenden in the 100-meter freestyle final. Ken Walsh was second. It was also clear that Sue Pedersen was going to win the freestyle crying championship. Even after finishing second to teammate Jan Henne in the 100-meter freestyle (another teammate, Linda Gustavson, was third for a U.S. sweep), she stood there on the victory stand bawling her pretty blue eyes out as they played The Star-Spangled Banner.
Heat and the altitude contributed to a grim week for the rowers—winners and losers alike. They were no better able to cope than were the distance runners. An Australian here, a Frenchman there—they keeled over like Hollywood Apaches. One Danish rower had to be lifted into a first-aid boat in the middle of a race.
Those who won the gold were the ones who persevered, as did the West German eight-oared crew. This was to be a battle with the Harvard crew, the Shaggies (they wore un-crew cuts), and at the start it was Harvard trailing New Zealand. But at the end it was the West Germans all alone, and deep in the admiring heart of Coach Karl Adam ("They are completely worn out. It seems impossible, but they were able to row to the absolute limit of physical exertion"). The West Germans were a long time getting to the point where they could enjoy the victory, unless enjoyment is lying around coughing and vomiting.
Harvard finished last in its bid for a small miracle. Only hours before the repechages, Harvard had to juggle its boat when one of its number came down with the usual. The Harvards were still good enough to get to the finals. "We just couldn't keep up," said Coach Harry Parker. It was a low finish for a high hope: the U.S. had boats in all seven finals, but managed only a silver in pairs-without-cox and a bronze in double sculls.
Right from the time he walked into the stadium on opening day, that Russian flag thrust out in front of him (he used only one hand), Leonid Zhabotinsky was obviously something to be reckoned with. Known as Zhabo, he is the champion of all weight lifters, and the guy who thought he could reckon with him was handsome Joe Dube of the U.S., pretty imposing himself at 315 pounds. Someone reported to Dube that Zhabo was sick after eating a whole cantaloupe, skin and all. "Hell," said Dube. "I ate a whole cantaloupe last night and I didn't get sick." Dube lifted the good fight, but he could do no better than third and Zhabo again got the gold. "It was my eating habits," Dube said forlornly. "I'm a Southern boy, I need that good Southern cooking to get by on."
With seven games played and their winning streak at a stunning 73, it was obvious that the U.S. basketball team was not nearly as bad as people had said—and the Russians and Yugoslavians had hoped. In fact, Coach Hank Iba had his team looking so slick that there was hardly a spectator left who thought anybody else had a chance. The Americans did in Yugoslavia with oldtime ease, and seemed capable of beating the Russians (mechanical as ever) on instinct alone. Kansas' Jo Jo White and a 6'8" junior college product named Spencer Haywood were the stars, but the catalyst was Iba, who worked out a special offense for the Olympians, then drove them long hours until they loved it. "Coach Iba is the biggest asset we have," said the team captain, Mike Silliman of Army. "I don't think he'll let us lose."
Until the Carlos-Smith act got top billing, the Americans had not engaged in the kind of Olympic exercises that make the Games sometimes discouraging. North Korea had canceled out because of a name it could not have; the Czechs refused to eat at the same tables with the Russians; and a Polish athlete, displeased with the musical selections of a group of Ghanaians, threw a bag of water from a window onto the offending radio and its owner, and got a rock through his window in retaliation.
A young Cuban tennis player defected, but the Cubans as a whole were not speaking to anyone who looked like an American. The Kenyans, sensitive to criticism the way a toy balloon is sensitive to the lighted cigarette, were just as tight-lipped. But not so the Russian volleyball coach, who let this one slip out after his team was booed in the match with the Czechs: "My players are not affected by the crowd. If they were, they would not be professionals and they would have been left home."
Through it all the Mexicans maintained their resolve to be accommodating whatever the cost. A Mexican policeman exchanged his badge for a Canadian's maple leaf pin. A guard at the village gate, unable to get a pretty girl to show her pass as she hurried by, shrugged and said, "What can I do? She is woman." Young boys at the village posted themselves by the telephones and, when an athlete came by, offered the receiver and said, "My sister wants to talk to you."
And the Mexicans simply will not become discouraged. The wife of an ABC television executive put in a call for a wake-up ring at 7:30 at her hotel. At 8 o'clock, unrung, she awakened and, in a snit, called the desk. "What happened to my wake-up call?" she demanded. "Hang up, Se√±ora," was the polite reply, "and I will be happy to call you right back."