Ralph Doubell flew into Los Angeles late last Wednesday afternoon. It had taken 24 sleepless hours to transport his mammoth hangover from Australia to California, which is tough even on an Aussie, and so he forgot about his playboy image and went to bed. Sixteen hours later the handsome Olympic 800-meter champion arose, worked his way through four bottles of German beer, one Bloody Mary, three glasses of rosé and 237 pages of Portnoy's Complaint, and then retreated once more into the feathers. By Friday he was feeling much better. Since he was to run the following night in the Sunkist Invitational he was tapering off with Coke.
"I feel the attitude of American runners about not drinking is very strange," he said. Then, grinning, he added, "Most Australians do. Just last Friday I went out with my coach and we got stoned on champagne. Of course, you can't do that all the time, just about once every fortnight." The theory was hardly advanced before it was put to the test, over 1,000 yards on Saturday night, and Doubell sped them in 2:06.5—just five-tenths in excess of Peter Snell's world record—and in the doing he blew his two toughest rivals, Kenya's Naftali Bon and America's Juris Luzins, off the bouncing boards of the Los Angeles Sports Arena.
If it was a big win for the bubbly, it was an even more important victory for Doubell. Twice last summer Bon had beaten him, and Doubell, who has never lost indoors, was not about to let the shy police corporal from Kenya do it again. And, too, there was the Latvian-born Luzins, who competed for William & Mary last year and is one of America's finest half-milers. In their last meeting it was Luzins who had arrived at the tape first. Such happenstances are almost enough to make an Aussie give up his brew. Almost.
The Sunkist would be Bon's first race under a roof, and when he arrived Thursday with Kipchoge Keino—who would be upset in the mile by tough little John Lawson—and Aish Jeneby, the rotund deputy Kenya sports officer, he was also accompanied by a bad case of nerves. But then, the first race on boards is enough to shatter anyone. The infernal things bounce, coming up to meet you, and there are tight banked turns, and everything that is clean and natural outdoors is suddenly unnatural. No Kenyan youngster would be caught dead running over the hills of Kiganjo while tilted dramatically to the left.
January 26, 1970
"I tried to tell Bon what to expect," said Keino in his soft, impeccable English, "to tell him that the banks will try to force him outside, that he must force himself inside, that he must hold his arms this way, this one [the left] pumping straight, this one pumping across the body. That is one thing. But for him to experience it is another. He has the stamina and he has the acceleration, but this, too, is important." The Olympic gold medalist in the 1,500 meters tapped the side of his head with his right forefinger. "This is the control center," he said. "And this only comes from experience."
The Sunkist was Keino's seventh indoor meet, but his first since 1967. Four years ago, when the meet was known as the Los Angeles Invitational, Keino lost the mile and, angry with himself, entered the two-mile and won. After that he competed in only one more meet in the U.S. The Kenyans had become annoyed with the AAU and refused to run in the States.
"The AAU wanted us to keep sending our athletes here, but they didn't want to send their athletes to Kenya," said Jeneby. "Every time we'd ask for one of their outstanding runners, usually Jim Ryun, we were told he was in college. They could run in Europe and places like Australia, but when we invited them they couldn't get away from their studies."
The Kenyans, too, were unhappy with the AAU's policy of sending a freeloading manager along on every trip, although they are too polite to mention it now. Kenya is hardly a wealthy nation and it expects a dollar's return for a dollar spent. All the AAU gives in return is a healthy appetite.
"It's a stupid policy," said Doubell, who has been battling Australia's freeloaders. "The Americans started it, now everyone is doing it. All they are doing is paying off some guy for 20 years of dedicated service. Most of the time the guy has never been out of the country and the athlete has to worry about managing him. I had to bring a manager with me this trip. Bob Davis. He's a nice enough chap, but what's he here for? The other day he asked me what event I was running in. And that's the only time I've seen him. I told him he might as well go home."
Last year the AAU decided the Kenyans were serious and sent Lee Evans and half-miler Mark Winzenried to Africa. Accompanied by a non-managing manager. The feud over, Keino and Bon competed at South Lake Tahoe last September. "And now," said Jeneby, beaming, "we are very happy about our relations with the Americans.
With his field strengthened by the magic draw of the Kenyans, Al Franken, who promoted the Sunkist Invitational, had hoped to set up a meeting between Keino and Marty Liquori, America's top miler, but Franken ran afoul of the NCAA, which banned him. As a result, no college athlete can run in a Franken meet. The AAU is also mad at him and has been since 1956, but it still sanctions his meets and takes its cut of the profits.
"The NCAA has a vendetta against me but nobody will say why," says Franken, who is more bewildered than embittered. "At least they won't say anything that can be used against them legally. They are smart and they have money and resources. Sure, I give color TV sets to the top athletes, and I give them rented cars to use, but who doesn't? There is talk of under-the-table payoffs, but let somebody come out and prove something, not just talk about it. What the hell, the same athletes who run for me run everyplace else—for the same things—and nobody squawks about those places. We all know what went on in Mexico City but not one damn thing has been done to anybody.
"One thing that started all this was a meet in Philadelphia that ran at the same time as one of ours. And we got all the top athletes because we gave the top prizes. And all under the $100 limit. Can I help it if our prizes are TV sets and cameras and the guy in Philly wants to give nothing but a lousy watch? Let him upgrade his prizes. But no, he runs to the NCAA. They scream about us giving rented cars to the athletes. The L.A. Times gives cars to the athletes in their meet. Some firm donates them. But you can be sure the NCAA isn't about to take on the L.A. Times. The NCAA and the AAU would rather kill the sport than give an inch. The guys in the NCAA and the AAU are the same types. Save face no matter what the cost. Little people and little thinkers. Well, at least the NCAA didn't hurt us too much this year. Almost all the really good athletes are out of school."
As it turned out, the Sunkist was an electric meet with some remarkable individual performances. The meet opened explosively enough with Gary Power of the Southern California Striders running the 60-yard hurdles in seven seconds, one-tenth of a second faster than Willie Davenport, the Olympic gold medalist. It was Davenport's first defeat indoors since 1968. Earlier in the week Davenport had been complaining that he had never been chosen as the outstanding athlete of any meet, even when he had set or tied a world record. (He was exaggerating; he got the award at one meet.) "They run the hurdles first, then everybody forgets," he said sadly.
After his upset, someone asked Davenport wouldn't it be funny if Power was named the top athlete. "If he is," said Davenport, "you'll hear some screaming from me." But the honor went to Lawson for his 4:00.6 mile; Keino did 4:00.7. "I knew Kip was going to lose with two rounds to go," moaned Jeneby. "I could see that he couldn't even lift his legs." Keino, who is considered an unhappy loser, merely smiled and intimated that that's the way the boards bounce.
Bob Seagren vaulted to a meet-record 17'1½" and was named the top field athlete, although Otis Burrell high-jumped 7'1" in a mild upset of Reynaldo Brown. Dick Fosbury, of the Flop, was supposed to be on hand, but when he did no better than 6'6" in Washington the week before he said to heck with it, and, not having enrolled for the winter quarter, went off to see the Mardi Gras.
When Keino was done in by Lawson it was up to Bon to save the night for Kenya. And he tried. He got away quickly, a Kenyan trait, with Kenth Andersson second and Doubell and Luzins a few yards back. Then Andersson faded, and it was Bon and Luzins, closely followed by Doubell. "Going into the fourth lap," said Doubell, "I knew I wouldn't have much of a problem. They were running my race. I was in the correct position, and I haven't found anybody who can outkick me."
Doubell discovered, too, that Bon was having more than his share of problems with the boards. He was slowing up for the turns, forcing Luzins and Doubell to decelerate to keep from running over him. Then, on the gun lap, Doubell turned it on, running past everyone and winning with ease. "I am afraid Bon got scared," said Jeneby. "Did you see him when he got behind? He was running through people—through them. I have to admit that they were a nice bunch of chaps in that race. If not, he could have been bounced about quite a bit, you know."
When the 1,000 was over, Lee Evans, who had won the 600, comforted the Kenyans. "You got to forget about those records, man," he said to Keino, who had run a blistering third quarter, apparently upon the urging of the public-address announcer, and then had blown a 30-yard lead on the last lap. "You just got to go out and run your own race. You start thinking about getting a record and it'll kill you." Then he turned to Bon, who was staring moodily at the floor, and said, "Forget about it. The first time on the boards will make anybody look bad. My first time I was really lousy. In fact, I was lousy my whole first year. Just terrible." Bon smiled, then he walked away—and disappeared. Keino, Jeneby and Doubell, who was going to drive the Kenyans back to their hotel, searched for him for an hour before giving up and leaving.
"Someone will find him and bring him home," said Jeneby, who was right.
"I just hope," whispered the irrepressible Doubell, "that he didn't go off and commit hara-kiri or whatever it is they do in Kenya."