The French track team? Poof! A breeze, man; no more competitive than a lighthearted stroll down the Champs Élysées, and if the French get so much as a second in anything it's got to be an upset. No wonder the French eat snails. It's the only thing they can outrun. This is going to be like stealing foie gras from a bébé, and if the U.S. team, fresh from the AAU championships, is a trifle fat and sassy, well, so what? With those big meets coming up with West Germany and Russia, who can blame the Americans for not getting psyched up over a light workout in Paris with the Little Sisters of the Poor? Just get the kinks out of your muscles, fellows, and for God's sake, when you are smoking them out of the stadium, smile and be gracious. Well, Lafayette, we are here again, and while it's not what you had in mind, at least the AAU officials, with their tunnel vision, have softened the thunderous blow we are about to strike.
Ah, the French. All last week the Paris newspapers gloomily predicted that the powerful U.S. team would win by the length of the Seine. Another Waterloo at the least. Nobody beats American runners. As the French say, zut! To hell with it!
"To hell with nothing," muttered George Frenn, the U.S. hammer champion, as he paced the Champs Élysées on Tuesday, the day before the meet would begin. When he reached the Arc de Triomphe, Napoleon's massive tribute to himself and his armies, Frenn paused, ignoring the fall of a fine Gallic rain as he studied the glorious four-legged monument. "I wonder how much that rock weighs?" he wondered. He shook his head and grimaced. "I'll tell you something: tomorrow, unless this team does better than I think, the French are going to drop that thing right on our heads."
"But, George," said a friend. "This is only a tune-up. You can't be serious. The French?"
"Listen, they'll be so high they'll be able to float over that erector set of theirs."
"The Eiffel Tower?"
"Yeah. And what we've got is a team of babies, young guys without any international experience. Ninety percent are making their first trip. And look at the schedule. All the meets are in the middle of the week. That really fouls up everything. We're all geared for Saturday competition. Our training is set up that way. My event is on Thursday. I have to make believe it's Saturday. Then Friday is Sunday, a day of rest. Then you have to train over the weekend. Crazy. I don't know who made up the schedule, but damn!"
The team arrived the Sunday before the meet minus many of its stars. Among the missing were Bob Seagren, Marty Liquori and Lee Evans. Also Charlie Greene, Randy Matson and Russ Hodge. They wanted to compete but had requested to travel on their own, showing up only for the meets. The rest of the time most of them would compete in other track meets scattered around Europe with all expenses covered. The AAU gives its athletes room and board plus $2 a day. Giving an athlete $2 a day in Paris is like sending a kid to Coney Island with a nickel in his pocket. "Two bucks. Won't even cover my laundry," said Frenn.
The AAU was outraged, of course. It likes all its athletes in a tight little bunch, right under its fat thumb. If the AAU, breathing pious fire, can't cut a piece of the cake, then go without dessert. Most of the barred athletes didn't learn of their exile until after they landed in Europe and telephoned Paris for instructions. Stay away, they were told. "You're kidding," Hodge reportedly said by phone from Milan, Italy. He is America's top decathloner, and there is no decathlon until the Russian meet. "You expect me to sit around a hotel with the team for three weeks and then compete? When I can be competing in other meets and staying in top shape?" Hodge hung up.
Evans wasn't so lucky. He had gone to Oslo, Norway to work with a secondary-education group to pick up credits toward his master's degree. Using that as a base, he ran in meets in Zurich, Milan and Berlin; then, paying his own way, he came to Paris to join the U.S. team. He was told he might as well go back to Oslo. They wouldn't even let the Olympic champion eat at the training table.
Evans was stunned. "I told the AAU my plans two months ago and everything then was fine. I've got a letter from a top AAU official, Ollan Cassell, saying he was glad I had changed my mind and decided I would compete with the team. And in the letter was a permit for me to compete in other European meets."
AAU officials now contend that such permits were intended for use after the three U.S. team meets. Apparently there is a new rule that athletes must travel with the team at all times. The rule is so new, in fact, that no one had ever heard of it.
Still, the U.S. team had some fine young athletes replacing the ones barred, and when it marched into the spacious and very pretty Olympic Stadium in Paris on Wednesday night it was with a jaunty step. It was time to hone the blades for the big meets. The first to the whetstone was Ralph Mann, the world record holder in the 440 hurdles. A breeze, baby. And then the French rolled out their first guillotine, Jean-Claude Nallet, a 400-meter dashman running the hurdles for only the fourth time and the very first against serious competition. So far his best time was only 50.4. He won in 48.6, with Mann shocked and second in 49.5. Ron Whitney, the other American, ran fourth and last, and on a 5-3-2-1-scoring basis the French led 7-4.
"I guess you could say I was overconfident," said Mann with a sigh. "I figured all I had to do was to go out and work the kinks out of my legs. Just a good workout. But that Nallet. When we hit the 220 mark I knew I was in trouble. We were even, and with the stagger that meant he had a four-yard lead. Then he outran me in the stretch. Nobody has ever done that before. But how can you get excited about a guy who's only done a 50.4? The whole French team went crazy that night."
Very crazy. After the 400 hurdles, the French wiped out the Americans in the 100-meter dash and the steeplechase, running 1-3 in each, and voil√†! they led 21-12. And in the field events they were leading in the shotput and the long jump, and Ralph Boston, the ex-Olympian now a TV sportscaster, was walking around muttering, "Terrible. It's terrible. They just don't make our guys out of the same mold anymore. There's no way this French team could beat any of the teams I was on."
Before the first night ended, the French won the shotput and the long jump and the 5,000 meters—and, unbelievably, the 400-meter relay when the last two Americans fouled up horribly on the hand-off. The winner of the shotput was the senior member of the French team, Pierre Colnard, a 41-year-old army sergeant who fought four years in Vietnam (no, not this war, the previous one). "I was vicious out there," Colnard said after his toss of 64'7½". "It gives me a lot of pleasure to beat the Americans."
Out of 10 events the U.S. won just three, but those were one-two sweeps and that held the French team's first-day lead to 56-50. Ken Swenson and Mark Winzenried finished one-two in the 800 meters, John Powell and Rich Drescher one-two in the discus, and Sam Caruthers (17'2¾") and Paul Hegler one-two in the pole vault.
"We all kind of looked on this as just another meet," said Winzenried, "but the French were really out of their minds. When they beat us in the sprints they began believing they could beat us in anything. I kind of think our guys who are competing tomorrow will come in with a different attitude."
To make sure, LeRoy Walker, the American coach, called a midnight meeting. "Some of our guys weren't showing up at the victory stand to shake hands when they lost. The French complained. I just told them to get up there no matter what."
"And they laid a lot of extra rules on us," said John Smith, the AAU 440 champion. "Like no extra people on the bus. That we should stay away from other people. That's all I needed, a lot of rules at midnight."
But the meeting had its effect on the U.S. team the next day. The Americans arrived at the field grim and primed. This wasn't a workout anymore. Let the Germans and the Russians wait. Thomas Hill and Marcus Walker began the overdue assault, sweeping the 110-meter hurdles. Then Wayne Collett and Smith—against Nallet—ran one-two in the 400 meters, and Roger Collins and Bill Skinner finished one-two in the javelin. Nobody was strolling the Champs Élysées now. Howell Michael and Jere Van Dyke swept the 1,500 meters, Willie Turner and Ben Vaughan the 200 meters, Barry Shepard and Reynaldo Brown the high jump.
The French sighed and died graciously. The 15,000 in the stands had come in happy anticipation of a total upset and Thursday night must have been painful, but they were on their feet cheering each American victory as they had cheered their own. They screamed when Frenn screamed as he threw the hammer, and they cheered when he won. They had their moment when Frenchmen finished one-two in the triple jump, but that was all. And they weren't happy about the way Ken Moore won the 10,000-meter race. He ran last most of the way and then won easily with a smashing burst over the last 220 yards. Europeans claim it is unfair to let the front-runners set the pace and do all the work and then have somebody come blazing out of the wake to win. The U.S. wrapped it up 117-94, with one final brilliant burst, winning the 1,500-meter relay by 30 yards.
And so, with the kinks out of their muscles, the U.S. athletes packed and headed for Stuttgart and the meeting with West Germany. "I'm glad to be getting out of here," growled Frenn. "Them damn French hammer throwers were cheating."