For the most part, the trip to Leningrad was awful. When it is raining, which seems often, the city is cold and gray, with matching people. It's easy to understand why Russians suck up vodka by the gallon. The daily routines of normal living, from making a phone call to eating, are challenges. The crowded buses are murder; the normal alternative, a taxicab, is almost impossible to find. To this setting and much more, the U.S. track team came last week.
It was perhaps most fitting that the hammer and sickle fell first on Ollan Cassell, the AAU track chief, and on Howard Schmertz, one of the team managers. They decided to go in two days ahead of the team. Before leaving Germany they bombarded Russian officials with telegrams telling them that they would be arriving early. Nobody met them at the airport, where they discovered their American money was no good. And since it was Saturday, all the money changers had gone home for the weekend. After a few hours of argument, a Russian relented and gave them rubles—just enough—to take a taxi to their hotel. Then they discovered the hotel restaurant accepted only rubles. They went to bed hungry. Russians don't lose many arguments in Russia.
On Sunday, Cassell and Schmertz finally managed to make their way to a unique Russian institution known as a "Dollar Restaurant." These restaurants accept only foreign currency—no rubles. Since they are always the best places in town, that means when a Russian wants to take his girl out he has to take her to some café which will accept his rubles. At night the Russians gather outside the doors of the Dollar Restaurants and hungrily watch the tourists eat the food they can't get. Like caviar.
The team arrived on Monday and was bused to the Hotel Sputnik, which is both four years old and a relic. Dr. Jerry Bornstein, the team physician, turned on the water tap in his room and recoiled in alarm. "For the love of God," he ordered everyone, "don't drink that stuff."
August 2, 1970
"Hell, I wasn't going to drink it," growled George Frenn, the hammer thrower. "I was going to eat it."
It was two days before Wayne Collett and John Smith could coax hot water from their tap. And when it came, it came in a great deep dark brown flood. "Hey, Smith, come look," Collett yelled. "The sink's bleeding."
The team arrived minus four sets of luggage, Vaulter Sam Caruthers' pole—now how can even a Russian airline lose a 15-foot pole?—and Long-Distance Runner Ken Moore's wife Bobbie. The AAU had managed to foul up her visa application and she had to be left in Helsinki. Moore was slightly shaken. He is stationed in the Army at Fort Lewis, Bobbie is a student at Stanford, and they had been saving all year for the trip, calling it the Leningrad fund. To save money, Moore had been cooking his own meals.
"Why didn't you let me know she wanted to come so badly," Cassell asked.
"What the hell," Moore stormed, "I applied for a damn visa, didn't I?"
Cassell tried calling the Russian Embassy in Helsinki from Stuttgart, but he was ignored. Bobbie decided to stay and fight. They said goodby at the airport.
And so while Moore was spending his first two days in Leningrad trying to persuade the Russians to let in his wife the rest of the team was sightseeing—and trying to figure out why it had come at all. It rained a lot and colds became common. "You either caught a cold from the rain falling on you while you slept or you suffocated," said Hurdler Ralph Mann. "The rooms were so tiny you had to sleep with either your feet or your head under the window. And if you didn't leave a window open it was real bad."
The team members also ran into the money problem. The athletes went to get their two dollars per diem and had to take rubles instead. Then the Russians took them on a shopping tour—to a Dollar Store, where their rubles were useless. "I asked the guide to take us to a place where we could spend our rubles," said Long Jumper Willye White. "The next thing I knew we were back in the hotel. They give us rubles and we can't spend them and we can't take them out of the country."
Then there was the food. The Russians served six courses, starting with milk that tasted—well, not good. Next, in order, came apple juice, strawberries, a salad, a tiny steak with home-fried potatoes, and, finally, cold cuts. The men usually demanded more and were ignored. "I'm so hungry I'll eat anything," said John Smith. For the girls it was a little easier. They are mostly tiny and cute and they don't need to eat that much.
"The biggest trouble with the food," said Mann, "was that we kept getting the same meat every day for lunch and dinner. I don't know what kind it was, but I've never had anything like it before. And there were no dogs or cats around the place."
The Russian team was staying at the same hotel but eating in a separate dining hall. One day at lunch Frenn demanded to be let in to where the Russians were eating. "They've got better food," Frenn shouted. "I can see it and smell it." They wouldn't let him in.
Part of the Russian game is never do anything now. Wait and maybe the crazy visitor will forget about it. They answer every request with one word: "When?" So you say to them, "Now, please," and they look at you like you're crazy. Finally, after they decide you're going to persist, they sigh and say, "Have a seat." And they let you sit for half an hour or more. But when they go into action, it's something to watch. When they move, they move quickly and efficiently, and what an hour ago seemed impossible suddenly is done in five minutes. And done well.
Well, at least most of the things they do they do well. At the last minute they tried to put a new track into Lenin Stadium and they came up with 400 meters of unbelievably bad road. It had to be the only asphalt track ever laid the day before an important international meet—by a bunch of old ladies. It looked like a tar road in Minnesota after a hard winter. Then they turned on the lights and the old ladies spent all night painting in the lines by hand. They wobbled a bit, the lines that is, but when the sun came out the next morning for a little while the markings were all there. Meanwhile, the U.S. team was sent off to practice at the athletic field of the institute of physical culture named after Lésgaft. And about 500 Russians, some with high-speed movie cameras, turned up to watch.
The night before the meet, the entire U.S. team went to see the Leningrad circus. In Russia, with only a pocketful of rubles, there is not a whole lot else to do.
"I thought the circus was great," said Half-Miler Mark Winzenried. "I haven't been to one since I was a kid, but I can't remember seeing one that good before."
"Yeah, it was great," said Frenn. "Except they had all the lions tranquilized."
The meet began Thursday night in a driving cold rain. It was a dual meet, but then it wasn't. The Russians had invited one Pole, one Bulgarian, one Czech, one Italian and six Finns. They led with a secret weapon, a sprinter named Valeri Borzov, who was out of the blocks while Ivory Crockett and Ben Vaughan were still getting off the bus. There was no recall, and Borzov, who had been ahead by as much as seven yards and won only by a step, came home first in 10.4. Later, the Russian press tried to get Crockett and Vaughan to say that Borzov was the greatest sprinter in the world.
"He's lousy," said Crockett. "He gets off to a rolling start and still only runs 10.4. We've got 30 guys back home who can run him bowlegged. Hell, Vaughan ran a 10 flat last week and I ran a 10.1. But we all started at the same time in that race."
"What are you supposed to do in Russia?" Vaughan asked. "Go when the guy says set?"
A Russian reporter said that he was under the impression that Borzov had a poor start.
"Get out of here," Crockett said. "We'll run against this guy again in Cologne. I hope he's got guts enough to show up."
Laughing after their upset in the 100 meters, the Russians came up next with two of their aces, Nikolai Sviridov and Leonid Mikitenko, in the 10,000-meter race. They figured to breeze. It came out more like a wheeze. Frank Shorter, running in only his third 10,000 meters, set a furious pace, running the first 5,000 in 13:55. The Russians fell far behind. Shorter won by more than 200 yards in 28:22.8. Moore, who only the day before had finally got Bobbie into the country, finished second, five yards ahead of Mikitenko. The Russian national champion, Sviridov, ran fourth and drew derisive whistles and hoots from the fans.
"At first I was pretty peeved at Frank for setting such a fast pace," Moore said, "but in the end it turned out fine. He broke everybody but me. With Bobbie here I was running happy. I don't run as well when I'm angry."
As expected, Marcus Walker and Tom Hill swept the 110 hurdles, making it look easy. If they aren't going to be tough in 1972, then nobody is. Then the Russians got their second break. With Ken Swenson ill but running, they won the 800. "He was really sick," said Winzenried, who finished second, "and he had a hard time getting psyched up. He won three big races in the States, then the NCAAs and the AAUs, then in France and Germany. How many can you get up for? About three-quarters of the way around he just said to hell with it."
"It's tough to run that many big ones," said Mann. "The pain is fresh in your mind. The body is in good shape but the mind gets tired." Then he went out Friday night and blew the Russians off the track in the 400-meter hurdles. And he came away shaking his head. "That track is really terrible. I had to walk my lane six times to learn where all the holes were. But I guess it bothered the Russians more. They were belting every hurdle. I didn't even figure them to finish on their feet." One didn't.
The men got only two more victories Thursday: the expected sweep from Wayne Collett and John Smith in the 400, and in the 400-meter relay. At the end of the day Russia led 55-52.
The women didn't make out as well and trailed 48-26. Only Iris Davis, who won the 100-meter dash, managed to go home with a gold medal.
That night Collett went to a Russian restaurant that opened at 9 p.m. He ordered soup. "Sorry," said the waiter. "No soup after 7 o'clock."
"But you don't open until 9," Collett protested.
"I know," said the waiter. "But you still can't have soup after 7."
"O.K., man, O.K.," Collett sighed. "You win. No soup after 7. What's the deadline on meat?"
Friday was a little different. Just a little. The U.S. men gathered in the gold medals, six in all. The Russians, with their depth, gathered in enough points to win 122-114. The girls picked up five victories but were beaten 78-59. It was only the second time in nine dual meets that the U.S. men have lost to Russia. "We lost by a Randy Matson and a Jay Silvester," Mann said.
Two of the U.S. victories Friday came in the field events where Russians were strong favorites. Bouncy Moore upset Olympian Igor Ter-Ovanesyan in the long jump, and right behind him Bill Skinner, the ex-sailor with enough courage for three tough longshoremen, threw the javelin 272'8½" on his last attempt to upset Olympian and former world record holder Yanis Lusis. And then Skinner put his arm around Lusis' shoulder and said, "Man, beating you is just like beating Cassius Clay. The same feeling."
The other men's victories came from Mann, unbeatable Willie Turner in the 200, Reynaldo Brown in the high jump, and the 1,600-meter-relay team of Curtis Mills, Fred Newhouse, Collett and Smith, which won by 50 yards and could have won by 150. The women earned their gold medals in the 800 meters (Cheryl Toussaint), the 200 meters (Mavis Laing, 16), the 100-meter hurdles (Patty Johnson), the long jump (Willye White) and the 1,600-meter relay (Jarvis Scott, Laing, Toussaint and Kathy Hammond).
After the meet Eddie Hart, who had run on the winning 400-meter relay team with Crockett, Vaughan and Robert Taylor, spotted the Russian interpreter from the day before. "Hey, man, where's the great Borzov? He was supposed to run in the 200 today and I see he chickened out. Do you think he'll chicken out in Cologne, too?"
The Russian spun on his heels and walked away in silence. Hart's laughter chased him. "Hey," said Hart. "Yesterday that guy could speak English. Today he can't even speak Russian."
A few hours later the Americans were packing. "We're getting out of Russia, man, that's what counts," said Collett, summing up the collective feeling. "The next dual meet in Russia will be in 1973. Thank God, after 1972 I'll be out of track."