No one ever made an Olympic team by running beneath a roof, especially in a footrace which ends after 60 yards, but a national championship is a national championship, and in the cocky, swaggering world of sprinters there is no such thing as a meaningless race. Dash men are not unlike gunfighters. Each is ready to prove his is the fastest, be it in a challenge match down a back alley in Schenectady or, as it was last Friday night, over a slow, spongy Fastrac straightaway in Madison Square Garden in the AAU indoor meet. And, if this were not enough, for U.S. sprinters there is now the pale specter of Valeriy Borzov, the Russian who claims he is the world's fastest human and that all the rest are a bunch of Volga boatmen.
So last week's race was serious business, something, say, on the order of that closely reasoned debate at the O.K. Corral. When Frank Bailey, the starter, told everybody to get set, six hard-eyed, unsmiling men hunkered down into their blocks. As Charlie Greene had said that afternoon, "I didn't come here to run second. But then I don't think any of those other cats came to run second, either."
Among the other cats were Dr. Delano Meriwether, Herb Washington, Mel Pender, Gerald Tinker, Willie McGee, Bobby Turner and Marshall Dill. "That's a lot of speed," said Washington, the Michigan State senior who two weeks before had run the 60 in 5.8 to break the world record. "But ever since John Carlos went into pro football, nobody has been able to take charge of the sprints. Guys will be falling out of the bushes trying to make the Olympic team. And I tell you this, Borzov may be the favorite but we'll dominate again in the sprints."
Since the Olympics were revived in 1896, the U.S. has won the 100-meter dash 12 of 16 times and taken 11 seconds and three thirds. "We always come up with somebody," said Greene, who got a bronze in 1968. "It's just a question of who'll win, one of our old men reincarnated or one of our younger dudes."
If there is to be a reincarnation, there was little sign of it among the senior citizens at the Garden. Greene, 27, pulled up lame in the semifinals. Pender, 34, scraped through his semi, and worse was yet to come for him. Dr. Meriwether, 28, was right sprightly, but he is considered a youngster in the sprint set, since he did not take up the sport until he was 27.
But young or old, all six finalists were complaining about the starter. "He holds you and he holds you and he holds you," said Pender, shaking his head. "And the time I did get a good start, his gun misfired. This country had just two good starters and they both died."
"With the seven of us," said Washington, "it's going to be a hot race."
"Seven?" Dr. Meriwether said. "You mean six, don't you?"
"I mean us six and the starter," Washington said.
As the finalists—Dr. Meriwether, Tinker, McGee, Turner, Pender and Washington—began setting up their blocks, the starter seemed to eye Pender warily, almost as though he expected the burly 5'5" Army captain to begin tearing down the straightaway before the others had removed their sweat suits. Styling himself the world's oldest sprinter, Pender boasts that he is the fastest man out of the blocks, which does not endear him to starters. They watch him the way cops watch Carlo Gambino. "I have a God-given natural talent," protests Pender, "and the starters are always trying to take it away from me."
Washington laughs when he talks about Pender's starts. "I think all that stuff is just a psych he's trying to put on us," he says. "Like when Charlie Greene sings as he is getting into the blocks. I do a little of that, too. I always pull out a tape measure and check my blocks just before a race. If anybody did that to me I'd really be ticked off." With that, he pulled out his tape and began measuring. Dr. Meriwether watched him for a moment, hitched up his yellow suspenders and shrugged. Pender stared at the starter, who finally ordered them all into their blocks.
"Set," he said. Up they went, holding, holding, holding. Bobby Turner broke. "Kee-rist!" he said as he returned to the line. "Are we posing for pictures or running a race?"
They tried it again. Set, bang! McGee was caught rocking backward. "My God, he changed his tempo," thought Turner, frozen. Pender came firing out, took one stride and fell flat on his face. As he pushed off, his block had slipped. When Pender fell, Washington hesitated, thinking the race would be recalled. Startled, McGee stumbled and brushed against Tinker. Meanwhile, Meriwether slowly uncoiled and ran on. "I thought they might restart it," he said later, "but I've stopped before when they didn't and I'm not about to let that happen again." Pender lay on the Fastrac, looking questioningly at the starter. "I had a beautiful start," he moaned later. "Even as I was falling I looked around and didn't see anybody."
As the five upright sprinters closed on the tape, Dr. Meriwether saw Tinker leaning. "I think I'll try that," thought the doc, who is still experimenting with basic sprinting techniques. Just as he did, McGee dived head first for the tape, lost his balance and bumped into him. Even if McGee had got his Afro into the tape ahead of Dr. Meriwether's body, he would not have won. According to the rules, only the torso counts. As it was, both McGee and the doc fell with shattering force.
"Who won?" Tinker was asked.
"How would I know?" the 21-year-old Kent State sophomore said.
After studying the Phototimer pictures, the finish judges said it was Dr. Meriwether in 6.2, with Tinker second and Washington third.
"Lying there on the floor," said Dr. Meriwether, "I couldn't have cared less."
"Six-two?" said Washington, shaking his head. "That's awful. Wake me up at four in the morning and I'll run a six-two."
"Meriwether ought to thank McGee for stumbling into him," said Tinker. "Without that shove I might have won."
Meanwhile, at the other end of the straightaway, Pender was telling the chairman of the referees what happened to him in the hope that the race would be rerun. Pender hammered his blocks with a fist, sending them flying across the floor. "I was gone, man, I swear," he said. "I was psyched up. Ready. I thought for sure they'd rerun it because of faulty equipment. But they didn't. Lord, I feel terrible."
Dr. Meriwether said he did not care if they reran the race or not. He was more concerned with the knee he bruised in his fall and with the Garden's unwillingness to give him duplicate films of his previous New York races. "It's never done" was the Garden's rationale. The Harvard hematologist had wanted to study his technique. For that reason, he has been lugging a home movie camera to all the meets he has entered this year, but so far he has been too shy to ask anyone to train it on him.
"I think I'm going to stop bothering with it," he said. "I don't feel as though I know anyone well enough to ask them to take the film. It's excess baggage."
Then Dr. Meriwether went home, hurting. And he did not even have a gold medal to show for his pains. They had been left in a box at the AAU's meet headquarters. What did you expect?