As an Olympic barometer, the Drake Relays presented a gloomy forecast. But then the squally weather in Des Moines last weekend was no help. Raindrops fell on the heads of some of our biggest Olympic hopefuls. Ralph Mann, Jim Ryun and Half-Miler Mark Winzenried were washouts. Charlie Greene and Herb Washington ran like puddle ducks—fourth and fifth respectively over 100 meters. Hurdler Rodney Milburn and High Jumper Pat Matzdorf won but, like the sun, hardly shone. Only Al Feuerbach seemed weatherproof, uncorking a meet-record shotput of 69'6½". As Mann, who holds the world record of 48.8 in the 440 intermediate hurdles, said after finishing third—on one leg—in 51 seconds: "Those beautiful people should have thrown rocks at us."
Mann strained his left ankle in Los Angeles three weeks ago and was ordered to stay off it until next Monday. He stayed off it—until the Drake Relays. Then he wrapped it in eight layers of tape and limped onto the track. "If that tape gives and the foot bends...well, you'll know it. You'll see me clear the hurdle—by about 40 feet."
There was nothing wrong with Ryun's feet, but after a week-long siege of dysentery he was not the man who ran a 3:57.1 two weeks ago in the Kansas Relays. "I'll give it my best shot," he said. He did until the second turn of the second lap, when he made a move for the lead and suddenly thought, "Where's the men's room?" He finished next to last in 4:09 and kept right on running to the W.C.
For Mark Winzenried there was the problem of a slight strain in his right thigh. Nothing serious. It was only the end of April and in an Olympic year nobody peaks in April. Nobody except the South Africans, who can't go to the Olympics because of apartheid and all that. South Africa holds its national championships in early April. Thus, when 23-year-old Fanie Van Zijl left Potchefstroom two weeks ago, he was in top shape. Which Winzenried discovered.
May 7, 1972
Van Zijl arrived in Des Moines with impressive credentials: 800 meters in 1:45.6; 1,500 meters in 3:37.9 (in 90° at 5,000 feet); the mile in 3:56.4 (also at 5,000 feet); 5,000 meters in 13:48; and 10,000 meters in 29:56—when he was 18 years old. Van Zijl wanted to run the mile in the Drake Relays. What he almost got was a spectator's ticket.
The mile had eight starters and the meet officials figured that was enough. "You've got to draw the line somewhere," was the official explanation. "You get so many coaches asking for a late entry you have to set a deadline and stick to it. Besides, with eight runners and eight lanes you have a very neat start."
Fortunately for Van Zijl, there was an empty lane in the 800. This made Winzenried happy, too. The night before he was to race the South African he shook his head at the irony of it all.
"Here's a guy I've been waiting to run against for three years, and then he suddenly shows up and I'm not sharp," he said. "I only learned he was here half an hour ago. Have you seen him? Do you know anything about him? South Africa, man, that's like another planet. You hear about one of those guys but since they never run in the Olympics you figure you'll never touch him. But it's good to run against guys you've never seen. You can't get excited running against the same people all the time. There's no mystery, no excitement. Now a guy like Van Zijl shows up and you get that fear of the unknown. These are the things you need to get ready for Munich. Are you sure you never saw him?"
Friday afternoon Winzenried saw all he wanted of Van Zijl, most of it a rear view from about 10 yards. Living up to his credentials and his form, the South African won in 1:46.4, with Winzenried second in 1:47.1, his best time of the year.
Afterward, Van Zijl announced that he intended to stay in the U.S. for at least six weeks. "I was always hearing how great the U.S.A. was," he said, "and it's living up to it."
"Sure," a companion said, "but it's not Munich."
"No, not really," Van Zijl said. He was siting on the steps of the Drake Fieldhouse, the rain matting his hair. He was handed a meet program, and when he put on his glasses to study it he looked not unlike a high school student who had just won the science fair.
"I enjoy running," he said. "But I see athletics as just a part of life. Life is not a part of athletics. I think the Olympics or a world record would be an ideal goal, but if you can't have either it is not the end of the world. Sure, it is disappointing. I qualified for the Olympics when I was 18 and I couldn't go. This time I can't go. I've decided it's like races. I've won some and I've lost some. And take a world record. My wife is pregnant, and for me to have a child is better than any record. A world record can be broken. A child, that's forever."
Somebody mentioned John Van Reenen, the giant South African discus thrower who competed for Washington State. In recent weeks Van Reenen has been shopping around for a country that would let him on its Olympic team.
"I couldn't do it," said Van Zijl. "I love my country. I love my people. I wouldn't do it. It doesn't mean that much to me. Let me ask you: Do you love your country?"
"Then let me ask you: Would you leave it for any reason?"
Van Zijl shrugged, driving his thin sharply pointed shoulders almost through the clinging wet cloth of his uniform. "There you have it," he said.
Charlie Greene and Herb Washington most definitely didn't have it in the 100, as Ivory Crockett, the banty speedster from Southern Illinois, won. Greene blamed his poor showing on the wind, which came with the rain. He tried to talk the officials into reversing the direction of the straightaway for the final, a move which would have had the sprinters running with the wind. The officials said no. "You'll be sorry," said Greene. "The times will be lousy." They were, Crockett winning in 10.5. Washington said his problem was false starts, three in the university qualifying heat, three 15 minutes later in the open final. "That's unreal," he moaned.
Slowly recovering from an injury, Matzdorf, the world-record holder, managed to jump 7' and came away wondering if he would ever clear the Olympic Trials qualifying height of 7'‚Öù". "I can't understand it," he said. "I try to jump them all the same way, but it doesn't work. The good ones are good and the bad ones are awful. I need confidence. Know where I can get some?"
For openers, see Rodney Milburn, who has enough for himself plus three high jumpers and a hammer thrower. If people will only let him do his thing on his own schedule, that is.
With the high hurdles world record of 13 flat in his pocket, Milburn has discovered that star status sometimes can be a pain in the gluteus maximus. A 22-year-old junior at Southern University, Milburn won his qualifying heat in 13.7, his final in 13.6 and was satisfied. But he could hear the grumblings over his times.
"Man, last year it was fun," he had said earlier. "There was no problem being by myself; I had time. But now, with the world record, people are always knocking on my door. They want me to do this and to do that. They expect me to run some more 13s, then a 12.9, then a 12.8, then a 12.7. Sometimes I feel like I'm going nuts. Last week I went to the doctor with a stomach ache but when I got there I told him to open my head, to do something, anything. It seemed like everything was coming down on me. Man, when school lets out if I can't get away by myself for two weeks, just go off and concentrate on the Olympics, I won't even make the team. The thing is: now I have to make two sacrifices. One for myself and one for the people."
So far Milburn has not even begun serious work toward the Olympics. He has been able to coast on the residuum of last year, but Munich is never far from his mind. He is, well, obsessed with staying together for the Olympic Trials. He acknowledges he magnifies little hurts. He is forever getting sound treatments on his legs, jumping into whirlpool baths and climbing onto a rubdown table.
Milburn is the first to admit he is a victim of his own success. "It's unreal," he says. "Like there's this old man on campus. He comes up and fools with my sideburns, curling them and all, and says how he thinks I should cut them off maybe a little. And there's this joint off campus. I go in there for a pack of gum, nothing but gum, and pretty soon people are saying how that's the reason I'm not breaking 13 seconds. They say I'm in there drinking." He laughed. "Man, if I listened to all that, if I ran only for the public, I really would go nuts. Sometimes they can be so dumb. They never understand. You give them something and they always want more. Look at Ralph Mann, he gives them a great race on one leg, but do you think they are happy? I don't think so."
Mann shook his head at that. "I don't know about them," he said. "But I know I'm not happy. I feel like the president of McGraw-Hill and ITT all rolled into one. What's the tallest building in Des Moines? I think I'll go jump."