The first thing Dave Wottle wanted to know about running 800 meters was, well, how exactly do you run such a short race. Now the mile, or the 1,500, is something else. The 21-year-old junior out of Bowling Green knows all about those distances. He just puts on a battered white golf cap, tucks in behind the leaders for about 3½ laps and then—zap! Certainly such last-lap heroics earned the NCAA 1,500 champion a favorite's role in that event at the 11-day Olympic Trials which got under way in Eugene, Ore. last week. Then Wottle decided, shoot, why not sneak in some speed work by running the 800. It would be more fun than a practice session.
It was suggested to Wottle that perhaps the hat wasn't doing a proper job of keeping the sun off his head. Any way you looked at it, Mark Winzenried and Juris Luzins were mortal cinches to get two of the three 800 berths. And then there was Jim Ryun, who happens to be the world-record holder (1:44.9) in the 880. "Aw," said Wottle, "I'm just getting myself ready for the 1,500. I'm no half-miler. I run stupid races. I don't have any idea what I'm doing. Heck, I wouldn't run the 800 at Munich even if I made it. I don't have the quarter speed to go with those guys in Europe. Can't a guy just have some fun?"
While Wottle was getting ready to have a ball, some other parties were having their own versions of good times—and bad. For one, the U.S. suddenly found itself with a bunch of 9.9 100-meter sprinters—and Charlie Greene, Mel Pender, Dr. Delano Meriwether, Herb Washington, Jim Green, Marshall Dill, Ivory Crockett and Willie McGee weren't among them. Moreover, Willie Deckard ran a wind-aided 9.9 in a semi and didn't make the final. He finished fifth behind Reynaud (Rey) Robinson, Norbert Payton, Warren Edmonson and Eddie Hart, all of whom were also caught in 9.9.
A short time later, Hart, a graduate assistant at Berkeley, and Robinson, a junior at Florida A&M, matched their 9.9s in the final, this time with a legal wind, to tie the world record, Hart being adjudged first. Third place went to Robert Taylor of Texas Southern (10.0), with Kent State's Gerald Tinker (10.1) finishing fourth to earn a berth on the sprint relay team.
July 9, 1972
"I knew Robinson was the man," said Pender. "He makes two moves on you: at the start and then with 20 yards to go. When he gets out in front, nobody can catch him. Wait until [Valery] Borzov sees him."
Hart won't do much for the Russian's peace of mind either. A world-class sprinter, he virtually dropped out of sight after graduating from Cal last year. "I was training, but I wasn't competing," he explained. "I aimed everything at the trials. Then in the final I got off to a bad start and thought, 'Oh, oh.' But I regrouped, so to speak."
If anything can ever be predictable at an Olympic Trial, the discus and 20-kilo walk were. As expected, world-record holder Jay Silvester easily won the discus with a toss of 211'2", with the other two places going to John Powell and Tim Vollmer. And, equally as expected, Larry Young romped in the walk (1:35:56.4), followed by Goetz Klopfer and Tom Dooley.
In the other Saturday final, John Craft, a 25-year-old physical-education teacher from Eastern Illinois University who would rather practice than compete, won the triple jump with a whopping, windy 56'2", two inches farther than Dave Smith, who made his jump with an allowable breeze to set an American record. Art Walker, 30, like Smith a '68 Olympian, came in third with a leap of 55'1".
But none of these exploits rivaled the 800. The first esteemed loser in that event was Winzenried, who finished fifth in the opening heat. Sidelined for two weeks by an Achilles injury and on crutches until just three days before his race, the former Wisconsin star ran a game first lap but faded badly. The second casualty was Luzins, who struggled through his heat with a badly bruised instep and died in Friday's semis. So America's hopes quickly shifted to Ryun, who apparently had conquered his hay fever as easily as he had the field in his heat and semi. His victories were sweetened when after each race he passed the examination of Dr. Jay Keystone, his personal allergist, who came in from Santa Barbara, Calif. to be with him during the trials.
"He feels great," said Bob Timmons, Ryun's coach. "But everybody keeps telling him how bad the pollen count is in Eugene. I wish they'd cut that out. It isn't bothering Jim, but I feel lousy."
And so for Saturday night, there was a healthy, confident Ryun, plus Wottle, who had won his heat with his super kick but then ran a confused semi and needed all his late speed to finish third.
"I wish I knew what I was doing," Wottle said after the semi, his second speed workout. "I'm all mixed up. But maybe I can do something. If a miler can make it to the final he has the advantage because he's stronger."
Ryun opened the final much the way he did his two heats—flying for the lead. He and Ken Swenson, formerly of Kansas State and now of the U.S. Army, led for roughly 200 meters when Tom Fulton overtook them to turn the 400 in 52 fiat. Wottle was bobbing along well in the ruck.
"I knew I didn't know anything," he said later, "so I sort of hypnotized myself by watching Ryun's back. I figured whatever he did I'd do."
What Ryun did was to reassume the lead shortly before the 600 mark, running 200 meters in an eye-popping 24.8.
"Incredible," said Winzenried on the sidelines.
Although Ryun had started his kick much too early, Wottle, mesmerized, hustled off in mesmerized pursuit. Rick Wohlhuter of the University of Chicago Track Club took up the chase, with Swenson dropping to fourth. "It was like running to see a fire," Swenson said. "Everybody going like crazy If I had known what the pace was, I'd never have finished."
Coming off the last turn, Wottle flew past Ryun, who now was struggling. Super Kick, who doesn't know how to run 800 meters, finished in 1:44.3, tying Peter Snell's and Ralph Doubell's world record. Wohlhuter pushed past Ryun for second (1:45), and Swenson surged and outleaned the exhausted Ryun at the wire for third (1:45.1). Ryun finished in 1:45.2, the second best time of his career, and made the team as an alternate.
"I can't be unhappy with that," Ryun said later. "I ran the best possible race I could: 110%. Look at those times. This has to be the greatest 800 race ever run. Four men under 1:45.3. Six under 1:45.5. You can say America has finally joined the 800 set. I'm proud of my time. And after running three fast races in three days and having no problems with my hay fever, well, I feel relieved. The pressure is off me for next week's 1,500."
Should Ryun want it, there is still a chance he could double at Munich. Even with a share of the world record, Wottle said he may skip the 800 if he does well in the 1,500.
"I'd like to see Ryun run in the 800," he said. Then he grinned. "Unless he beats me in the 1,500."
And if Wottle should decide to run the shorter race, who would his competition be? He shook his head and laughed. "Heck, I don't know," he said. "I'm no half-miler. I don't know any of those people. I'm a miler."