As the U.S. gathered its Olympic track and field forces in Eugene, Ore. the past two weeks, and as its might made itself felt, the whole became less the center of attention than one of its parts. Surely there is no need to lose sleep over a team that boasts two world-record-tying 100-meter sprinters; puts three men over 18 feet, one for a world record, in the vault; opens its shotput elimination with a field that includes the only three men ever to have surpassed 70 feet and then has a cigarette-puffing whackadoo actually oust one of them; and sends forth a miler to tie the world record for 800 meters. Plus other delights, such as bringing perhaps the world's eight best quarter-milers to their marks at the same time and place. The mind is benumbed. And then there is Jim Ryun (see cover).
Ryun, the 25-year-old two-time Olympian, plagued by hay fever, defeat and dreary miles of four minutes, or five or 10 it sometimes seemed, but refusing to quit, and thereby gaining as much respect for his courage (or obstinacy) as he ever did for his three world records. Ryun, bouncing pathetically from Kansas to Oregon to California and back to Kansas, ever questing for the answer. Ryun, winning one race, running a dismal next-to-last in his next, chasing victory, catching frustration. "I've put my faith in God," he said. "What will happen will be what He wants to happen." But there were many moments when it appeared He couldn't make up His mind.
When Ryun returned to Topeka earlier this year to train under his former coach Bob Timmons, it seemed he had at last found himself. But then the erratic performances began again, the worst a 4:19.2 mile in Los Angeles. "I was beside myself," said Timmons. "I was climbing walls."
In desperation he sought the help of Dr. William Simpson of the Menninger Clinic, who told him to stop babying Ryun. When Ryun came home to Kansas, Timmons had said that he would work out a schedule for him, but if he didn't want to follow it, well, whatever he wanted to do would be fine.
July 16, 1972
"Wrong," said Dr. Simpson. "You were the boss before and if you aren't the boss now he'll think you no longer care. You've got to stop feeling sorry for him. You've got to go by your gut reaction. If he needs to be chewed out, chew."
Timmons believed. And he also made a technical training change; he took Ryun off hill work. "He's not a good hill runner," the coach said. "He didn't particularly like cross-country for that reason. He'd run the hills and he'd come back feeling as though he had a good workout, but he was not feeling right mentally. And that would affect his training all week. Every little thing was aimed at building his mental toughness, which was what he needed. When Jim was winning, he never thought about winning, he just did it. But when he started to lose, he began thinking about losing."
At the same time it was discovered that Ryun was allergic to a number of foods, including milk, which he had been drinking in great quantities. Now he is allowed only a splash on his cereal. "Who can eat dry dry cereal?" Ryun complained to Timmons. "We took him off so many foods," said Timmons, "the poor guy had almost nothing left."
Then the Olympic Trials began and it looked like Ryun might indeed end up with nothing: he was eliminated in the 800 final. But he had run strongly, and was confident as he awaited the 1,500. "In the 800 I was worried about my hay fever," he said. "But I ran three fast races and it never bothered me. Now I feel the pressure is off."
And Timmons was hopeful. "I've seen a loss like that affect him both ways," he said. "Sometimes it makes him angry." He smiled. "That wouldn't hurt."
Whatever his mood, Ryun ran well enough to win his two 1,500 heats and gain a place in the final. He seemed unconcerned when the semifinals were thrice redrawn and the size of the final field increased from nine to 12. Well, 11. One of the added starters, Joe Savage, concluded he had been eliminated and had gone home.
And so last Saturday evening Jim Ryun stepped onto the ocher Pro Turf track at Oregon's Hayward Field, hooked his thumbs into his warmup pants and, in one fell swoop, started to take off pants, shorts and supporter. "I was a little nervous," he admitted later.
Then, as Olympic Coach Bill Bowerman said, "Everybody else ran a race made to order for Ryun and he was smart enough to take advantage of it."
What they ran, with Ryun floating along serenely in the middle or at the back of the pack, was a slow 62.1 first quarter and a slower 2:05.4 half. This made it possible for Ryun to turn on a blistering 51.5 last quarter and blow them right off the track. He won in 3:41.5—the equivalent of a 3:59.2 mile.
"Can you believe that?" said Marty Liquori, who missed the 1,500 trials because of an injury. "We're sending two guys to Munich who didn't even break four minutes." The two were Dave Wottle, who finished second in 3:42.3, and Bob Wheeler of Duke (3:42.4).
Later, Ryun admitted he had been pleased by the slowness of the early pace but not surprised by it. "I didn't really know what it was. The one thing I thought of was: stay in contact. I just started up with 330 to go and took the lead with 220. I don't know what happened the last 20 yards, but I was anxious to see that tape. There have been a lot of skeptics who have been thinking I couldn't do it. Before the race, Timmy said he knew I could do it and to just think that. If you have a positive attitude, you know what you have to do and you do it." Ryun had it at last.
As one armed with more than a modicum of positive thinking, Bob Seagren, the handsome 25-year-old gold-medal winner at Mexico City, watched as two younger rivals, Jan Johnson and Steve Smith, made the team with vaults of 18'½", and then he ordered the crossbar raised to a world-record 18'5¾". No thanks, said Johnson. "I made the team and anything else now is meaningless," said Smith airily. "I don't care how high Seagren goes. I don't want to injure myself. When I get to Munich, I'll worry about going higher."
Seagren, who says he is going to star in a movie about a guy who gets his kicks blowing up pay toilets, got the world record on his third attempt. He may learn that this was a whole lot easier than making the movie, in which he will do all his own stunts, such as jumping off a church steeple and escaping from jail on a skate board.
John Smith and Wayne Collett were concerned with more mundane things as they tried to force down dinner the night before the 400-meter final. Smith, the world-record holder in the 440, stared into space as he ran the race again and again in his mind. "On your marks...set...pow!" he said to no one.
"You know," said Collett, studying a wine list, "there is a shop in L.A. that has a bottle of 1961 Lafite-Rothschild in the window for $72. It's been there for two years."
"What? Wine?" said Smith. "Stop talking about wine. We were just at the 330 mark. And burning. I'm not nervous. I'm scared. Hey, Wayne, you're cool. How do you warm up? You know, I can't even remember."
Collett laughed. "Yeah, I'm cool. I dropped a dollar on the floor today and didn't even know it. I wish it was over. Everybody is asking me if I'm going to Munich. Well, tomorrow at least I'll be able to say 'yes' or 'no.' Did you say something, John?"
"I tried, but I opened my mouth and nothing came out. The words won't carry across the table. They keep falling in my water glass."
"Eat," said Collett, not eating. "I wish it was all over. John, are you listening?"
"Huh!" said Smith. "Oh, Lord, Wayne, we just ran an eight-man dead heat."
When they finally got around to running the race for real, it was over for Collett in 44.1, the third-fastest 400 ever, with Smith just 2/10ths back, followed by Olympic veterans Vince Matthews (44.9) and Lee Evans (45.1). For Fred Newhouse the 400 was over at 200 meters, which he blazed in 20.3, a tenth under Chuck Smith's winning time in the 200 race.
Except for the insistence of his wife Diane, Matthews, who ran a relay leg at Mexico City, would be in New York working for the Neighborhood Youth Corps. He retired after the Olympics, but when he ballooned from 179 pounds to 200, Diane talked him into jogging. He lost weight and his competitive interest was rekindled.
"When I came home from Mexico I was disenchanted with the Olympics," Matthews said. "It was a lot of politics. I was one of the black berets and I never regretted what we did. I just regretted the way people took it. As I remember, other countries had little things going on, too. The tension between Czechoslovakia and Russia, for instance. But the situation with the black athletes got all the headlines. It was a mind blower. I can't think of one black who came back saying the Olympics had done something for him. Look at Bob Beamon. He was super super. But today he's nothing. If a half-miler or miler had done something comparable, he'd probably be a vice-president of some big company by now. Well, at least I'm not fat anymore."
The giants of the distance races were Steve Prefontaine, who won the 5,000 in an American record 13:22.8, and Frank Shorter, who took the 10,000 in 28:35.6 and ignored an infected foot to finish in a first-place tie (2:15:57.8) with Kenny Moore in the marathon.
A communications major at the University of Oregon, Prefontaine spent the days before his race trying to figure out how ABC-TV was covering the trials. He finally decided it wasn't. "If ABC doesn't even have enough interest to put cameras out to cover the decathlon [won by Jeff Bannister with 8,120 points] what kind of a job will it do at Munich? And if they do it like they covered the NC2As, wow!"
Tired of watching TV, the outspoken Pre spent the first three days of last week in seclusion at a Catholic youth camp on the McKenzie River 50 miles from Eugene. "It was great until a forest ranger backed into my car," he said. "But I got my mind off the race. Now I'm back to running it in my mind, and to thinking about George Young. But, heck, I'm ready to run an American record. All I have to do is keep my cool and make them run my race."
Keep his cool Pre did, although it was not until the last two laps that he could shake Young, the 34-year-old veteran of three Olympics. By then they had killed off the rest of the field. Prefontaine finished with the record, seven seconds under the previous one, which he set in April. Young finished 80 yards up the track in 13:29.4, a personal best.
Later Prefontaine was handed a STOP PRE T shirt. His relatives wear GO PRE T shirts to all his races. "Hey, that's cool," said the communications man. "I think I'll wear it."
For Shorter, who goes to the University of Florida law school, there was never any chance that a little thing like an infected foot would keep him out of the marathon, which he considers his strongest event. A doctor told him to forget the race; Shorter said give me some antibiotics and forget it. And he ran, but he didn't punish himself.
"We were about five miles on the way and I told Kenny my foot hurt and I felt stiff. Kenny said his hamstring was bothering him. And so we decided we had better not kill each other off. You just don't want to in this one. There are only two months until the next one and that's a short time between marathons. We ran an even pace, just 5:01 miles, and with a half mile to go we decided we'd jog in. It was a nice run."
Meanwhile, a pair of old Olympic heroes were falling by the wayside: world-record-holder Randy Matson, 27, in the shot, and hammer thrower Hal Connolly, who will be 41 next month.
In effect, Matson was eliminated by one Brian Oldfield, of whom the world should not be surprised that there is only one. Oldfield, who teaches at the Illinois State Training School for Boys in St. Charles, goes 275 pounds and reputedly can high jump 6'5", his height. He competes in flowered Speedo swim trunks and a fishnet jersey with deep decolletage. He warms up by getting off 60' puts over his head and sidearm. Between puts he reclines full length, smoking a cigarette. Says Oldfield: "I like apple pie and all that but I don't know about the all-American boy."
"It's strange," said George Woods, who topped Al Feuerbach and Oldfield with a toss of 70'1¼". "All year you aim at the big man, Matson, and then he has a bad day. That's all it was. It was disconcerting."
Connolly said there was nothing strange about what happened to him. "They are too young for me. But how can you be disappointed when you have been to four Olympics and they've never gone. I'll still compete, but strictly for fun. To try for the Olympics in 1976 I'd need a pair of 16-year-old knees."
"I hate to see Hal go," said George Frenn, who finished third in the hammer behind Tom Gage and Al Schoterman. "It's the end of an era. It's a sad thing to see."
Equally sad was the fate of Howell Michael who finished fifth in the 1,500-meter final. "The time was ridiculous," he said. "It wouldn't even be good for a conference meet. But look at the people who took the lead. Willie Eashman was hurt [bushwhacked by a bicyclist on the way to the track] but he took it as long as he could. Then the rest were too nervous or too scared to take it. And so I, a kicker, was stuck with it. Hell!"
"Well," said a reporter, "aren't you happy for Jim Ryun?"
Michael glared at him. "Not particularly. This is dog eat dog. It only happens once every four years. Jim Ryun was a stud, but we don't know whether he is the same Jim Ryun we knew in 1967."
The answer will come at Munich.