At 4:45 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 26, an 18-year-old West German police cadet named G√ºnter Zahn, a lad, it is said, chosen because of his unusually graceful running style, will carry the Olympic torch—the flaming three-pound, butane-fueled baton of a 3,470-mile relay that began four weeks ago in the rubble that once was the temple of Zeus at Olympia—into the magnificent Munich Stadium, and the 1972 Olympic Games will begin. Five days later, with the call for the women's long jump, the U.S. will unleash its youngest and most inexperienced track and field team ever and, well, hope for the best. Gloomy predictions have been heaped upon pessimistic prophecies and the overwhelming consensus is that the talented youngsters will be buried by their competitive naiveté "Yeah, I've heard all that junk," snaps Steve Prefontaine, 21, our brightest and brashest hope in the 5,000-meter run. "And I may get beat by some 30-year-old Russian—but only if he's faster, not because he's older."
If the measure of our team truly is international experience and not past performances, then, yes, we'll be in trouble. Apparently, the experts figure it this way: a West German gains more experience by running so-so races in Oslo, Helsinki and Moscow than, say, a youngster from Coos Bay, Ore. who turns in extraordinary performances in Des Moines, Bakersfield and Los Angeles. For example, Russia's Valery Borzov is the better for running a 10-flat 100 in Moscow against 10.2 competition, while Eddie Hart and Rey Robinson of the U.S. are none the better for running world-record-tying 9.9s in Eugene, Ore. against their compatriots—who were pushing them with 10-flats. Does racing against an Ethiopian make a man quicker than if he were facing a dude from Texas Southern? Perhaps. But, as in the past, the mystique of international competition will most likely be shown to belong in the same bag with the legend of Pelops, a Greek who won not because he was internationally seasoned but because he bribed a rival charioteer to throw the race.
"This thing could go either way for our kids," says Bill Toomey, the 1968 decathlon gold medalist. "It's not a question of talent. We have as much or more than ever. But the average age of all that talent is only 25 years, and only 15 of our 65-man team have any previous Olympic experience. There just aren't enough veterans around to hold the kids together. We had them in 1968, and it helped. A lot of these kids came out of the Trials thinking that if they could beat pressure like that, they could beat anything. In Munich they'll feel pressure they never thought could exist. In 1968 I almost went home before the decathlon started. But if we get off to a quick start, the team could get hot. If one of the kids wins early, then the rest will think, 'Heck, he did it and so can I." If something like that starts, it will be beautiful to watch. For us."
With the 5,000 as one of the last events, Steve Prefontaine will have plenty of time to assay the effect of Olympic pressure on his teammates. No matter how it goes, it is doubtful if it will alter the attitude of the supercocky junior from the University of Oregon. Last year he was beaten only once—in a mile—and this year he broke his American record in the 5,000 for the second time during the Olympic Trials. In Oslo earlier this month, he ran a 1,500—not his race—in 3:38.3 (the equivalent of a 3:56 mile), his fastest ever, finishing second to Finland's Pekka Vasala. "I was just running to get the carbon out of my system," he said. Then he growled: "Now there's a 3,000 race tomorrow, and these guys will pay for today's loss." They paid. Pre won in 7:44.2, 1.6 seconds under his American record, and left such international stalwarts as Dick Quax of New Zealand, Spain's Mariano Haro and Francesco Arese of Italy far behind.
But these will not be the runners he will face in the 5,000 at Munich. There they likely will be Great Britain's David Bedford and Ian Stewart, Australia's Tony Benson, Finland's newest sensation, Lasse Viren, Ethiopian Merutse Yifter—and West Germany's Harald Norpoth, who buried Prefontaine two years ago at Stuttgart. With such a field, plus such doubtful performers as Finland's Juha Vaatainen, the European 5,000 and 10,000 champion, and Ben Jipcho of Kenya, who are nursing injuries, the 5,000 promises to be the best race of the Games.
"I was really young when I raced Norpoth, and he smoked me," admits Pre. "He sat on my back for 11 laps and then just blew me off the track. But I learned. If he thinks the same thing is going to happen in Munich, I've got news for him."
If the race goes as Prefontaine and Dave Bedford plan, the pace will be blistering from the beginning, and the question will be whether the pair can withstand the crushing kicks of Norpoth and Viren. "A lot of people run a race to see who is fastest," says Prefontaine. "I run to see who has the most guts, who can punish himself into an exhausting pace, and then at the end who can punish himself even more. Nobody is going to win the gold medal after running an easy first two miles. Not with me. If I lose forcing the pace all the way, well, at least I can live with myself. But if it's a slow pace, and I get beaten by a kicker who leaches off the front, then I'll always wonder, 'What if...?' Right now I'd say we'd go out in world-record pace for the first couple of miles—and then I'll turn it on, start destroying people. If anybody wants to beat me, let them run a world record."
Prefontaine's fellow charger, Bedford, is a shaggy-haired 22-year-old phys ed student who lives in North London and, at the moment, is being investigated by the International Olympic Committee because his name and picture were used to advertise a newspaper article about the Olympics. It is a typically absurd charge, but the prim IOC rules prohibit an athlete from directly or indirectly allowing his name or photograph to be used for advertising purposes.
Something of a competitive chameleon, Bedford turns in staggering performances at home but seemingly loses something once off British soil. For example, he ran the world's fastest 10,000 last year in Portsmouth, but in the European championships at Helsinki he finished a badly beaten sixth. After that lackluster effort, the British press wrote him off as a potential Olympic medalist. "But he's different this year," says Neil Allen of the London Times. "He's more mature and has learned to avoid the pressures of self-imposed publicity."
In mid-July in London, Bedford turned in smashing victories in both the 5,000 and the 10,000 in the British championships, stamping himself once again as a strong contender at Munich. "It was the greatest double in the history of distance racing," proclaimed Ron Clarke, the retired world-record holder in both events.
In that meet, Bedford won the 5,000 in 13:17.2, lowering his European record by five seconds. Said Prefontaine when the news hit Oregon, "Yeah, but in Munich he'll be running the 10,000 first. He'll be a sitting duck in our race." The following day Bedford won the 10,000 in 27:52.8, and then sprinted an extra 350 meters.
"I'm much more relaxed this year," said Bedford. "I'm more confident. I've done less racing, and that makes me more hungry for competition. I still love to talk, but I've deliberately stayed away from the press. No more of that pressure from prerace publicity." Then he grinned. "Of course, if anyone is going to beat me at Munich, especially at 10,000 meters, they are going to have to run a world record." (Oh, oh, another one!)
Perhaps. And perhaps there are those who can do it. There is, for instance, besides Pre, Lasse Viren, the 23-year-old Finnish policeman who recently emerged from the ruck of European runners to win a 10,000 at Oslo in 27:52.4, the fastest time of the year. Earlier, Viren set Finnish and Nordic records in the 5,000 (13:19), the year's second fastest time behind Bedford's, and 3,000 (7:43.2) and may just have peaked his way into a gold mine. Or two.
For another, there is Yifter, the 25-year-old sergeant in Haile Selassie's Imperial Air Force who might do better if he ran his races carrying an adding machine. Last year in the U.S.-Africa meet at Durham, N.C., the skinny Ethiopian stunned Prefontaine with a furious kick with a lap and 150 yards to go. The only problem was that Yifter thought he had only 150 yards to go. In another 1971 race, Yifter defeated Kenya's Kip Keino in a 5,000 with a 13:52.6. While that clocking was far from sensational, this year he ran a 13:33.8 at Helsinki. That is 13 seconds faster than Kenya's other long-distance star, Ben Jipcho, has done this year. To Yifter's advantage, he is used to running 1½ miles up in Ethiopia. "I may have trouble with the air at Munich," he supposedly said. "At sea level it is so thick."
But it is at sea level—or Munich's 1,700 feet—that Jim Ryun wants Keino. Ryun prepped for his 1,500 meter rematch with a mind-blowing 3:52.8 mile on July 29. No one clocked him at the 1,500-meter point, but his time would have been about 3:35.8. If there were still chinks in the 25-year-old Kansan's confidence before, there should be none now.
"My problems in Mexico City were much worse than any I faced this year," said Ryun, who finished a well-beaten second to Keino in '68. "There I had that awful 7,500-foot altitude as well as mononucleosis. All I had this year was a psychological problem, and that wasn't too hard to come back from."
While more than a little impressed by Ryun's return, Keino isn't about to concede the gold medal. The 32-year-old police inspector is still an extraordinary athlete in superb condition. Until Ryun's run at Toronto, Keino had the year's fastest 1,500, a 3:36.8, and he did it over a terrible track at Mombasa while suffering from an attack of malaria.
In 1968 the Kenyans won three gold, four silver and a bronze. Led again by Keino, they've come to Munich every bit as strong, if not stronger. Kenyans have a chance of placing in every race from 400 meters through 10,000. Besides Keino, the best prospect appears to be William Koskei, who should press Ralph Mann of the U.S. in the 400 intermediate hurdles. While qualifying on the track at Mombasa, which one runner described as 400 meters of cowpads, Koskei was clocked in 49.8. In May, at Nairobi, on a track which was scarcely better, he was caught in 49 flat, the fastest time this year until Mann (48.4) and Dick Bruggeman (48.6) bettered it at the U.S. Trials.
The Kenyans also are counting on Julius Sang, a 22-year-old student at North Carolina Central University who is listed as one of two non-Americans among the world's 12 top quarter-milers. His best so far is a 45.3, which should get him just close enough to get a good view of the backs of the U.S.'s John Smith, Wayne Collett and Vince Matthews. The West Germans think they have a 400-meter surprise in Karl Honz, an unknown who turned in a 44.7 recently at Munich. But if he manages it again, instead of a gold medal they should give him King Oenomaus' daughter Hippodamia, who was Pelops' prize.
(A note on the East Germans, who are out to prove to their Western countrymen that athletes under the Communist system—which means they draw a salary just like, if a bit lower than, Willie Mays or Joe Namath—are faster and stronger than those in the decadent West, even if they are all Germans. The only things really known about them are 1) they should win a lot of medals, 2) if they don't there will be hell to pay in East Berlin, and 3) if they do there will be hell to pay in West Berlin.)
But while the East and West Germans wage their own private Olympics, the young U.S. team will have to keep a close watch on the rest of the world, because while our kids grow up dreaming of winning a gold medal some day, other nations' athletes come of age dreaming of winning a gold medal and of beating an American.
For example, Eddie Hart and Rey Robinson will not only be facing the threat of a confident Borzov, they will be pressed as well by Italy's Pietro Mennea, who has run a 10-flat; by Cuba's Hermes Ramirez; and by two cats who can run 100 meters faster than you can say their names—Greece's Vassilios Papageorgopoulos and Jean-Louis Ravelomanantsoa of the Malagasy Republic.
Rod Milburn, Ron Hill and Willie Davenport still make us the best 110-meter hurdlers in the world, but now there is the Swede, Kjell Isaksson, to threaten Bob Seagren, Jan Johnson and Steve Smith in the pole vault, an event no one but an American has ever won in Olympic history. In the discus, Jay Silvester will have all he can handle in Sweden's Ricky Bruch and Czechoslovakia's Ludvig Danek. Russia's Janis Lusis will leave us a chance for a medal in the javelin only if he fails to show up. (Our best is named Schmidt, as is our best girl javelin thrower, who is no relation. There is no truth to the rumor that the best German javelin throwers are named Smith.) Fifteen Olympic contestants headed by Russia's Anatoly Bondarchuk are listed ahead of George Frenn in the hammer, but if the explosive Californian gets angry enough he just might throw the 16-pound implement into Austria. Or at Bondarchuk.
The shotput, with George Woods and Al Feuerbach, should be ours, and with Jeff Bannister and little Jeff Bennett we have a good chance of continuing our traditionally strong showing in the decathlon. Nobody is giving us any kind of a chance in the triple jump, but John Craft is capable of a super leap. Gritty Frank Shorter is running both the 10,000 and the marathon, but it is an awfully tough double, and no American has won the Olympic marathon since 1908. But then again, until 1964 no American had ever won the 5,000 or the 10,000. Bob Schul and Billy Mills must have grown up dreaming of winning gold medals and of beating foreigners.
And so, on Sept. 9, the final day of Olympic competition, it will be known if the youngsters from the U.S. did better than expected—but never better than they expected—or if, as the experts predicted, their inexperience did them in. To find out, add up the medals.
Steve Prefontaine has his own yardstick. "Sure there will be a lot of pressure. And a lot of us will be facing more experienced competitors, and maybe we don't have any right to win. But all I know is if I go out and bust my gut until I black out and somebody still beats me, and if I have made that guy reach down and use everything he has and then more, why then it just proves that on that day he's a better man than I.
"If you think about it, that's what it's all about."