It could have been worse. Stan Wright could have been coaching Mark Spitz or managing the American wrestlers, who won an unexpected six medals in the freestyle competition—three golds, two silvers and a bronze. The way mismanagement has been meshing with misfortune, that may be more gold than the whole jittery and bitter U.S. track team carries away from Munich.
Like what else can happen? Our two best sprinters ran their 100-meter second round heats in a TV booth. At the last second Bob Seagren was destroyed when his vaulting pole was declared illegal. He was handed a strange stick and finished second and mad. Ralph Mann ran a powerful race in the 400-meter hurdles but came in behind Uganda's John Akii-Bua, one of 43 children, who set a new world record of 47.8. Since Al Oerter stayed home for the first time in five Olympiads, Ludvik Danek, the 35-year-old Czechoslovakian discus veteran, finally won the gold. America's Jay Silvester had to be content with the silver.
Then, after Dave Wottle, an ROTC student from Bowling Green University, won the 800, our only gold medal in track and field last week, he forgot to take off his distinctive cap while they played the national anthem.
"Oh, Lord!" moaned Wottle. "I've never been so embarrassed in my life." He's embarrassed and he won. Just think how the American officials felt when they discovered that for some incomprehensible reason they were operating from an unofficial 18-months-old schedule, a blunder that cost Eddie Hart and Rey Robinson, a couple of world-record-holding 9.9 sprinters, any chance at any medal in the 100.
September 10, 1972
For those who may have been asleep since last Thursday, U.S. sprint coach Stan Wright—head track coach at Sacramento State who also handled the U.S. sprinters at Mexico City—says he was never told that the Germans had revised a preliminary schedule issued early last year. It is not clear how all the other nations in the Olympics found out about it. Wright's archaic schedule called for the second-round heats to be run after the 10,000 heats, which began at 5:30 Thursday evening. The updated version, which had been published in all the Olympic handouts as well as in every available English-language newspaper, switched the events and moved the second round up to 4:15 p.m.
Coming back from their morning preliminary heats and believing they were not going to run until three hours later than actually scheduled, Hart, Robinson and the third U.S. dashman, Robert Taylor, roamed the Olympic Village. Around noon Alex Woodley, the coach of the Philadelphia Pioneer Track Club who is helping the sprinters from Trinidad, noticed Robinson putting away a big meal in the cafeteria.
"Hey, man, isn't that a little heavy before a race?" Woodley asked.
"No, I got time. We don't run until around seven," said Robinson.
Woodley frowned. "Are you sure? I think you run at 4:15."
"Nope. The coach told us around seven, maybe 6:30."
Woodley decided Robinson had made a mistake and hurried out to tell someone. But then he saw Hart playing miniature golf. Heck, thought Woodley, he'd be resting if his race was at 4:15, and decided it was he who was mistaken.
A few hours later at the Olympic Stadium, Madeline Manning, the 1968 800-meter gold medalist who failed to make the final this time, came in from the warm-up track and sent word to the coaches in the stands that she had not seen the sprinters. She knew the correct schedule—no feat since it was printed in the program. The word came back that Wright knew what he was doing and not to worry. Lee Evans, however, who is supposed to run on the 1,600-meter relay team this week, decided someone had better start worrying. He left the stadium and took off for the warm-up track, where he found Wottle, who was loosening up for an 800 heat.
"Hey, where's the sprinters?" Evans asked.
"I don't know. But they always warm up with me. You don't think they're still in the village?"
Stunned by the possibility, the pair took off at top speed for the village, three-quarters of a mile away. About halfway, Wottle, who has tendinitis of the knees, pulled up in pain. "You go on," he gasped to Evans. Evans did, at about the same time that Wright and his three charges were strolling from the village to a bus stop close to an ABC television center. While waiting they decided they might as well watch TV. "I missed them at the village by two minutes," Evans said later. "Was I tired. I never ran that far that fast in my life."
The rest is unhappy history. Robinson was stunned when he saw his heat rivals getting into the blocks. "Must be a rerun of the morning heats," he said hopefully.
"Rerun nothing," said an ABC man. "That's live."
"Oh, my God," groaned Robinson.
The three sprinters and the coach were rushed into a car and driven to the stadium, but they arrived too late for Robinson's and Hart's heats. They did get there a few minutes before Taylor's, but only because the heats were going off 14 minutes late. Running frantically onto the track, Taylor spotted Hasely Crawford, a Trinidad sprinter, and asked, "Hey, what heat am I in?"
"Mine," said Crawford, "and we go now."
Taylor slipped out of his sweats, put on his spikes, did two knee bends, got into the blocks and came in second to Russia's Valeriy Borzov, the same order in which they finished in the final. Wright, in tears, made an informal appeal to get Hart and Robinson into another heat if there was an opening—which there wasn't—on the grounds that their mythical bus had been delayed in traffic. No chance.
Still crying, Wright tried to find the words to apologize to Hart and Robinson. "It's my fault," he said. "It's all my fault. God, it's my fault."
Tears streaming freely, Hart shook his head. "Forget it, Stan," he said. "It's done." Later the 24-year-old Hart, who is just a few hours away from his B.A. in physical education at Cal, bemoaned his fate. "This is the first time I depended on anyone to get me to a track meet on time," he said, "but it's the Olympics, and I felt I didn't have to worry about such details. I was here to run."
In truth the fault lay with team officials, from USOC President Clifford Buck, who denies it, to Head Track Coach Bill Bowerman, who doesn't ("If you want to say Bill Bowerman blew it," Bowerman said at a press conference, "go ahead"), and on down. "Kee-rist," said quarter-miler John Smith, "if everybody is going to blast Stan, well, the whole staff should apologize to the whole team for not making sure Stan knew the right time. Now, Stan is not my kind of black dude because he is from the old country, but the athletes don't blame just him. We blame everybody."
While others were casting stones and trying not to be hit by too many, Dave Wottle had his own problems. He had been married before leaving for the Olympics and had brought his bride with him, to the dismay of Bowerman, who seemed convinced that Wottle's chances for a medal were gone. The runner was more worried about his aching knees. After limping back from the futile chase for the sprinters, he came from far behind to qualify in his 800 heat, and the next day squeezed through on the inside to win his semifinal. On Saturday, in the final, he went against the world's best and immediately began to play catch-up, falling well behind the pack on the first lap. "I hadn't planned on being up front," he explained. Up front instead were the Kenyans, Mike Boit and Robert Ouko, followed by the favorite, Russia's Yevgeny Arzhanov. With 300 meters to go the Russian kicked into the lead, and Wottle, finally beginning to move, made his way into fourth place on the last turn. He began his sprint with hopes of finishing third but did not pass his first Kenyan, Ouko, until 30 meters from the finish.
"Then I began running for the silver," Wottle said. "I never thought I'd win. I thought Arzhanov would. But when I saw him letting up with 20 yards to go, I knew I'd win." He passed Boit and nipped the tumbling Russian at the finish by the length of the bill of his golf cap. Both were timed in 1:45.9. Recognizing the stress Wottle felt, what with a gold medal and a new wife, surely his ROTC colonel, whom Wottle was afraid was watching on TV, will forgive his covered head during The Star-Spangled Banner. Particularly if he does well this week in the 1,500, too.
Under a somewhat different stress was Seagren, whose controversial green Catapoles were banned by the International Amateur Athletic Federation as the Olympics began. Seagren felt the conventional poles he had with him were too stiff to use because of the strong headwind during the competition, and he was given a pole by Adrian Paulen, an IAAF official from The Netherlands. Angrily, Seagren said, "The pole is no good. They walked up and handed it to me and said this is what you'll use. Why didn't they hand everybody a new pole and make it even?"
Late in the final, with nobody left in the competition but Wolfgang Nordwig of East Germany, Seagren missed twice at 17' 8½" before making it and then failed on all three tries at 17' 10½". Nordwig went over that height on his first try, then made 18'½". For the first time in Olympic history the U.S. had lost in the vault. Seagren said later he should have saved his strength by passing at 17' 10½" and concentrating his efforts at 18'½".
"I was tired, and I should have passed in order to rest," he said, "but I was afraid of that strange pole. When I missed the first try at 17' 10½", I knew I was done. I was exhausted." After his final miss he turned and threw the pole at Paulen. "Why not?" Seagren fired back at East German writers who questioned the gesture. "That's the pole he chose for me to jump with, and I didn't want it anymore. So I gave it back."
Failure also came to tiny Cathy Rigby, America's premier gymnast, who was totally eclipsed by Russia's even more diminutive Olga Korbut. Korbut's triumph-failure-triumph pattern that resulted in two gold medals made a great show, even putting Japan's superlative male gymnasts in the background.
One bright part of the Olympic picture for the U.S.—partly because it was so unexpected—came in wrestling. The guy who had the most weight to throw around was 405-pound Chris Taylor, but in his first match he had the singular misfortune to come up against 225-pound Alexander Medved, Russia's seven-time world champion. That cost Taylor the gold medal. Every time he made a move, he found himself double-cautioned by the referee, a Turk, and he lost 3-1. When the match was over, the chief referee questioned the Turk's judgment.
"Well," said the Turk, pointing at Taylor, "he weighs 400 pounds and the Russian only weighs 225 pounds. I thought such an advantage was unfair."
"Get out," said the head referee, "and don't come back."
Taylor accepted the loss with the same equanimity with which he fields such questions as how big is your girl friend. When he has had enough, he lumbers off and disappears. He won all his remaining matches, including one against a Japanese named Yorihide Isogai, whom he pinned simply by lowering himself atop the man and quietly resting until Isogai gave up and dropped both shoulders to the mat. Medved sailed through undefeated to win his third straight Olympics and bent down and kissed the mat goodby. Because of the penalties he incurred in the first match, Taylor could do no better than a bronze.
Bearded, beaded, cheery little Rick Sanders took a silver in the bantamweight division, and John Peterson did the same in the middleweight. Peterson's brother Ben took one of America's three golds by finishing ahead of Russia's Gennad Strakhov in the light heavyweight class. "It's tough to beat a Russian," said Wayne Wells, who went undefeated in the welterweight division to add a gold medal to a recent degree in law. "They get all the breaks. They've got 488 Communist officials here. We've got four from America, and they don't get any help from the rest of the free world."
One guy who needed absolutely no help was Dan Gable, who took all seven of his matches to win the lightweight division. At the end he had five stitches over his left eye, a bandage on his left ear, one on his left middle finger and another on his left knee, but he did everything right, not once leaving his amazingly quick feet except by his own will.
"I've devoted my life to winning that gold medal," Gable said. When they put it around his neck, he lifted it from his chest and kissed it.