It is the bane of America's newest venture involving salaried athletes that when the International Track Association is discussed, survival rather than superstars dominates the conversation. "Will pro track make it?" has been a bigger question than what mark or how much money an ITA performer made. So it had to be a boon last weekend when ITA launched its second season with back-to-back meets that the fans went home singing the praises of a runner who would be called the new kid on the blocks, if he used them, rather than speculating on the gross gate. A Kenyan with a 5,000-watt smile and stamina that may be tested only by victory laps, he is 30-year-old Ben Jipcho. Among other things, he learns as fast as he runs.
In a 24-hour period Jipcho made his pro debut with a dazzling pair of distance doubles, which were even more remarkable when you consider that heretofore he had never run an indoor distance in his life. Friday night, at Long Island's Nassau Coliseum, in a two-mile that was supposed to be a training exercise in tight indoor turns and sharp indoor elbows, Jipcho won in a pro record 8:34, beating George Young by 40 yards. As testimony of Jipcho's show-biz moxie, he then ran 2½ victory laps, flashing a smile at the crowd of 11,231 that would have lit up Carlsbad Caverns. Less than 50 minutes later, Jipcho twice held off the challenge of Jim Ryun to win the mile in 4:03.
Saturday night, before 4,758 in snowy Baltimore, he yielded 35 yards to Young but still won in 8:49.8, and then took the mile in 4:08. For the six miles he covered in the two meets, Jipcho won $2,100—$500 for each victory and $100 for the record—or a little less than $1 for every five yards. More important, he made both crowds forget that neither Bob Seagren nor Kip Keino had showed up for the meets and that many of the pros' performances were woefully short of amateur.
At Nassau, Ron Jourdan won the high jump at a lowly 6'10". In Baltimore, Chris Fisher took the 880 in 1:56.5. Willie Smith, a high-schooler from Uniondale, N.Y., posted a better time (31.4) for the 300 during Nassau's afternoon prep meet than did Jim Green (32.2) for the evening pro show. This was especially embarrassing, since ITA had furnished the track for the high school meet.
Judged on time alone, Jipcho's 8:34 was not that sensational, either. Steve Prefontaine's indoor best this season is 11.8 seconds faster, and John Hartnett of Villanova ran an 8:26.6 on the same Coliseum track a month earlier. But one observer who had seen both races pointed out that "the crowd that watched Hartnett's race sure didn't react the way they did here tonight." Indeed, it is doubtful that Jipcho, in his first run for the money, would have won more thunderous applause and frenzied cheering had he promised every fan a full tank of premium. ITA's survival may very well depend upon Jipcho, which happens to coincide with his own plans.
"Since I'm very new," he said last Thursday in the clipped British accent of his native land, "I haven't set a goal for myself, but probably it is to make the ITA meeting exciting and to make money for myself."
The latter motive, of course, was why he ran two races at Nassau. "I'd rather have him save it all for the mile," said ITA President Mike O'Hara before the meet, "but he wants to run them both, and when he said so he didn't seem to be ready to compromise. He's never run the boards before, but he thinks he can use the two-mile to get accustomed to the mile. I guess it's a learning curve or something."
If so, it is a sharp curve. "I've been doubling at home, you know," Jipcho said. "If I run the two and win, and then the mile and win, I'll have more money, and I thought that was to be the whole purpose of ITA." A logical consideration for the father of four daughters whose ages range from one month to seven years.
Overshadowed for a long time by his compatriot Keino, who signed with ITA last season and who was stuck in Nairobi with "domestic problems," Jipcho came into his own this past summer with a series of remarkable performances, including a world-record steeplechase (8:14) and a 3:52 mile, the third-fastest behind Ryun's world-record 3:51.1. The Track and Field News Athlete of the Year, Jipcho has also run the 1,500 in 3:33.2 and the 5,000 in 13:14.4, the second-fastest ever. Repeatedly frustrated by Kenya's Amateur Athletic Association, Jipcho decided to turn pro after he competed in the British Commonwealth Games in New Zealand, where he won gold medals in the steeple and in the 5,000 and finished third in Filbert Bayi's world-record 1,500 run.
"My association has been a nuisance to me," Jipcho says. "Last year, when they bothered me, I thought I'd resign my career. Previously, I was invited many times to run in the U.S. indoor meets but they turned down the invitations for vague reasons. Now I have given up running for my country in the 1976 Games, but I am happy with ITA."
Understandably, ITA is happy with Jipcho. "I'd say it was a good start," O'Hara said after the Baltimore meet. "Jipcho continues to amaze me. He wants to go to Salt Lake City [next stop on the 18-city tour] to help us promote that meet. Our attendance wasn't very good, but we came out of the weekend with an average of almost 8,000, and that's just about the average we'd like to sustain."
As for Jipcho's doubling, O'Hara said, "I'd still like him to concentrate on putting everything into just one race sometime, but he's talking about tripling. I would like to see him rip up that mile record. The thing is now everyone knows that Jipcho is the guy to beat."
Presumably that includes Ryun, whose duels with Keino last year failed to become the box-office smash that O'Hara had hoped for. "I should have run better," Ryun admits. "I should have adjusted better to the travel and the back-to-back competition." Ryun also felt that his promotional work for ITA sometimes proved a handicap to his athletic work for ITA. "I don't like to make excuses," he says, "but last year, by the time the meet came around, I had a hard time getting up for the race. The excitement and the newness, in a lot of cases, had worn off ahead of time. That's why I came to New York late. I ran my best race [3:59.8] in Detroit last year when I came in just a few hours before the meet."
Besides Jipcho, O'Hara has added to his cast Rod Milburn, the world's finest hurdler, and Pole Vaulter Steve Smith, whose verbal feud with Seagren smacks of early Muhammad Ali. "Pro track is almost like a second step, of going from childhood to manhood," Milburn said before the Nassau meet. "I've gotten all my glory from amateur track, but now I'm a rookie until I prove myself against these guys. This meet will be a guideline. I can't tell how I'll do until I run that first meet."
Milburn, be assured, will do lucratively. At Nassau he nipped Leon Coleman in seven seconds flat, and he equaled the pro record of 6.9 for 60 yards at Baltimore. Smith, perhaps nettled by Seagren's absence, did not fare as well. He won Friday with a vault of 17 feet, but he failed to clear any height at Baltimore where he broke his pole on his first attempt and had to use a borrowed one. Seagren reportedly was in Los Angeles with stomach flu, which prompted the cynical conjecture that he was actually suffering from "Superstar Stomach." Seagren defends his Superstar title in the TV show of the same name later this month. You get over $40,000 for first there against $500 for winning the ITA Personna vault, as it is now called.
Personna is a new ITA sponsor and the pole-vault standards have been designed to resemble a pair of huge Personna II razors, suitable for use by anyone with a 40-acre face. Post Cereals has also extended its prize money to include the shotput; alas, the event has lost its luster now that Brian Oldfield, who dominated it last season, is hampered by a torn knee cartilage. Uniroyal has scheduled a $600,000, 30-second commercial that will benefit ITA, while Vitalis will pick up the tab on one of four ITA telecasts.
All of which, along with Jipcho, would seem to confirm O'Hara's confidence. "I feel we've been through our first-year challenge of going into a new city every week and that we've got enough cling-to, enough coming together, to be successful," he says. "Besides, we know now. what works and what doesn't. This is the year we break even or make a little. Next season should be our super King Kong year."
Even if O'Hara's forecast is overly optimistic, this is the first season that ITA will live up to its first name. The entire company is scheduled to play Tokyo on April 6-7, where one of the biggest attractions will be Bob Hayes, whom the Japanese remember from the 1964 Olympics. "I've already got about 25,000 phone calls from newsmen over there," Hayes says. "I'm not sure what I'll run, probably the 100."
By that time Jipcho may be running everything else.