It is indicative of the robust health of the International Track Association, that touring troupe of performers who are paid over the table, that the persistent inquiries about its future are dying out. Now in its third season, ITA no longer has to ask, or answer, "Will pro track make it?", since it is making it quite well indeed. There is even the implausible prospect that ITA, despite its penchant for the outrageous innovation designed to enchant the casual fan, may win over a few track nuts with performances the amateurs will envy.
Attendance at its first three 1975 indoor meets has averaged 9,452 and, with the 17-meet tour scheduled to go outdoors eight times, more people than ever should see ITA athletes this year. That is almost certain if a $100,000 "Super Mile" proposed for the Houston Astrodome later this season is sold to TV. ITA President Mike O'Hara says this should be the year his show gets into the black. The gnashing you hear in the background is the World Football League.
But pro track still has its problems, one of them in the person of its most durable performer. His name is Ben Jipcho and the problem is he wins too many races too easily against overmatched rivals. With tough competition the exception rather than the rule, Jipcho has won 24 of 26 races as a pro, usually at the rate of two a meet, most often at one mile and two miles. The victories, a remarkable testimony to Jipcho's skill and stamina, made him ITA's leading money-winner last year with $16,700. Unfortunately, Jipcho's workload precluded him from running the world-record times that the fans, to say nothing of O'Hara, would like to see. "Running for money doesn't make you run fast," the pragmatic Kenyan has said, "it makes you run first."
O'Hara might have solved the problem had he been able to sign Steve Prefontaine to an ITA contract, but the Oregon runner decided to stake his lot with the amateurs for yet another season. "There are other guys who can make Jipcho run," says one ITA official, "but, unfortunately, we haven't got them yet."
Jipcho's uncommon mastery of the distance double thus continued last Friday night in Salt Lake City, where a crowd of 9,651 saw him win the mile in 4:00.8, the fastest ever run in the state of Utah indoors or out—there's a record for you. He came back less than an hour later to take the two-mile in 8:40.6 for a second Salt Palace record.
And Brian Oldfield, the 6'5", 270-pound shotputter, won his specialty with a heave of 71'9", a pro record and the best in the world this season. Like Jipcho, Oldfield had no serious opposition, beating his closest rival by more than seven feet. "If I had some excitement," Oldfield says, "I'd throw over 75 feet." No less impressive was a world indoor best of 3:09.9 in the mile relay by the quartet of Warren Edmonson, Lee Evans, Larry James and John Smith, who ran unopposed.
The relay runners planned to race the special pacer lights that ITA uses, but they didn't work, which disappointed Bob Steiner, ITA's public relations director. "We're not selling just track and field," he says. "There is nothing to indicate that the U.S. will support track by itself the way it supports basketball and football and baseball." O'Hara says, "We want to make every meet a happening, so we add fun events and use technical innovations like pacer lights and electronic starting blocks."
Such novelties have earned ITA criticism as well as praise, with purists resenting such things as races between male shotputters and female sprinters. At Salt Lake City, O'Hara put on an obstacle-course race with Wyomia Tyus of ITA going against Mary Jo Peppier and Karen Logan of the women's Superstar competition (SI, Jan. 6). Tyus won, but the event hardly looms as a classic in the professional program.
More to the point, track nuts tend to dismiss ITA because of the unwritten sports commandment that says no matter how good amateur athletes are, professionals should be better. And so far, except for Oldfield, the all-star relay team and pole vaulter Steve Smith, the pros have consistently been outperformed by the top amateurs.
"The demand for records has been the hardest thing to deal with," says Steiner. "What bothers me, as a track fan, is that the sport is being betrayed by its greatest supporters—the track nuts. It's got to be records. It's got to be the watch rather than the competition. At our meet in San Francisco last year, Jim Ryun tried to steal the mile from Jipcho. He caught Ben by surprise, and Jipcho barely got up to beat him at the tape. Everyone thought they'd seen one heck of a race until the time was announced and it was only four-oh-four something."
This season O'Hara has added 10 new athletes to the ITA cast, including distance runner Tracy Smith and flip-jumper John Delamere. Unfortunately, none of them seems likely to add competitive fire, at least not enough to challenge Jipcho's dominance. Nor does Ryun, still the world-record holder in the mile but now sort of the Arnold Palmer of professional track. Ryun entered the 880 at Salt Lake City, ran dead last through 500 fitful yards and dropped out.
O'Hara, however, remains optimistic. "We're getting strong crowds," he says, "and good exposure on TV. We'll be on ABC's Wide World of Sports a minimum of four times, and NBC will tape our March 22 meet in Los Angeles—that's on a Saturday afternoon—and put it on that night in the Johnny Carson time slot. If we have the Super Mile it will be on CBS, so we have a shot at something on all three networks."
"If we do it," bubbles Steiner about the Super Mile, "it will be the greatest thing in track and field history." The format calls for the winner to receive $60,000, with $25,000 for second, $10,000 for third and $5,000 for fourth. One of the top milers Jipcho may meet in that race is Kip Keino, who is supposed to rejoin the pro tour for the Los Angeles meet that will be televised nationally.
"When NBC did that last year," O'Hara says, with pleased wonder, "we ended up with more viewers than the Carson show usually has. We're getting there."