With one headliner a no-show and two others leaving teeth marks on the hands that feed them, it was anxiety time for the International Track Association last Saturday in the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena. Staging its fourth meet of the indoor season in the afternoon instead of at night didn't help the attendance, particularly since the pros were bucking TV coverage of UCLA's basketball Bruins in the NCAA regionals. That didn't matter too much because the meet was being taped for presentation that night in a trimmed, edited version on NBC-TV in the Johnny Carson time slot. What mattered more was that the ITA was laying an egg much too soon for Easter. Midway through its long afternoon, tediously running behind schedule, the meet looked less like an Emmy candidate than a rerun of Gilligan's Island, and the meager crowd—reported to be 6,568, many of whom had paid their way in—was sitting on its hands. And the production might be bombing yet but for Ben Jipcho, a man of many talents who is most of all a trouper.
Jipcho, 32, the superlative runner from Kenya who is ITA's brightest star, not only stole the show but saved it by running the finest indoor distance double ever. He won the two mile in 8:27, pro-indoor-record time, and came back 55 minutes later to turn the third-fastest mile in indoor history, a 3:56.2 that broke his own pro mark. For his remarkable efforts, he was rewarded with $3,000 and a trophy put up by Vitalis. More important, he saved ITA's future with the folks who fret over Nielsens. Until Jipcho's performance, bad reviews were oozing out of critical typewriters, and off camera the athletes were griping at ITA the way they used to mutter at the AAU in their amateur days.
Harmonious cooperation, however, got Jipcho his double and improved his won-lost record against professional rivals to 26-2. Aided by Tracy Smith, who shared the pace in the two mile, Jipcho's 8:27 broke his ITA record by seven full seconds. In the mile he was pushed to victory by Keith Munson, one of two pros ever to beat Jipcho. Munson dipped under four minutes for the first time at 3:58.5 while third place went to Jim Ryun, whose 4:00.3 was his fastest mile in two years.
His warm smile glowing at 10,000 watts after the race, Jipcho said, "I feel good, ready now for an 800, if I had to. I want to show that pro milers are good, like the amateurs. We are very great."
March 30, 1975
Jipcho's old pro record of 3:56.6 was set in Madison Square Garden last year, and his new one has been bettered only by Tony Waldrop's 3:55 and Marty Liquori's 3:55.8. Asked what times he might have achieved if he had concentrated on a single race, he said,' 'It would have been the same. It is always the same with Jipcho. The two mile didn't take anything out of me. I'm not a very good front-runner, but if I get people chasing me, I can run a very good race. If another push had come at the end of the mile, I might have run 3:53."
One of the people who was supposed to chase, and maybe beat, Jipcho was Kipchoge Keino, a fellow Kenyan who has yet to make his 1975 pro debut. Scheduled to run in Los Angeles, Keino withdrew two days before the meet because of his father's recent death. Yet it is doubtful that Jipcho could have gotten more help from Keino than he got from Munson in the mile and from Smith in the two mile. Smith and Jipcho traded the lead back and forth as the two moved far ahead in their race for the special $2,000 first prize. Smith led at the mile in 4:12.8 but Jipcho took over with nine laps left. With 4½ to go, Jipcho waved Tracy ahead of him for three more laps. Tracy valiantly tried to move away from Jipcho, but Ben exploded past him and won by nearly 20 yards. Smith finished in an excellent 8:29.4.
In the mile, Munson forced the pace and even took the lead for three laps after Jipcho had run a 59.3 first quarter and a 1:58.5 half. Munson led at 2:58.0 at the 1,320-yard mark before Jipcho stormed to the front again with three laps to go. The ITA pacer lights were set for a modest 3:59 mile and might have hindered Jipcho, except that he forgot to look at them.
Jipcho's splendid performance in the two mile stirred up both the crowd and his pro peers, who broke two more records. Young Tommy Fulton, in his first try at the 1,000, ran 2:06.3, the best of the indoor season, pro or amateur, to knock six-tenths of a second off Chris Fisher's pro standard. Larry James took one tick off his own 440 record, finishing ahead of John Smith and Lee Evans in 47.2, exceptional time for an 11-lap track. All of which should have guaranteed a fine afternoon for the fans and some socko late-night television for ITA.
But things did not work out that smoothly. Shotputter Brian Oldfield and Pole Vaulter Steve Smith, the ITA's two most voluble athletes, were particularly annoyed. Disappointed by his second-place showing in the shot—he fouled on four of his six heaves—Oldfield vented his rage against television, charging that delays in setting up cameras had bollixed his performance beyond repair. The event was won by Randy Matson, who threw 67'5¾".
It wasn't mentioned on television, but the occasion was even more embarrassing to Oldfield because ITA had obtained a special sanction to allow Al Feuerbach, the nation's leading amateur thrower, to exhibit his skill after the last pro event. Feuerbach one-upped the pros by throwing 68'7".
"TV is——," Oldfield said. "They delayed us half an hour and then I just couldn't kick an attitude. The delays—I'll be damned if I know why they happened. They couldn't get the sprinters together, so we went late. I was ready to go but they kept saying, 'Five minutes, five minutes.' I'd rather not have TV if it's going to mess up my event."
Oldfield also was miffed after the public-address announcer failed to introduce him when he appeared in the shotput circle. "That galled me to death on top of everything else," he said. "This crowd is dead, too. I need their energy. I'd have been better off going to practice and inventing my own crowd."
Oldfield might have anticipated his vile afternoon if he had had a more imaginative interpretation of his own dreams. "I've had dreams about throwing the shot," he said the day before the meet. "I'd get off this terrific throw and the shot wouldn't come down, so I had no idea of how far it went. The night before the '72 Olympic Trials, I had the dream again and the shot came down, and it was a good one. So I knew I was going to make the Olympic team."
On Thursday night Oldfield dreamed that he and Feuerbach went to practice together, as they sometimes do at De Anza Junior College in Cupertino, Calif., where they work out. "It had been raining," Oldfield said, "and there was a lot of water all over the ground. Feuerbach threw and he slipped and went sliding out over the water like he was on skis. Then this broad came swimming by, so I didn't throw. I went fishing instead and caught a carp."
Steve Smith's beef was against the officials. After he cleared 16'6" on his second try, Smith left the competition in the pole vault for more than half an hour and threatened to quit entirely over the way the successive heights were being set. Hoping to break his own record of 18'2½", the best indoors by anyone, pro or amateur, Smith wanted the bar to be raised in six-inch increments: 17'3", 17'9", 18'3". The last would give him a new mark. "They wanted to raise it from 17'3" to 17'10" and then to 18'1" just to suit Bob Seagren," he complained. "By the time they got to 18'3", I'd be too tired to try for the record."
Smith won the event at 17'6" and did get three tries at 18'3¾". He missed on each and then blamed the vault's standards, which, on behalf of the event's sponsor, Personna, are fashioned to resemble two giant safety razors.
"They played the heights to suit Seagren because Bobby was crying again," Smith said. "I lost $2,000 for the world record I should have had. I feel like I've been robbed."
The Sports Arena crowd got its money's worth, however, as did the viewers who tuned in to NBC, despite glaring inadequacies in the telecast. Television failed to show the high jump, several false starts in the short races, Oldfield's first three fouls and Feuerbach's presence anywhere in the state of California. Jim Ryun's presence in the mile was reported but his fine third-place finish was never mentioned. The husband-and-wife interview team of Bill and Mary Toomey was embarrassingly amateur, particularly for a professional meet. There were good things: the key races were well covered, and the circuslike fun of a 30-yard sprint pitting Lacey O'Neal against the 265-pound Oldfield and 225-pound Ram Linebacker Isiah Robertson caught the special flavor of a pro meet, with Oldfield and Robertson running away from their small opponent. There was also a voice-over by Henry Hines, psyching himself up in the long jump. ("Come on, you got 27 right now, whew, come on....")
Nor did all the athletes go home unhappy. "Pro track, in my case, has been just wonderful," said 32-year-old Jean-Louis Ravelomanantsoa, the 5'5" sprinter from Malagasy who won the 60-yard dash in 6.1. "I was sent here by my government to get an education, but I needed money to take graduate courses. Another reason I joined ITA is because I believe all athletes owe something to track. The sport is not appreciated."
Jipcho, however, was somewhat less than ecstatic. "The $3,000?" he said. "Take away 30% U.S. taxes. I am starting to regret pro track. There is no improvement in the money. I wish the Olympics could be open. I will miss running in them very much. I would have liked to enter the 1,500, the steeplechase and the 5,000."
As for the $100,000 mile that may be contested in Houston later this year, Jipcho said, "I have no idea about it, but I have to get ready. It would depend on who is there and how I feel as far as time goes. My goals depend on motivation—the money."