Three-ring circus in a Garden

The AAU indoor championships offered spectators everything but a trapeze act and cotton candy
March 08, 1976

There are track and field meets, and then there are indoor track and field meets, and anyone who has seen both could tell you the two are not the same. Indoor track is a circus, with all three rings going at once, with the crowd almost on the track, trying to see it all and missing at least one ring of it.

Last Friday's AAU indoor championship in Madison Square Garden was no different, except that the meet went on longer than most, from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., and one of the rings was set up as far away as Princeton, N.J., where weight throwers performed in obscurity. "We could have thrown outdoors at Columbia," said George Frenn, who finished second to Larry Hart in the weight throw. "Indoors, outdoors. Who cares? Nobody comes to see us anyway."

It is certain that few people at the Garden missed Jan Merrill, who won the women's two-mile and then came back 30 minutes later to win the women's mile. Or Steve Williams doing his six-second 60, or Rick Wohlhuter winning the 1,000. But, as in all circuses, there was more, much more.

The last time we looked in on Filbert Bayi, which was only a week ago in San Diego, he was finishing second to Rod Dixon in the mile, a distance at which he was thought to have but one peer, John Walker. "This has caused a big shame back home," said a sad Erasto Zambi, Bayi's coach. "Now they will say we go to the United States without proper training and we lose."

Thus scorched, Bayi and his compatriot, distance runner Suleiman Nyambui, kept a spartan profile in New York City. Mostly they dined on hamburgers—small ones, said Bayi—and omelets, and each morning they were up by 5:30 and running six miles through the nearly deserted streets. Later they jogged 1¼ miles more from their hotel to the New York Athletic Club, where they ran sprints indoors. Then they loped home.

Bayi told the press he was in poor condition. "If I said anything else," he explained later, "they would have had me running for a world record. I didn't want that." Not after San Diego.

On Friday afternoon Bayi and Zambi plotted Bayi's race. In San Diego Bayi had run without a plan. Not this time. It was decided he should sprint the first quarter, jog the second to see if anyone behind him was still interested, move up to 80% capacity on the third quarter and then burn the last 440. Such early-late paralyzing sprints are Bayi's trademark.

The timetable set, Bayi went to work. On the first lap he sped to the front and set a furious pace. On the sidelines Nyambui, who had won the three-mile in 13:15, clapped his hands and laughed. The first quarter was 57.6. "I'm in the wrong race," thought Brian McElroy, one of those in pursuit. "We're running a half mile."

Bayi slowed, looked back and saw only Paul Cummings and Ken Popejoy. The crowd's excitement abated a bit when the time for the half was announced as 1:58 but it was still a commendable half. Maintaining the same pace, he passed the three-quarter mark in 2:58.8. And then he was gone. Bayi won in 3:56.1. Cummings, who had fallen back in the last lap, was second in 3:58.4. No one else was under four minutes.

"In Tanzania it is now daytime," said Zambi. "Soon they will hear of this victory. Now we can go home without shame."

Let it be stated for the record: Bayi is in great shape.

Little Martha Watson wandered into the empty Garden and yawned. She had been up since 8 a.m. and she is not, by her own yardstick, a morning person. A light breakfast of orange juice, tea and an English muffin had done little for her. She glanced around at the field she would be competing against in the long jump. That didn't stoke any fires, either.

She sighed. "I don't know any of them," she said. "Well, it's just another day of practice anyway."

Jogging around the track, she warmed slowly to her chore. She holds both the U.S. indoor (21'4¾") and outdoor (21'7¼") records and she knew there was no one in the field who could challenge her. All the other top women long jumpers—high-schooler Kathy McMillan, who has tied the indoor mark; Sherron Walker; and veteran Willye White—had elected to skip the meet.

A group of competitors watched as she jogged past. An Olympic veteran, she is 29 but looks 19. "Who's that?" one member of the group asked.

"I think it's Martha Watson," said another.

"It can't be," said a third. "Watson is old."

Watson heard the remark, and laughed. She can remember when, as a teen-ager, she watched Willye White compete. "I'm not going to be like her," she told a friend that day. "I'm not going to be jumping and running around a track when I'm 25."

Now she says, "I'm already four years past that deadline. Track is addictive. I guess the only way I'll get out is by going through a withdrawal."

Eventually she jumped 20'9½". That was enough to win. By nearly a foot and a half. "It's not too exciting without Kathy, Sherron and Willye here," she said. "Oh, well, it was a nice workout."

The rental car driven by Tom Hill, the bronze-medal winner in the 110-meter hurdles at Munich, pulled up in front of the Statler Hilton Hotel, headquarters of the AAU meet. "The sign says NO PARKING," said Guy Drut of France, one of Hill's passengers and the holder of the world record in the 110 high hurdles. Another passenger, French high jumper Paul Poaniewa, did not say anything. Poaniewa cannot speak English. "We'll only be a minute," said Hill.

Twenty minutes later he came out of the hotel to find a police tow truck getting set to haul the auto away.

"I told him not to," said Hill to a police officer. He pointed at Poaniewa. "But he can't speak a word of English."

After a few tense moments, and after the policeman examined Poaniewa's international driver's license, the tow truck was ordered away. Hill settled for a parking ticket.

"In France," Drut said later, "they would have thanked me for parking there." Drut could probably get away with parking on the lawn at Versailles.

He had been entertained by Hill and his family at their two-bedroom government quarters in Newburgh, N.Y. Hill is a first lieutenant stationed at West Point and he had invited the two Frenchmen to train for two weeks at the facilities there.

"So far we have raced four times indoors this season and Tom has beaten me all four times," said Drut. "So I asked him to coach me."

"Yeah," said Hill. "And I won't be sorry to see you go home."

"But you must come and visit me," said Drut.

"I'll write first. What's your address?"

"Just mail it to Guy Drut, Paris, France. I will get it."

On Friday night the two friends shelved their needles and hunkered down into the blocks. It was time to settle the American indoor championship.

At the gun, Drut waddled briefly, then settled into a smooth stride. Hill, away late, brushed the second hurdle and closed fast. The two hit the finish line at nearly the same instant, in seven seconds flat.

The officials studied the photo and announced Drut was the winner.

"I guess I owe you some wine," said Hill.

"I'll settle for a beer," said Drut. "And thank you, Coach."

PHOTONot clowning around, Bayi stepped out fast and finished the mile in 3:56.1, third best indoors.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)