One, two, three, four...jummmmp," said Guy Drut as he crept along a deserted stretch of track on the outskirts of Paris like a man tiptoeing warily across a minefield. "One, two, three, four...jummmmp," he repeated, easing dreamlike through the pale of a chill, drizzly morning. "One, two, three, four...jummmmp."
Drut, holder of the world record for the 110-meter hurdles, was making like Marcel Marceau for the enlightenment of an American visitor. Though he speaks passably good English, he took to the track at the Institut National des Sports, where he once taught a course called Races and Jumps, to demonstrate certain intricacies of his craft that he felt could only be expressed in body language.
So there he was, attired in a natty tweed suit and matching tan turtleneck, languidly rolling his arms and legs through the cycle between hurdles. And each time he reached an imaginary obstacle, he paused, flapped his arms like Nureyev taking off for a grand jeté and crooned in soaring tones, "Jummmmp."
The slo-mo replay, he explained, represented the style of the old Guy Drut, the upstart Frenchman who seemingly jummmmped out of nowhere to finish second to Rod Milburn of the U.S. in the 1972 Munich Olympics. In the four years since, after endlessly studying films of the race, Drut said that he had discovered the secret of Milburn's mastery. "I was faster between the hurdles," he said, "but when I jumped I was...how do you say...floating? Yes, I was floating instead of racing over the hurdle like Milburn. He was fighting over each hurdle and that made the difference."
May 23, 1976
Knowing that, how will the new Guy Drut perform at the Montreal Games in July?
"One, two, three, four...jump!" he exclaimed, furiously grinding his way over one nonexistent hurdle after another. "One, two, three, four...jump!"
Just then a dog skittered across the track, followed by Drut's petite blonde wife Brigitte. Wearing a warm-up suit and a football jersey, she could have passed for a Southern Cal coed on her way to surfing class. But her role is to protect Drut from the demands of his large and doting public. World-record holders are as rare in France as lovers are numerous, and Brigitte, as well as the nation's press, frets about the possible ill effects that all the attention might have on the 25-year-old folk hero whom the sports paper L'Équipe calls "one of the most beautiful sports animals that France has ever known."
But Drut is clearly a man obsessed by his calling and, while spouse and dog waited, he continued his audio-visual presentation. "I have always to work on my start because I tend to wiggle like a duck," he said, wiggling like a duck. "Da dum, da dum, da dum," he said, intoning the galloping rhythm that he sings in his head as he slips into the starting blocks. "Boom! Boom! Boom!" he said, punching away like a middleweight working on the body to show the excess of his "fighting spirit."
And finally, when words and mimicry failed, Drut grabbed a pen and began drawing hurdles and working out complicated formulas based on length of stride, height of barrier, body mass and, as far as one could determine, the position of the stars. His conclusion: "I think American hurdlers like Tommie Lee White, Larry Shipp and Thomas Hill have too long legs."
It all had something to do with "the shep," Drut explained, dragging on one of the 15 or more cigarettes he used to smoke daily. The shep? "You know, baa, baa, the shep. Legs have grown longer but the space between the hurdles has not changed since people used to jump over the fences and hedges that held the shep in old England. That is how the sport began and that is how they set up the hurdles for the first Olympics in 1896, like shep fences. Since then they have widened up the distance between hurdles for the women but never for the men. So today hurdlers with too long legs can't have a natural step. The short space makes them stop from doing it."
Then, stretching to his full height of 6'2½", Drut indicated that his crotch-to-heel measurement was exactly one meter, which he termed "perfect for hurdling." He added that it was an attribute he shared with Charles Foster, the hurdler from North Carolina who figures to be Drut's chief competition for a gold medal at Montreal.
Catching a glowering look from Brigitte, Drut started to leave but then turned suddenly to ask, "Who won the 110-meter hurdles at the Mexico City Games in 1968? Right, Willie Davenport. Everybody knows that. But who was the world-record holder then? Martin Lauer of West Germany. Almost no one remembers that. And that is why I more prefer to be Olympic champion than world-record holder. Montreal will be my...how do you say...my blessing? No, I know the word. Montreal will be my consecration."
Or his undoing. Fearing that the pressures of Drut's "Olympic rendezvous" will make him "dizzy," an editorial in Le Figaro warns, "French athletes, alas, are at once too isolated on the track and too pampered in the city by an opportunistic crowd of followers to prepare themselves with all the serenity that is desirable." The determined visage of "Drut le magnifique" crowned by a fashionable shock of dark ringlets, can be seen everywhere on the Paris newsstands. Television commentators and columnists gush about how Drut "devours his sport the way he devours life," about his "exemplary obstinacy," "love of effort" and "magnificent tranquillity of spirit."
Writing in France-Soir, Guy Lagorce describes Drut as "incurably happy," a man who lives with a wife as "rosy and tender as an English bonbon" in an apartment near the banks of the Marne that "rocks with laughter." He concludes, "Of all the famous people we know, Drut is the one who sleeps the best. And the only one for whom each morning is a morning of joy."
Fulsome as it is, the idolatry is matched—and perhaps explained—by the paucity of French Olympic talent. In short, Drut is about all that France has to crow about. And because a native Frenchman has not won an Olympic gold medal in men's track and field for nearly half a century, the mere thought of having a bona fide contender, indeed a favorite, was enough to warrant Drut's election last December as the nation's outstanding athlete for the third time in the past four years. In fact, of the three professional cyclists who shared Drut's title of "champion of champions," only the revered Daniel Morelon finished ahead of him in another recent poll naming the top 15 French athletes of the past decade.
Forget Jean-Claude Killy and his three gold medals. France has always had mountains and skiers skilled enough to conquer them. But a world-class hurdler? In a land that has traditionally lavished more attention on truffles than track? Well, sacrebleu! That is truly tr√®s formidable.
Or so the French think. The fact that they rate Drut over Killy in the polls indicates their awareness of how exceptional it is for an interloper to intrude on a specialty that has long been considered the private preserve of the U.S. In 17 Olympics over 76 years, no European, much less a gaudy Gaul, has ever won the 110-meter hurdles. And that is why Drut fires the romantic French imagination and inspires the otherwise sober Le Figaro to herald his Olympic quest as "unique in the annals of track and field."
All this was apparent earlier in the year when Drut competed in the Paris indoor championships. Seeing the woeful level of competition, the grim handful of milling spectators and the drafty, dimly lit track in the suburb of Pantin, it was hard to believe that this was the tradition that nurtured the stunning likes of a Guy Drut. The Millrose Games it wasn't. In both qualifying heats as well as in the finals of the 60-meter hurdles, Drut looked like a hit-and-run speedster fleeing the scene of an accident. Racing alone after the first 15 meters or so, he left behind a messy, clattering sprawl of stumbling rivals and upended hurdles. Wincing, Drut's coach, Raymond Dubois, facetiously asked, "It is like this in the United States, too, no?" No, but then, Drut's electronic clockings on the slow runway—7.82, 7.77 and a final whizzing 7.73—were not routine, either.
Dubois whispered, "Guy must always be near the world record, always. It is his character to always go beyond himself, always."
Afterward, while intermittently cheering on Olympic teammate Paul Poaniewa, a high jumper from New Caledonia, Drut reflected on "how little educated, how little encouraged French people are to practice sports. In the United States you see everybody running in the parks. But if you do that here people think you're crazy. Nobody's really against sports here. They're just more or less indifferent. Too many French people are satisfied with being gagne-petits—small earners."
Clenching his fists, Drut continued, "That's why—boom! boom!—having fighting spirit is so important. You have to have it to make success in France. Look at Pao. He is from the islands, a kind of paradise. And when he came to Paris he was very easygoing. He was just jumping. So I told him, 'If you want to be a big man, you have to fight! Always fight!' Now he's different. He gets very angrrry when he jumps. So angry, he jumps two meters 26 [7'5"] which is very near Dwight Stones' world record [7'6½" ]
After the meet, noticing that Brigitte was glowering again, Drut walked her to their car where he produced a press photograph that was taken to announce "L'aventure américaine," his month-long tour of the U.S. indoor circuit. The picture showed Poaniewa holding the American flag at hurdle height and Drut grandly sailing over the top.
As Drut's Montreal showdown draws near, he has good reason to heed the words of a famous friend. "Do not hear people," Michel Jazy told Drut. As all Gaul knows, Jazy was the middle-distance runner who once raced to two world records in a day. Like Drut, he was billed as France's Great Lone Hope, the one man who seemed destined to strike gold on an Olympic track. But just as Drut won a silver medal at Munich in 1972, so too did Jazy at the 1960 Rome Olympics, finishing three seconds behind Australia's Herb Elliott in the 1,500. And in the 5,000 at Tokyo in 1964, Jazy faded in the final lap to come in fourth.
Ever since, Jazy, now in public relations for Adidas, has been the subject of speculation that the weight of bearing the national standard adversely affected his performance. And that is undoubtedly why Drut keeps saying, "I am only running for myself and my friends. I don't consider myself a flag-carrier for French sport because I don't want to have that responsibility."
Still, it is inevitable that comparisons are drawn between Drut and Jazy, if only because of the slightly eerie fact that the two men not only come from the same village and the same street but practically the same cradle. "If you open the window of the room I was born in," says Drut, "you can look into the window of the room where Michel Jazy was born."
The rest of the view of the Rue Pasteur of Oignies (pop. 8,000) does not invite a second look. Raymond Dubois, another displaced son of Oignies, describes his native setting simply as "sad."
Forty miles from the English Channel and hard by the Belgian border in the extreme north of France, Oignies is a coal-mining town where the gray, fog-laden days are as drab as the rows of brick houses. The landscape, broken only by the massive black heaps of slag from the mines, is laced with canals and dotted with World War I cemeteries memorialized in In Flanders Fields ("In Flanders fields the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row").
But if, as Jacques Brel chants in a dolorous ballad called La Plat Fays (The Flat Country), the area is a "no-man's land" where the "sky is so low that it creates humility," it did not have that effect on Guy Drut. He remembers watching the Rome Olympics on TV, especially Jazy being awarded his silver medal. That same day, says Drut, he and two of his friends borrowed some vegetable crates from his father's grocery and built an "Olympic" podium in the family garden. Drut recalls, "I climbed up on top of the podium and I heard the crowd roaring. I was only nine years old but that day I knew I wanted to become a champion."
Drut was spurred on at age 14, he says, when his father's grocery was "eaten" by a new supermarket and the family had to live on welfare for two years. "It was rough," Drut recalls, "and I vowed that we would not know a time like that again. I felt that I had to avenge the name of Drut. It was like a mission. After that nothing seemed too difficult. Neither training in freezing weather, neither rain, wind, fatigue—nothing. With frightening conviction, I began a crusade."
By then Drut had abandoned the makeshift hurdles he fashioned out of rotted timber from the mines and joined the local sports club. The track coach, a former hammer thrower named Pierre Legrain, had this thing about teaching fighting spirit. Drut, naturally, was his best student. Legrain, he says, "speaks of an athlete the way a peasant speaks of the earth." Drut understood, he says, mainly because his mother, the former Jacqueline Wigley, is British. "I get my lighting spirit from her," he claims. "The English, they never die. When you run against them they never quit the race before the finish line."
Drut did not quit training for other events, especially the pole vault. "The first time I held the pole," he says, "I felt a kind of pleasure like no other." He felt pain, too. "Our club was too poor to buy the new poles," he says, "so I had to use an old steel one like Don Bragg. The higher I went the harder I fell on our sand pit. I broke my collarbone and three times got bad cuts over the eye."
Nevertheless, by 1968 he was well-rounded enough to become French junior champion in not only the 110-meter hurdles but also the pole vault and decathlon. With a new fiber-glass pole in hand, he went on to clear 17'¾", which gave him ideas of working for an Olympic gold medal from the ground up. No matter that he suffered some nasty spills. "The men who fall are those who take risks," Drut says, "and I love to take risks. That's how you get to be champion. I fall on the hurdles a lot, too. I'm a good faller, now."
Torn between his two specialties, in 1970 Drut went to Brescia, Italy, to confer with Alessandro Calvessi, a trainer known as "The Sorcerer" because of his reputed mystical gift for tuning brain to body. "In two days," says Drut, who still visits his Italian guru for spiritual overhauls, "I learned more than in 20 training sessions." And when Drut left, he vowed,' "Yes, now I will train seriously—hurdles it is."
The result was Drut's sterling showing in Munich. Off like a duck, he trailed Mil-burn by two meters at the fifth hurdle but then closed to within a meter to miss winning the gold medal by .1 second. He was timed in 13.34 to Milburn's 13.24. Drut claims that the only aspect of the race he remembers is the aftermath when, for one crystalline moment on the podium, he recalls seeing the French flag whipping bravely while the Stars and Stripes lay motionless against the pole. Returning to the Olympic Village, he celebrated by scampering up the steps of the French Pavilion on his hands.
Last July in Saint-Maur, France, in what France-Soir called a "blessed explosion," Drut equaled Milburn's manually timed world record of 13.1 seconds. Flopping down on the ground with a can of beer, Drut said, "In spite of this joy, I prefer a man-against-man victory to a record. That's the real joy. Beat the adversary!" A month later, after losing to his chief nemesis, Charles Foster, in Zurich, Drut beat both the main man and the clock in Berlin with a hand-timed new world record of 13 seconds flat. Trumpeted L'Équipe, "Guy Drut is the life-saver for drowning French sports."
Though Drut feels dragged under by such heavy talk, three or more days a week he goes to an office in the Matignon, where he shoulders an even weightier title: Conseiller Sportif Aupr√®s du Premier Ministre—Special Adviser to the Prime Minister on Sports. Appointed to the post last March, Drut is, among other things, campaigning for compulsory sports programs in high schools, the development of more coaches and gym teachers, state aid for the Olympic program and the revamping of the French Athletic Association. Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, he says, "wants to improve sports through information and promotion. He wants to hear what the athletes are thinking. He has the same—boom! boom!—fighting spirit as me."
A member of the national council of Chirac's party, the Gaullist Union for the Defense of the Republic, Drut does not take kindly to criticism that his political career is misplaced opportunism. "I'm not concerned with those unintelligent, jealous people who dislike me because I don't share their opinions," he says. "Why shouldn't sportsmen take sides without having to justify themselves? An artist can have opinions and speak them. But with athletes people think, 'Run and shut up.' Among other things, I want to fight against this state of mind."
Drut himself clams up about his future plans, political or otherwise. He says, "My thoughts are stopping with the Games. I must be totally concentrated on the race. I won't act like a monk, but a month before the Games no one will see me on TV or on a political podium."
When Drut does reappear on center stage at Montreal, there should be no missing him. As Foster says, "Anytime Drut and I run together it's going to be smoking."
One thing is for certain: the lifesaver of French sport will not be floating—over the hurdles, that is. Win or lose, what it all comes down to is as simple as one, two, three, four, jump!