When the ancient Greeks wanted to hold a track and field competition, they did not have to concern themselves with a bunch of equipment. They simply broke the ground with a pickax, covered it with a thick layer of sand and called it a track. The runners wore no shoes—or anything else. There were three field events—the discus and javelin throws and the standing long jump. The discus was solid bronze, similar in shape but heavier than the one used today. The javelin had a leather loop about four inches long dangling from its center, through which the thrower stuck his forefinger as an aid in hurling it. The long jumpers carried small weights in each hand, designed to propel their bodies farther. No other implements were needed; the Greeks did not even bother to time or measure their efforts.
In contrast, holding a track meet today is a very complicated affair, requiring a great number of gadgets and pieces of apparatus. And just about everything on the premises has to comply with the stringent rules of the International Amateur Athletic Federation.
A senior meet for both sexes requires no less than four sets of hurdles, their heights ranging from 2'9" (women's 100-meter) to 3'6" (men's 110-meter). Except for those used in the steeplechase, hurdles are equipped with counterweights that allow them to topple over when hit with a force of between eight pounds and eight pounds 13 ounces.
The standards for the high jump and the pole vault must be placed at the proper distance from each other as well as being high enough for a world-record jump or vault. The original standards for the Montreal Olympics could only accommodate a vault of 18'6". In late May Earl Bell of Arkansas State set a world record of 18'7¼" Games officials are adding another foot to the standards. The crossbars may be either triangular or round. Each side of a triangular bar must measure exactly 1.181 inches and the diameter of the circular bar must be between .984 and 1.181 inches. The steeplechase water jump has to be 2'3‚Öú" deep in front of the hurdle. Throwing circles have an inside diameter of seven feet for the shotput and the hammer throw and of 8'2½" for the discus. "Track is full of stinky little rules," says one equipment manufacturer.
June 20, 1976
The running track, a 400-meter or 440-yard oval, was covered with cinders or crushed brick until 1963 when the 3M Company laid the first Tartan track for runners. In 1970 Chevron developed a similar layout, calling it Chevron 440. Both companies use a polyurethane composition which is mixed and immediately poured from a tanker truck in two layers—a ‚Öú-to ½-inch base and a very thin topping. An eight-lane track costs about $180,000.
As the running surfaces have improved, so have the runners' shoes. In 1950 a size 10½ Spalding sprint shoe weighed 9¼ ounces. Adidas' 1976 model is a mere 5¼ ounces. And Adidas has created a shoe for the Montreal Olympics—the Adistar 2000, no less—which is bound to transform every world-class sprinter into a bionic man. Its spikes are no longer needle-sharp, but blunt and triangular, each sitting in the center of a small crown of plastic petals. The advantage is that they no longer stick—ever so briefly—in the surface and have to be pulled out. Instead, they actually rebound from the track.
The Research Engineering Corporation in Morrisville, Vt. has the reputation of producing the finest, smoothest and most precise throwing implements this side of the Atlantic. It is owned by Bill Alley, a mechanical engineer and former javelin thrower who set a world record of 283'8" in 1960. "The first javelins I made were painted black," he says. "Some throwers claimed they felt heavy. I realized that they could pick up the black when they reached back before a throw, because your peripheral vision spots the dark colors. I figured if I made the tails in a light color, the thrower would not see the javelin and would have the illusion that it was not there. Besides, I felt like putting some color into the sport."
Alley now makes javelins with white tails and orange or lime-green front shafts, as well as solid sky-blue and gold spears. He also makes blue shots, yellow discuses and gold, red, black or yellow hammers. Throwers are not allowed to bring their own implements to the Olympics, and Alley was chosen by the Organizing Committee to supply the 1976 Games with all throwing instruments, plus such items as hammer-throw cages, steeplechase hurdles, crossbars and his supersophisticated wind gauges.
Alley works in a building that looks more like a barn than a factory, but it houses expensive machinery. Among other things, he turns out perfectly round hammers of hardened steel filled with tungsten, a metal heavier than lead, that weigh 16 pounds exactly—no more, no less. Hammer handles used to be big and heavy like stirrups. Alley makes them of light metal with plastic grips. His hammers swivel on a ball bearing at the end of the wire, unlike most hammers, and they sell for $225. "We make only quality equipment for world-class performers," says Alley.
It is possible to buy a $7 lead-filled iron shot with a rough surface, an uneven seam and the shape of an egg. Alley's $30 models are made of steel or brass and turned on a $14,000 engine lathe until they are smooth, perfectly round balls. They are filled with tungsten chips so that they weigh exactly 16 pounds (men) or eight pounds 13 ounces (women). Because shots lose weight in use—tiny particles get chipped off when they land—additional tungsten chips can be added through a plugged opening. "Besides, the thing to do these days is train with a light shot to improve your quickness," says shotputter Al Feuerbach.
The discuses of today consist of a heavy rim that accounts for most of the weight—four pounds 6‚Öî ounces for men, two pounds 3¼ ounces for women—and an inner disc which can be either solid wood or two thin saucer-shaped plastic or fiber composite plates, leaving the inside hollow. The plates are secured with a metal stem and a screw. "If the discus had most of its weight in the center it would flutter and wobble in flight," says Alley. "We put about 93% of the weight in the rim, but only strong throwers can handle that." The price tag is $100.
"It is especially important that all the javelins are identical at the Games," Alley says. "The minimum required weight for the men's is 800 grams [one pound 12¼ ounces], but under certain conditions, such as a strong crosswind, it is actually to your advantage if you throw with a heavier javelin. It will track better, and one inch gained may mean the gold medal." Alley's $150 men's javelins that will be used in Montreal all weigh precisely 802 grams and are painted in Canada's national colors, white and red. They are built of strong aluminum alloy, have a cord grip, their tails are expertly tapered to a fine point and their front shafts narrow gradually to a blunt chromium-plated head.
Alley makes a famous wind gauge with the help of a $130,000 computer. The gauge consists of two parts: the actual gauge and a recorder. The gauge, which is placed by the track or the long-jump runway, is a metal box topped by a clear plastic cylinder that houses a turbine blade. As the wind activates the blade, a needle indicates the velocity. The recorder, which is placed in the judges' control tower, emits a silvery tape on which the number of the event and the competitor are printed along with the wind reading. Alley calls his $1,500 twin set Precision Electronic Anemometer 4.47 after the allowable 4.47 mph following wind.
Alley is not only one of the major suppliers for the Olympics, he is also chef des appareils, or technical adviser. "That means," he says, "that if someone should find that the little rectangles on which the high-jump bar sits aren't exactly 40 millimeters by 60 millimeters, they'll blame me."