If it is true that what is past is prologue, every track fan in America should start worrying for Marty Liquori, whose diligent pursuit of an Olympic gold medal may have ended just when he decided which particular gold medal he wanted. At last week's National AAU Track and Field Championships in Los Angeles, Liquori suffered a pulled hamstring muscle in the final turn of the 5,000-meter run. The injury was a recurrence of a slight tear he sustained 10 days earlier as he was training on a golf course near his home in Gainesville, Fla., and while he may recover in time to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team next week in Eugene, Ore., it seemed as if history was repeating itself.
In 1972 Liquori missed the Olympic Trials, because of an injury to his left foot, at a time when he was the world's best miler. Now his trip to Montreal has been jeopardized by an injury to his left leg, at a time when he is America's top 5,000-meter man.
For a variety of reasons, two of which were Tanzania's world-record holder in the 1,500, Filbert Bayi (3:32.2), and New Zealand's world-record holder in the mile, John Walker (3:49.4), Liquori this season had decided to forsake the 1,500 for the 5,000, a race that measures three miles, 188 yards, 2½ inches. Last Friday, as twilight graced UCLA's Drake Stadium, the longer race was 188 yards, 2½ inches too long. Midway through the final turn disaster struck Liquori as he was challenged by Dick Buerkle, with whom he shared a 120-yard lead on the rest of the field.
At the top of the turn, Buerkle passed Liquori and awaited the competitive response that is all too familiar to almost every Liquori foe. It never came. Trying to accelerate, Liquori was reduced to a near walk by a deep sharp pain low in the back of his left thigh. As Buerkle went on to win the race in 13:31.2, Liquori jogged in weakly to finish second in 13:41.0, his leg almost collapsing under him. Unaware of what happened, Buerkle said, "What did you do that for?" before Liquori, visibly in great pain, limped off to the training tent.
Liquori may have asked himself the same question. In one of his few respites from an arduous European-style training program, he had already run 13:33.6 two months ago in the Penn Relays to qualify for the Olympic Trials. Several other athletes who had already qualified passed up the AAU meet rather than risk injury, and sprinter Steve Williams scratched at the first sign of a tight muscle. Liquori, however, wanted to use the meet for tactical experiment and the competition he had virtually abandoned in favor of running 105 miles a week.
"I think I'll do real well or really poor here," Liquori said on the morning of his ill-fated race. "If I'm right about my leg—that it's going to be O.K.—I think I'll run really well. But my training has been so poor in the last week that I might finish fifth or sixth. It wouldn't bother me because the reason I came out here, even though I knew the leg might not feel good warming up or whatever, is that I've just been training and training and not racing. I haven't been excited or treated a race as a race all year. I want to get back into that frame of mind—having a race and seeing the competition at least once before the Trials."
Liquori has a reason for the tedious training routine that has produced a low-profile season notably lacking in stunning performances.
"It's been tough," he said, "because even a casual observer of track would think I'm having a terrible year, which, on the surface, I am. I don't think I've run near four minutes in a mile this year and I haven't approached any good times at other distances. But if you look back at the guys who won in the last Olympics, up until six weeks before the Games they were also running like bums. It's because you're training so hard. People don't realize that, but I've been around long enough to know that the reason Americans seldom win Olympic medals in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters is that they let their pride get carried away. Every time Steve Prefontaine competed in Eugene, he was ready to run his best time. You can't do that. You can't go out to please the fans if you're pointing for one big race. I eased off my training for the Penn Relays because I didn't want to go up there and run like a bum. But I've run like a bum in just about every other place this year."
At UCLA, however, Liquori again was the shrewd tactician and gutsy competitor whom fans have relished in other seasons; the athlete, for example, who ran a 3:52.2 mile in May of 1975 in Kingston while chasing Bayi to his 3:51.0 world record. Running easily in second or third place as the 5,000 field passed one mile in 4:25.1 and two miles in 8:49.6, Liquori took the lead on the 10th lap, yielded to Buerkle for one lap, and regained it to pass the three-mile mark in 13:04.8. The time was on target for the performance Liquori wanted, but then came the agony of the stretch.
Later, lying on a treatment table in the training tent, Liquori said, "I don't think it's a real major hamstring pull like a sprinter gets. It's more of a strain. I still have two weeks before the Trials and I'm sure I can get it healed before then. I'm not worried about the Trials but I am about the Games. I've lost 10 days of training already and I'm going to lose more when I should be in heavy preparation for Montreal.
"I've had hamstring pulls before," he added. "You get a sharp pain and then your leg doesn't go out the way you want it to. The hard thing is you don't know if it's perfectly well or not. It might feel O.K. until the last lap, like today, when the muscle fatigues."
Grim as the AAU meet proved for Liquori, it was a smashing success for a number of women. American record performances were turned in by Arthurene Gainer of Prairie View, who ran the rarely contested 400-meter hurdles in 57.24; Kathy McMillan, who bettered her own U.S. record by 1¼" to win the long jump at 22'3", and Kathy Schmidt, who improved her U.S. mark in the javelin by 2'9" with a throw of 218'3". Late on Saturday, the final day of the meet, Jan Merrill set another U.S. record of 8:57.2 in the 3,000 for that infrequently run non-Olympic event.
Even as the crowd was urging Merrill to her record, Liquori, having spent an uncomfortable night, was flying back home. "I think he'll be all right," said Dr. Anthony F. Daly Jr., the AAU team physician. "I injected him with cortisone and started him on some anti-inflammatory drugs. If he had only one week to recover, I wouldn't be so optimistic. Two weeks should be enough. Still, you never know."