FLYING START TOWARD THE OLYMPICS

Led by Dave Roberts, who broke a vaulting pole and then the world record, a talented group of U.S. track and field athletes earned a two-week trip to Canada.
July 04, 1976

For Steve Williams and Marty Liquori there were no medical miracles. Two world records were set. And five world-record holders failed to make the team. Three of the sprinters came out of high school, the first time ever. One of the 110-meter hurdlers ran on 33-year-old legs that had carried him to three previous Olympics, once to a gold medal, and while age had left the legs a tad weaker, in compensation it had made him a ton smarter. And so when the U.S. track and field Olympic Trials sighed to an end last Sunday evening in Eugene, Ore. the balance of hope for success in Montreal lay in the hands of relatively unknown young talent, with just enough of a peppering of veterans to keep the men's team from looking like the college all-stars.

Running on much the same timetable that will be used at Montreal, the Trials spanned nine days, beginning on June 19 with a Mack Sennett blunder in the 20-kilometer walk (which laughingly came up more than a kilometer short) and ending Sunday as Dick Buerkle won the 5,000-meter run, the event Liquori had been expected to dominate. But like Williams, the world's No. 1 sprinter when he has two sound legs, Liquori arrived in Eugene badly hobbled by an injured hamstring and never made it to the final.

Even without that world-class pair, the U.S. emerged with a strong if basically inexperienced squad, one that could easily surpass the 18-medal performance (six gold) by the men at Munich. Of the 63 who made the team, only 12 will carry Olympic experience to Canada. Still, that small segment of veterans includes Frank Shorter, the gold-medal winner in the 1972 marathon; long-jump gold medalist Randy Williams; George Woods, twice a silver medalist in the shotput; and the bronze medalist in the high jump, Dwight Stones, now the best in the world, although on Sunday he finished second to Bill Jankunis, who cleared 7'5¾".

Shorter, already assured of a place on the team with his marathon victory in May, sped home easily in the 10,000 to set up a double assault on medals in Montreal. Rick Wohlhuter, the 880-yard world-record holder, will also run twice; he won the 800-meter as well as the 1,500 at Eugene.

The most extraordinary in a constant stream of extraordinary achievements came early last week. Using a borrowed vaulting pole, and with one hand still somewhat numb after he shattered his own pole, Dave Roberts regained the world record by soaring to 18'8¼". It was the third straight time the pole vault record had been broken at the U.S. Olympic Trials. Ironically, both the borrowed pole and the old record of 18'7¼" belonged to Earl Bell, who finished tied for second with Terry Porter.

Apparently unfazed by the consequence of his generosity, Bell observed, "It's the vaulter who breaks the record, not the pole. Besides, the minute the field was cut to just three men Dave became my teammate, and after that everything was just practice anyway."

"Would you lend your pole to a Pole at Montreal?" asked a San Francisco radio man.

"No," Bell said, "because he wouldn't be my teammate."

A University of Florida medical student who vaults as a hobby, Roberts said he thought he was out of the competition when his own pole broke. That happened on his first attempt to clear the record height. Jumping up, he asked an official if it would be all right for him to delay his three vaults until after Bell had his three tries at the record. He had already asked Bell if he could borrow his pole.

"Certainly," Bell had said.

"I wanted to be sure Bell had his attempts at the record first," Roberts explained. "Then if I broke his pole, too, it wouldn't matter. Actually when my pole broke I was lucky. I've known a lot of vaulters who break bones in their hands when a pole snaps. That was nice of him to let me use his pole, wasn't it?"

The other world record, one slightly bent because it was hand-timed, came in the decathlon. Having predicted a new record, Bruce Jenner came roaring out of third place on the second day—always his strongest—to win with a hybrid 8,507 points. The total was a mixture of hand-timed and electronically timed scores because some of the electronic equipment went out during two of the events. Then just for fun they totaled his hand-timed score, and that came to 8,538. Jenner's old hand-timed world record was 8,524.

At dinner the previous evening with his pretty stewardess wife Chrystie, Jenner noted he was only 141 points behind the leader, Fred Dixon, and as far as he was concerned, the decathlon was over. Most decathletes dread the second day. For Jenner, it brings all his best events, best of all the 1,500, and then he feels he can gain as much as 200 points on anyone in the world.

"It's the day with all the goodies," the handsome ex-water-skiing champion said. He finished third in the Trials in 1972 and was 10th at Munich. Since 1974 he has been the world's best.

"The decathlon is so challenging," he said. "I was playing basketball and football at Graceland College. Then I entered my first decathlon as a sophomore. After that I gave up all other sports. It just had everything I wanted. It was so challenging to see how far I could go."

"Bruce is so much better than the Six-Million Dollar Man," said Chrystie. "He's sort of like Superman. He can do anything."

For just a few days more than a year, Willie Davenport, winner of the 110-meter hurdles at Mexico City in 1968 when he was 25, had lived with the dread that he would be able to do nothing, that he had run in his last Olympics. Competing on the same track in the AAUs a year earlier, Davenport, the executive director of the Mayor's Council on Youth Opportunity in Baton Rouge, ruptured a tendon in his left knee. On the way to the hospital he kept asking, "How long am I going to be hurting? I want to go to the Olympics. I've got to go."

The next day they operated on the knee. Two days later blood clots appeared in both lungs.

"You can die from that," says Dr. Stan James, who performed the operation. "It certainly concerned us, but we were able to control the clots and there was no severe complication."

Dr. James told Davenport then that there was a good possibility he would never run again. "That was one year, three days and one hour ago," said Davenport minutes after finishing second to Charles Foster in the Trials' final. "I said then that I would be back. And I can only thank God that I am."

In the first heats of the hurdles the immediate future had looked equally bleak for Foster, who had come out of the recent AAU championships with a damaged hamstring. With the area protected by a felt pad sandwiched between tight elastic sleeves, the world-class hurdler had raced just hard enough to qualify for the next round. At any moment he expected the tendon to rip.

"It was a strange feeling," Foster said. "I came out to the West Coast knowing I was hot stuff, not worrying about anyone. Then all of a sudden I was worrying about everyone. I had to do a lot of fighting with myself."

In the final, the former North Carolina Central collegiate champion continued to run with the protective wrapping and said, "Let's get it on." For him, it would be Montreal or crutches.

"I had discovered during the semifinal the wrap was on too tight," Foster said. "That was about halfway through the race and a little too late. So I just kept going."

In the final he broke quickly into the lead, Davenport just behind with the pack. Still leading at the eighth hurdle, Foster knew all was well. Davenport, always strong at the end, and using the experience gained from three previous Olympics and years of international competition, flashed home just a tick behind, 13.44 to 13.52, with James Owens third in 13.57.

For Williams and Liquori, who came away from the AAU meet with damaged hamstrings also, the end was much more bitter. The only man ever to run four world-record 9.9s in the 100 meters, Williams sped just 90 meters before the tendon betrayed him. He managed to limp the last 10 meters to finish sixth, which advanced him to the second round, but that only delayed the inevitable. In his next race he was done after 30 meters, leaving two youngsters—Harvey Glance and Houston McTear—plus Steve Riddick in charge of the 100-meter expedition to Canada. A few days later, with the damaged leg still unsound, Williams withdrew from the 200, which was won by Millard Hampton, a 19-year-old from San Jose City College.

"I guess the Lord didn't want me to be an Olympic champion," Williams said softly. "Maybe He wants me to be a statesman. But I wish He'd hurry up and point it out. I'm trying to be realistic. I'll do a great job of tracking them all down when it's over. As soon as they cross the Olympic finish line, the next week they run I'm going to be there laying for them, and I'm going to make it obvious that somebody made a mistake."

To the end, Williams held out a slim hope that he still would be named to run the relays. And a petition was filed to have him placed on the team as a special case. The petition was voted down by the U.S. Olympic track and field committee; no relay berth was offered.

When Liquori arrived on Tuesday, three days before his first 5,000 heat, privately he was giving himself no better than a 20% chance of making the team. And even if he did, he reasoned, the effort probably would damage his hamstring so much more that it would end any chance of running in Montreal. Still, it is not Liquori's way not to try.

When he awoke the day of the race, Friday, a strong cold wind was blowing. "That kills it," he told his wife Carol. He hadn't had on a pair of spikes in two weeks. He told Carol he'd know the minute he stepped out on the track.

"I was sitting in the stands before the start of the race. He looked up at me and shook his head," Carol said. "I knew then it was hopeless."

Hardly 200 yards had been run when Liquori realized the leg was failing him. Still, he ran on, hoping the work would cause the tendon to loosen. On the back-stretch of the fourth lap he almost fell. Grabbing the leg, he slowed, and nearly stopped. Then, limping badly, he continued. Carol left her seat and began working her way through the stands down toward the track. With the crowd urging him on, Liquori began to run more normally. But the pack was pulling away, first 10 yards, then 20, then 30.

"To hell with it," Liquori thought. "Either stop, or run as though everything is all right." With 1½ miles to go, he sped through one turn and then, grabbing his head with both hands, pulled up in fierce pain. For him, it was over.

Just a few days earlier Mac Wilkins, the world-record holder and an easy winner in the discus at the Trials, discussed his motivations. "For me," the 6'4", 257-pound strongman said, "the Olympics won't be much different than any other meet. The best discus throwers in the world will be there, but I'll be competing against Mac Wilkins. It's like when I set the world record. I was pleasantly surprised, but I've never been after the world record. I'm after the Mac Wilkins record, to do the very best I feel I am capable of. That's what I work for, where the personal satisfaction, or dissatisfaction, lies. It seems much more appropriate to be successful on my own standards."

Arnie Robinson, the bronze medalist in 1972, said after winning the long jump Trial, "I want to be the first to jump 28 feet. That's what has kept me going the four years since Munich. Now it isn't so much winning a gold medal. A lot of people have won gold medals. That's no real big thing. But to be the first man ever to jump 28 feet...." His voice trailed off. He looked away, perhaps remembering Bob Beamon's astonishing Mexico City jump of 29'2½", and he smiled.

For others, Eugene also was the end of the line. Ralph Mann and Jim Bolding are gone from the 400-meter intermediate hurdles, replaced by kids like Edwin Moses and Quentin Wheeler and Mike Shine. Mann was a silver medalist in 1972, Bolding is the world-record holder at 440 yards and was third best in the world last year. "Some days you just run a bad race," said Mann. "Jim and I just picked the wrong day to do it. But if we had to lose, I'm glad it was to three good youngsters like these."

Gone, too, is Dan Ripley, the indoor pole-vault record holder, who failed to clear 17'¾". And big Terry Albritton, world-record holder in the shotput, who finished behind Al Feuerbach, Woods and newcomer Peter Shmock. "I just hope that all three of them beat the Europeans," said Albritton. "I want that more than I wanted to make the team."

A lot of class came out at the Trials. And not all of it will be going on to Montreal.

PHOTO PHOTOWohlhuter proved he was twice qualified. PHOTOThe decathlon Trials proved what everyone knew from the start: Jenner is best at the tenner.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)