It remained for Dwight Stones, the outdoor and indoor world-record holder in both the high jump and use of the first person singular, to supply last Friday's Philadelphia Track Classic with a measure of excitement. Almost an hour after the other events had concluded without a U.S. record, let alone a world record, there stood Stones all by himself on the floor of the Spectrum, riveting the remnants of the crowd of 10,123 to their seats. Earlier in the evening he had dispatched the rest of the competition with a leap of 7'4¼", a meet record. Then he had bettered that with the highest indoor jump of the current season, 7'5¼". And now he had asked for the bar to be set at 7'7" in an attempt to break his own world indoor record of 7'6½".
Votes for Outstanding Performer of the meet had already been tabulated and Stones was the runaway winner. "Performer" is a particularly apt word. Stones is a showman, and he was strutting and fretting in splendid isolation on his stage. "I'm good copy," Stones said, as if stating a well-known fact. A moment before attempting the world-record height he turned to speak to fellow jumper Bill Jankunis. Jankunis eagerly leaned forward, expecting some pearl of wisdom from his specialty's top artist. "Do you know the guy from the L.A. Times?" Stones asked. "That's him over there."
Stones was orchestrating the action now. In fact, his jump of 7'5¼" wasn't exactly that height but 227 centimeters, fractionally higher. Dwight had asked that the bar be put at the metric height because it was one centimeter more than the highest indoor jump of the season, 226 centimeters by Alexander Grigoryev of the Soviet Union. That was news even to track nuts, but it was instantly accepted as gospel because Stones, the nuttiest track nut of all, said it was so. Unfortunately, meet officials said they couldn't comply with Stones' wish because they didn't have a metric tape. No problem, said Stones, delving into his equipment bag, he would lend them his.
Thus did Dwight Stones bring excitement to Philadelphia, a city that is rapidly becoming his favorite. He had pointed out earlier that last summer he set two outdoor world records in the City of Brotherly Love. He jumped 7'7" at the NCAA meet in June and then broke the record with a leap of 7'7¼" in the Bicentennial Meet one week after his disappointing bronze-medal performance in the rain at Montreal.
January 31, 1977
"Do you realize," he stated in another curious aside for a man about to attempt a world record, "if I clear this, all the 7'7" jumps in history will have been made in Philadelphia?" Alas, it was not to be. Stones failed to clear the bar in three tries, but still got appreciative applause for the single superior performance of a not-so-classic Classic.
Before Stones' heroics, the best bet for a world record had seemed to lie in the 1,000-meter duel between America's two top women milers, Francie Larrieu Lutz and Jan Merrill. "I think a world record could be set tonight," said Lutz before the meet, "because the old record [2:40.2] is slow. I know because I hold it." Lutz also holds the indoor mark in the 1,500, the mile, the 3,000 and the two-mile. From 1969 until last year, in fact, she pretty much had these distances all to herself in this country. Then along came Merrill. The first time they ran head to head was in Madison Square Garden in the 1976 Millrose Games. "Julie Brown and I were duking it out." remembers Francie. "Then, with about 2½ laps to go, Jan ran right by both of us. At the time I just said 'What the heck,' and let her go. But the next night I hated myself for it. I've been around so long that when I lose people say, 'Well, Francie's over the hill,' even though I'm just 24."
Lutz began to point for her races against Merrill. They met indoors twice more last season and Francie won both times by pacing herself and kicking on the last lap. "Jan is the only person I run tactical against." Lutz says. "I'll do anything to beat her. Against others I only do what I have to do to run a fast race."
Outdoors Merrill has fared better. While Cyndy Poor surprised both of them in the Olympic Trials, Merrill finished second, well ahead of Lutz, who was third, and went on to perform far better than Francie in the Games. Lutz was eliminated in the semifinals, in which Jan set an American record of 4:02.6 and made it to the finals.
Montreal only deepened the rift between them. Lutz is an outgoing, bubbly type; Merrill is withdrawn and greatly protected by her coach, Norm Higgins. Merrill and Lutz lived together in the Olympic Village with Poor, but as Lutz says, "Jan wouldn't acknowledge our presence."
On the track circuit Merrill is considered a recluse. Higgins accompanies her on all trips, screening her from distractions such as interviews. She remains distant from her fellow athletes, who wonder aloud if she enjoys herself. "It's their weakness when others say she doesn't have fun," says Higgins. "It's the same with Nadia Comaneci. She said in an interview if the others didn't concentrate so much on smiling maybe they could concentrate more on their performances."
Merrill and Lutz were side by side in lanes one and two in Philadelphia, their first encounter since Montreal. Lutz studiously kept her back to her competitor. "Generally, at the starting line I wish my competitors well," she said later, "but I would never even think of doing that with Jan again. She doesn't speak to me anymore so why should I bang my head against the wall."
When the race started, Merrill lagged in the rear as Lutz frantically looked around for her. On the third of the 6¾ laps, Lutz slowed, and Merrill took the lead. "I like to know where she is at all times," said Lutz afterward, "and the best way to know is to keep her in front of me." But to keep Merrill in her sights, Lutz sacrificed any chance for a record. Just before the gun lap Francie passed Jan easily and won by 20 yards in 2:48, eight seconds off the world mark. "Jan just seemed like she wasn't ever going to go," said Lutz. Higgins agreed, saying, "Jan is like an operatic singer whose arias don't come out in some theaters as well as in others." Shortly afterward, the public address announcer called vainly for Merrill to come forward for her second-place prize. She and Higgins had already departed for their Connecticut homes.
Much of the rest of the meet was, in a sense, a nostalgic look at a fading era of American track. The performers who drew the most attention were three old-timers—Marty Liquori, Frank Shorter and Willie Davenport. Davenport, who has raced in the last four Olympics, came out of retirement only because he wants to crown his career by winning the high hurdles in the World Cup, the first world championship in track and field, this September in D√ºsseldorf. With Olympic champion Guy Drut having retired, Davenport may well get his wish. He looked more like 23 than 33 in winning the 60-yard hurdles in 7.17.
Before his silver-medal run in the marathon in Montreal, Frank Shorter had said that he expected to retire after the Olympics. But he had finished fourth in the two-mile at Los Angeles a week before and was in good enough shape at Philadelphia to nip Steve Foster in the same event with a time of 8:40.2. Shorter wasn't apologetic about his change of heart and even admitted that he is now giving thought to the 1980 Olympics. "For a number of years, I've tried to explain to myself why I run," he said before the Philadelphia meet, "and then I just gave up. Running is just part of what I am and what I do. I actually like the physical activity of running. Continuing in competition is my justification for doing what I really like to do."
Shorter has temporarily shelved his legal career for a venture more in keeping with his passion. He is now the proprietor of Frank Shorter Sports, a store in Boulder, Colo. catering to joggers. He has also started to regrow the mustache he wore when he won the marathon in the 1972 Olympics. "When I was younger, I grew it to look older," Shorter said. "When I got older, I cut it off to look better. Now I just don't give a damn."
For his part, Liquori was admitting that he wasn't sure whether he gave a damn about running. "The big problem for me," he said, "is no longer deciding what distance to run but whether to run at all. I feel a lot like Dave Cowens did. I'd really like to take a break. There are a lot of things I've been putting off for 10 years that I'd really like to do, like auto rallying or driving a motorcycle through the woods or even just taking a vacation, which I've never really done." Liquori planned to run this indoor season because he wanted to break Tony Waldrop's indoor mile record of 3:55, "but it's no big secret that my training hasn't been what it has been in the past," and last month he was further hampered by a flare-up of the hamstring injury that kept him out of the Montreal Olympics. Still, Liquori had a little strategy planned for the mile run in Philadelphia. "We've got a green rabbit," said one of his friends. "Frank Murphy of Ireland was looking for a race, so we got him into this one on the stipulation that he run the first half mile in 2:00."
Unfortunately, the pace at the half-mile mark was 2:05, and Murphy was puffing along in third place with Liquori right behind him. "Our rabbit turned into a turkey," said Liquori's friend. "Murphy didn't do his job," said Liquori. "Knowing that my hamstring might give me trouble, the last thing I wanted was for the race to come down to a kick." It did, and Eamonn Coghlan, a countryman of Murphy's, outkicked Liquori on the gun lap to win by less than a second in 4:03.4. "I didn't go out earlier to make it a faster, evenly paced race because I didn't want to make a fool of myself by going into the lead and then tying up," said Liquori. "I was afraid to do it. I didn't have any confidence. But I'm very satisfied. The hamstring held up. Next week at the Millrose Games the injury won't even be in the back of my mind."
The Millrose Games were already in the back of Stones' mind, too. Undaunted by his failure to set a world record in his beloved Philadelphia, he noted, "I trained very hard this week. Things happen 10 days after you train hard—at least they do for me. That should put me right on schedule for a world record at the Millrose Games. Next week I'll do 231 centimeters."
That's a world record. Take Dwight's word for it.