In the mid-'70s Dwight Stones was the world's best high jumper, achieving records of 7'7¼" outdoors and 7'6½" indoors. He was suspended from Olympic and all other amateur competition last summer by the AAU for "improperly allocating" the $33,400 in prize money he won as a competitor in "The Superstars" television series. In this interview he voluntarily describes other improprieties.
During the six-year period in which Stones was near or at the top—just about the best drawing card any track meet could get—the Californian estimates that he made $200,000 from his "amateur" sport. The money, says Stones, now 25, came via appearance fees, double-billing for travel and hotel accommodations, and performance bonuses such as the $500 he got from one meet promoter by threatening not to attempt a world-record jump unless he was paid for the effort. Moments after the money was angrily guaranteed, Stones cleared the record height on his first try.
There was a time when Stones seemed to be breaking the world record almost at will, and he remembers occasions when he deliberately stopped competing after setting a record—at the probable cost of an even better one. "You have to keep slicing the baloney," Stones says. "If I hadn't stopped I'd have made the next height for sure; 7'8" and a fraction was well within my reach and I'd still have the world record, indoors and outdoors. [Today Vladimir Yashchenko of the U.S.S.R. has both—7'8" and 7'8½".] But you had to slice the baloney thin, because you got a bonus each time you broke the record. So why mess up and break it by more than you should?"
"To be eligible for participation in the Olympic Games," reads the International Olympic Committee Eligibility Code, "a competitor must not have received any financial rewards or material benefit in connection with his or her sports participation...."
The code ignores the fact that to be competitive, an athlete must train year round—a practical impossibility for most American Olympic hopefuls once they leave college. Left on their own, a number of U.S. athletes predictably end up as Stones did—amateurs in name only. Every knowledgeable person in the track-and-field community realizes what is going on.
At last year's NCAA meet, Stones berated Tennessee Coach Stan Huntsman over a bylined article by Huntsman in The Olympian, a magazine published by the U.S. Olympic Committee. Huntsman wrote that the United States would do well in track and field as a team only if it established a permanent national program, but the chances of doing so were virtually impossible because some Americans who competed in Europe through the summer made more than $60,000 a year and were not likely to sacrifice that to stay home and train. Stones says he hit the ceiling when he read the article. He told Huntsman, "I'm the top-paid guy from the United States in Europe and I make $20,000—maybe. So some guy might make $7,000, and that's if he whores himself all over Scandinavia so he gets 20 meets in one month. You want to know how IRS investigations start? Through careless, irresponsible, absurd comments like yours."
Ironically, because of an above-the-table payoff (for Superstars) rather than any under-the-table deals, Stones was barred from all amateur competition by the AAU and has begun to accept the fact that his high-jumping career is over. "I'm never going to jump again," Stones says. "I know it.
"Making money is common throughout amateur sport," says Stones. "Track is the most advanced because it's the easiest one in which to do it. Obviously, swimmers are in no position to hold anybody up, and gymnasts are the same. I'm sure there's a certain amount of hanky-panky going on in other sports, but not to the same extent as in track. Track is in the same situation that tennis was in a dozen years ago, before it went open. You knew those guys were getting paid under the table."
It is Stones' contention that he suffered "a lot of emotional turmoil" in the early stages of his career, when he discovered there was money to be made from his sport. John Barnes, Stones' coach at Glendale High School and a 1952 Olympian who, says Stones, "is probably the man I respect most in the world," entertained no discussion on the morality of the situation. "He gave me the purist approach," says Stones. "He'd say, 'It's not right. You're an amateur.' And that was it."
However, Stones had friends who pointed out how much money could be made from world-class performances in the right meets, and having done his bit for soul-searching, Stones eventually sided with the pragmatists. "I thought, 'The hell with it,' " he says. "If everyone else was making money, I wasn't going to work and perform and draw people into a stadium and not get paid for it. That's all there was to it."
Like many another track man, Stones became a frequent traveler and learned that travel expenses were an easy source of quick revenue. For example, booked into two meets on the East Coast the same weekend or a week apart, Stones would receive expense money from both, getting first-class, round-trip fares from the West Coast to each competition—fares worth about $1,100. One $350 super-saver ticket, a modest hotel room (or a friend's apartment) and perhaps some train fare got Stones to both meets. Profit: $750-$1,000.
"I kind of rationalized my way through in those years," says Stones. "I was only making money on the air fare and getting very little in appearance fees, but as I began jumping better, I was more in demand and thus was offered more money. By the time I broke the world record five times indoors, it was all over."
After he began to jump in Europe, Stones says, "I never competed in any meet for nothing." He soon became an expert on evaluating his own worth against international exchange rates. "You could never take a check," says Stones, "and in some places where the money wasn't good outside the country—the Eastern Bloc nations and places like that—it was much better to work a ticket deal than take cash. In 1977—and this was probably the best thing I ever pulled off—I had this ticket that would blow your mind." The excursion ticket took Stones to meets all over Europe, where he collected additional travel money. He says, "It got me from L.A. to New York to Frankfurt to Cologne to Munich, Athens, Munich, Oslo, Stockholm, Helsinki, Stockholm, Düsseldorf, Milan, Stockholm, Amsterdam and back to L.A. That ticket was worth close to $2,000, but because the promoters of the meet were able to get it through a travel agency and got a kickback on it, they probably spent no more than they would have had to pay me, cash out of pocket, if their money was any good.
"Except for food," says Stones, "I think I spent only $250 the first three weeks of that trip, and usually on a three-week tour, I'd spend $2,500-$3,000 just on air fares.
"In Italy, two things were known: Dwight Stones won't come cheap and he won't take any Italian money, because that stuff fluctuates like the weather. It was understood that I wouldn't set foot in the country unless I got marks, dollars or Swiss francs. That was it. And they never let me down, even though they could have. They could have said, 'Well, we're sorry. Here's 10 million lire. Go buy yourself a newspaper.'
"Once you're over there in Europe," Stones adds, "the better you perform, the more they let you in on all their little secrets. I know a lot of stuff because I'm close to the meet directors. I go out to dinner with them after a meet when I've jumped well. They get a little hammered and tell you stuff that maybe they really don't want you to know. You find out who's dealing with you straight and who isn't, who you can hold up and who you can't. No one could intimidate me on appearance fees, because I knew what I was worth and what I brought in...and they knew that I knew."
It also became part of Stones' business policy to discount his market value from 10% to 20% in order to guarantee that whatever the quality of his performance, he would be invited back to the meet the next season.
"I'd take what I ultimately thought I could get for a one-shot appearance and reduce it to assure that no one would say, 'That's the last time he's in this meet. He holds me up for $1,500 and jumps only 7'3" for third place.' Rather than hold up a promoter for $1,500, I might go for $1,200, so if I didn't do well the promoter would say, 'Well, he really didn't ask for what he is worth, it's no problem.' I wanted to perpetuate my longevity at certain meets. I've been to some of the same ones six or seven years in a row because I never wanted to turn my back on the people who helped me when I was young. But I can't blame other guys for not being loyal.
"We don't make a lot of money in this sport," Stones states, "and we work our tails off. You see Pete Rose, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dave Parker, Jim Rice and these guys make $600,000 to $900,000 a year. Baseball players don't work near as hard as we do."
Shamateurism isn't new, of course, but Stones has brought into focus a particularly unsportsmanlike aspect—performance shaving. "I guess that's what these guys who wrote the rules had in mind—that money corrupts the sport," he says. "But I don't believe that entirely. If you're bringing people into an arena, you deserve more than just air fare, room and board. And out of my 10 world records, I did five of them for free."
Depending on one's moral viewpoint, Dwight Stones is a hardheaded realist who mastered the game as it is played, or a conniving crook who was destined to cheat himself out of the thing he does best. Since his suspension, Stones has jumped twice, including a cameo appearance in the movie Golden Girl in which he cleared seven feet with half a run. Superstars probably will be Stones' only athletic pursuit in the future.
Stones may be reconciled, but is not fully resigned, to his current status. "Within two, maybe three weeks I could be over 7'5"," he says. "And in two months I could be jumping 7'7". By the time of the AAU meet [in June], I'd be ready for another world record. The physical development I've gone through in training for Superstars has helped me. I've found a real carryover from the swimming.
"But I probably will go to the Olympics with NBC," Stones says, "because I think I can do a good job and because it will be the ultimate test of my cold-turkey withdrawal symptoms from track and field. If I can do it without totally breaking down, and I think I can, I'll go.
"And, of course, if the network and I can reach a mutually agreeable sum of money."