A few hours before the start of last Saturday's Lite Invitational Track & Field Meet in Durham, N.C., Steve Williams was asked what strategy he employs when facing a 100-meter field loaded with talent. Later that day Williams would be squaring off against the best collection of American sprinters assembled this year. In addition to Williams, the 1977 World Cup winner in the 100, the meet had attracted Harvey Glance, Steve Riddick, Clancy Edwards and Houston McTear. These were five of America's top six sprinters in 1978.
"Regardless of the field," Williams said with a tone of finality, "you have to run your normal race." He appeared ready for the next question, but then, as if he had suddenly had a premonition of the bizarre circumstances that would decide the 100-meter dash that afternoon, he added, "There's one difference. At the tape you really have to extend into a total lean. Against lesser fields your top competition is right next to you and you know where you stand. But with a field like this there are top runners everywhere, and you don't have total vision to the outside lanes. So you lean. And pray."
The No. 1 American absentee last Saturday was Texas A&M junior Curtis Dickey, third in the U.S. and seventh in the world last year. But since Dickey may also be missing from next year's Olympic Trials—a 205-pound halfback who gained 1,146 yards for the Aggies this past season, he has strong pro football aspirations—it's quite possible that the 100-meter field in Durham was a preview of that at the Trials.
Previewing the Olympic Trials, in fact, was the very purpose of the meet. Durham was a serious bidder for the Trials and had been sorely disappointed when it lost out to Eugene, Ore. by a single vote. Now some adroit politicking by Durham's biggest supporter, 1976 U.S. Olympic Coach Dr. Leroy Walker, has brought about the possibility of another vote. Thus, last weekend's meet was also a means of showcasing potential Olympic Trial facilities as well as fields. Meet promoters confidently predicted a crowd of 20,000 to 25,000, and as one local columnist put it, "It's time Durham either puts up or shuts up." Because of the weather, it pretty much had to shut up. With rain falling or threatening throughout the day, only 14,600 showed up at Wallace Wade Stadium on the Duke campus.
Actually, the stadium itself may be more of a drawback to Durham's cause than attendance figures. Charitably described as a relic, it is the site of the only Rose Bowl game ever played outside of Pasadena—which should be worth something. The game was moved to the 40,078-seat stadium in January of 1942 when Rose Bowl organizers reasoned that 100,000 people gathered together in Pasadena might prove too tempting a target for the Japanese, who a month earlier had bombed Pearl Harbor. But the 50-year-old stadium is now in such decrepit condition that it looks as if some exceedingly hostile force had visited it in the distant past. What makes it a potential site for the Trials is a brand-new $170,000 ProTurf track, so new that the curbs for it were not installed until the morning of last weekend's meet. That track promised to produce fast times, perhaps world-record times.
The track lived up to expectations. In the very first race ever run over it, the intermediate hurdles, Olympic champion Edwin Moses coasted to the finish line, yet missed his world record of 47.45 by only .24 of a second. His 47.69 was the fastest clocking of the year and the fourth fastest in history. Moses said later that if he had pushed himself he might have broken 47 seconds, but then shrugged off the thought by saying, "It's too early in the season for a record."
Following the 400 hurdles was the women's 5,000, in which Jan Merrill set an American record of 15:33.8, with Boston Marathon women's champion Joan Benoit second, 50 meters back. And immediately after the 5,000 was the 400, which Willie Smith won in 45.24, the fastest time in the world this year. Smith confirmed what had already been apparent. "It's a fast track," he said. "I expect that there'll be a lot of fast times here from now on." The track had been nicknamed "the Firecracker 400" because of its vivid red color and the stock-car race of the same name that is annually held on July 4th at Daytona International Speedway. Given the early performances, the 100-meter dash promised burning rubber.
The most souped-up racer of all was McTear. On the eve of the meet he confidently predicted victory. McTear runs for the Muhammad Ali Track Club and he seems to be developing some of his benefactor's braggadocio. "I'm going to take this race," he said. "Right now I'm the top contender for the U.S. in 1980. I'm the best sprinter. I know it. The other sprinters know it. Now it's time to show the world."
McTear has always had the best start in his event, which has made him almost unbeatable indoors. In longer races, however, he often has been unable to shift into higher gear and is frequently overtaken. This season, under the coaching of Hilton Nicholson, he has developed a strong finish, which has given him new confidence. He says, "I've got third gear." Earlier this month he demonstrated his speed-shifting when he beat Silvio Leonard of Cuba, the No. 1 sprinter in the world in 1978, by overhauling him in the final strides of the 100 in the UCLA-Pepsi Invitational.
Leonard nipped McTear in a rematch in Jamaica the following week but only by leaning so far at the tape that he fell across the finish line. In doing so the Cuban laid a perfect body block on Williams, who went flying. In Durham, Williams still had huge abrasions on his right shoulder and right elbow. "Leonard didn't have to fall sideways the way he did," Williams said last week. "When I got up I was ready to fight. Dètente was out the window."
Despite his pugnacious statement, Williams is the most poetic of the sprinters. He loves to rhapsodize about his event. "I'm fascinated with speed," he said on the morning of last week's race. "I love fast music and I drive like a fool. It excites me to see things go by in a hurry. No athlete has a relationship with time the way we sprinters do. When I pull the rip cord in a race I see everything like it was in slow motion. My mental time from the 60-meter mark to the finish is like 30 seconds. That's the adrenaline flowing. That time factor is the same experience I felt in February of '77 when I rolled my car completely over. It seemed like that accident went on for hours. It's indelibly imprinted in my mind."
Williams realizes that his introspection is occasionally his undoing. "I need to get mindless in races," he says. "I tend to get caught up in the visuals, in the race's esthetics. The 100 is a non-tactical race. The name of the game is simply this: when the gun goes off, you react. If someone's in front of you, you go get him."
By the time Williams arrived at the starting line he knew that a slow race was inevitable. While the crowd was intent upon the races on the track, Williams was watching the long jumpers, who approached the pit from the same direction the sprinters would be running, and saw that they were performing far below par. Larry Myricks' winning jump was only 25'2". There was, in fact, a two-mph wind blowing into the sprinters' faces.
McTear got what was for him a poor start. Nicholson later criticized it as the worst part of his race. Still, he and Glance, running in Lanes 4 and 5, respectively, were at the head of a closely knit pack. They stayed there for most of the race, battling each other, oblivious of the rest of the field. At 70 meters, Riddick, in Lane 2, pulled even and began to make a move that would put him in the lead with less than 10 meters to go. But Riddick had a problem that he later discovered was bothering everyone. He couldn't see the tape. A freshly painted white wall surrounding the track, combined with the white light of a cloudy day, had made the white tape all but invisible.
Suddenly, Riddick saw Williams, who had been closing with a burst of speed in Lane 3, lean for the tape. Riddick assumed he must now be almost on top of it, too, and fearing that he had waited too long to lean, he bent forward hurriedly, breaking stride. McTear also noticed Williams' lean, and he, too, bent forward, only to discover that he was still five meters from the finish. He straightened up, breaking stride. Glance, who was only worried about McTear, capitalized on this momentary lapse to pull ahead of his rival, a move he thought assured him of victory.
The problem, of course, was that Williams, like Riddick, had been unable to see the tape. Instead he looked to the ground for the finish line and chose the wrong line, the starting mark for the mile about 10 meters from the finish. Williams was trailing and knew he would have to pass people at the tape, so when he leaned he kept driving with his legs. When he realized his mistake he simply kept driving, admittedly almost out of control. While everyone else was trying to regain his timing, Williams broke the tape in this ungainly fashion in 10.49.
His win was undisputed, but it took Accutrack photos to sort out the finish, as the top six were all within .11 of a second of one another. Glance was second in 10.51 and Riddick was third in 10.53. Even though Riddick later won the 200 in 20.85, edging Edwards and Williams in that order, he insisted that he was more pleased with his performance in the shorter race. Fourth went to a late entry, D.C. International's John Christian, in 10.55. The judges decided he had edged McTear by .01 of a second, although many who saw photos of the race felt that Christian had apparently finished behind both McTear and Edwards, who was given sixth in 10.60.
Edwards, a notoriously late starter who nevertheless was top-ranked in the U.S. in both the 100 and 200 last year, reduced the art of starting to a new low in Durham. He gained ground the whole way but was never able to get into the race until those confused final strides. "Clancy's still not awake," moaned his coach, Pete Peterson. "I'm going to have to buy him an alarm clock."
Afterward, Williams discussed his early finishing lean in detail. "I would guess that cost me two-tenths of a second," he said. That was small solace to the rest of the field. It cost them the race.