Last Thursday afternoon, even as athletes were assembling in Moscow for the XXII Olympics, Guido Kratschmer of West Germany, the world-record holder in the decathlon, found himself on an intramural field a half mile from Franklin Field in Philadelphia, competing in a meet the White House had once grandly billed as the "alternative Olympics." Behind him, on Interstate 76, hummed four lanes of traffic; in front, beyond the browning grass of the discus area, was a web of power lines leading from a barely visible substation. Watching in the 96° heat were perhaps 100 people. Hardly inspired by the setting, Kratschmer fouled on all three of his discus attempts, shrugged and withdrew from the competition, formally known as the Liberty Bell Track and Field Classic.
Though not all of the more than 300 athletes who showed up were as dismayed as Kratschmer by the low caliber of competition and the uninspiring setting of the two-day, 26-nation meet, none spoke of it as a historic event. "An alternative?" said 1,500 winner Steve Scott of the U.S. "This wasn't even a good international meet." Even Jimmy Carnes, who as coach of the Olympic men's track and field team and president of The Athletics Congress had helped set up the meet, said, "We can't call this the alternative Games. There's no alternative."
Still, the Liberty Bell Classic was, in terms of the number of foreign competitors, the largest international track meet held in the U.S. since the 1932 Olympics, and it was highlighted not only by an American record in the women's 1,500 but also by half a dozen outstanding races with less impressive times. Though many of the competitors were unknowns from countries like Togo and Gambia, to the 20,111 spectators who watched Americans win 18 of 25 events on the final evening, the lack of an Olympics, for the moment, clearly meant less than the presence of U.S. Olympians.
For 18 Chinese athletes it was a rare chance for first-rate international competition. They were often outmatched, but did win five events—triple jump, javelin, and women's high jump, shot and discus—and set two Asian records.
July 27, 1980
Merely organizing the meet was quite an achievement. The process had begun back in January when White House and State Department officials, anxious to persuade prospective Olympians to go along with the boycott, talked of a substitute competition, separate from the Games but of comparable quality. In the ensuing months the difficulties inherent in setting up such a meet in track and field became apparent: the International Amateur Athletic Federation ruled that no meet could be held during the Olympics; major nations—athletically as well as politically—were slow to join with the U.S. in either the boycott or an alternate competition; money and sites weren't readily available.
Finally last month, after Congress appropriated $10 million for summer competitions in a number of Olympic sports, The Athletics Congress selected Philadelphia over three other cities as the track meet site, requested a share of the $10 million and frantically set to the task of bringing in top athletes from as many nations as possible. The Liberty Bell Classic would start, however, only one day after a big meet in Oslo concluded and would coincide with another in Paris, and many athletes, including a number of Americans, would decide to travel to their homes—not Philadelphia—to begin the three-week Olympic break.
Not entered or soon to withdraw were 17 of the 34 U.S. Olympic Trials winners, among them hurdler Edwin Moses, sprinters Stanley Floyd and Alice Brown, long jumper-pentathlete Jodi Anderson and discus thrower Mac Wilkins. The Trials' two 1,500 winners, Steve Scott and Mary Decker, had run in Tuesday night's Oslo meet and seemed unlikely to be at full strength. Former world-record miler John Walker of New Zealand and Henry Rono of Kenya, who holds four world records from 3,000 to 10,000 meters, listed as entries, would soon pull out. And athletes in the throwing events were staying away en masse rather than compete in isolation on a University of Pennsylvania intramural field five minutes from the stadium.
Yet from the start of competition at noon Wednesday, the Liberty Bell meet established itself not as a total failure but rather as, well, an alternative. But to what? Through five events of the decathlon the leader was neither Kratschmer nor U.S. Trials champ Coffman; it was an accountant from North Carolina named Lee Palles, who wore a T shirt during the second day of competition that said I'D RATHER BE MARLIN FISHING. Two American pentathletes, Linda Waltman and Marlene Harmon, finished with enough points to at last make the Olympic team, having fallen short of the qualifying standard at the Trials. Then Wednesday night the weather took an abrupt turn. After a sultry, hazy afternoon, great masses of thunderclouds passed over the stadium and the ensuing rain and gales dropped the temperature by 20 degrees.
More hot weather and a report that hurdler Renaldo Nehemiah, too, would not compete sapped the spirit of the meet the following afternoon. Only three men showed up at 2 p.m. to put the shot, and the decathlon field shrank through attrition from nine to five. At a brief ceremony opening the evening competition the crowd was listless.
But then there was Nehemiah after all, warming up along the track's north straightaway. He had been 75 miles away at his home in Scotch Plains, N.J. with no plans of skipping the meet. "I live so close I saw no reason to come until now," said Nehemiah. "But today my mother called me and said, 'You'd better phone someone down there because I just read that you scratched.' " Nehemiah looked as good as ever in winning his race in 13.31, just .31 off his world record.
With Nehemiah's victory and a superb men's 400 in which only .22 separated 17-year-old winner Billy Konchellah of Kenya from fifth-place Herman Frazier of the U.S., the crowd became interested. Don Paige, like Frazier a local hero, soon had them roaring as he held off Kalifa Omar Kalifa of the Sudan in the final stretch of the 800 to win in 1:47.19. "I've never seen a crowd like this in Franklin Field," said Paige. "I think it's great they're getting a chance to see what some of the European meets are like." Angella Taylor of Canada and Chandra Cheese-borough of the U.S. squared off next in the women's 200, with Taylor narrowly winning. Closer still was the men's 200, in which James Butler beat U.S. teammate Fred Taylor 20.65 to 20.66. Remarkably, this wasn't the tightest race of the evening. In the American sweep of the men's 100, winner Mel Lattany and Harvey Glance each ran 10.31, followed by Willie Gault in 10.33. Finally, after a 5,000 in which Kip Rono (no kin to Henry) outkicked fellow Kenyan Hillary Tuwei, it was time for a much different race, one matching runner to clock: Mary Decker in the women's 1,500.
Fully recovered from a plantar fascia injury in her left foot that had bothered her in the spring, Decker had set the American women's record in the 1,500 (4:01.17) just five days earlier in Stuttgart, West Germany, and then had taken almost four seconds off the U.S. women's 3,000 mark by running an 8:38.73 in Oslo in her first race at the distance. By the time she arrived in Philadelphia late Wednesday night she was "sluggish" from an 18-hour Oslo-to-Philadelphia flight, including a four-hour layover in New York. "I was still looking to run somewhere around four minutes," she said later. "I had aspirations of going faster than at Stuttgart."
At the gun Decker was off into the lead, with Julie Brown, also of the U.S., close by. Decker was hoping that Brown would push her to a fast time, but by 600 meters it was evident that, as usual, Decker would go it alone. She passed 800 in 2:07.3, nearly four seconds ahead of Brown, moving with ease through the still, humid air. The crowd was on its feet. With 400 meters left she was at 2:57.2, still showing no strain. Coming off the far turn and down the stretch, seeing the clock at 3:57...3:58, she pressed to the limit. She hit the tape at 4:00.87 for her third U.S. record in six days and her seventh world or U.S. mark of 1980.
"The crowd was fantastic," she said after her victory lap. "They pulled me. Right now I'm hoping to race the Olympic gold, silver and bronze medalists next month in Budapest or Zurich. The world record [3:55.0] is definitely in my mind, and not too far back, either. This meet didn't replace the Olympics by any means, but I think it was...appropriate. Perhaps we should have one like this in the U.S. every year."