Let us inquire into a curiosity. Discus throwers don't decline at the same rate that other athletes do. Their rivalries outlast generations of mayfly sprinters and dog's-age javelinists. The only track and field athlete who has won a gold medal in a still-existing event in four successive Olympics is a discus thrower, Al Oerter, who ruled from 1956, in Melbourne, through 1968, in Mexico City. He took an eight-year break, starting in 1969, then returned to competition better than ever.
It is part of the Oerter mystique that he was never favored to win an Olympics. Especially not his first, in 1956, when he was a 20-year-old sophomore at Kansas and faced world-record holder Fortune Gordien, also of the U.S. Yet Oerter won, and the old master took it hard. Gordien went home and raised up a son, Marcus. Trained him to be better than his father. Twenty-two years later, at the Pepsi Invitational at UCLA, he sent Marcus, then 23, out to throw against Al Oerter, then 43.
Oerter beat him.
Nor is Oerter's longevity all that unusual. Unless somebody proves otherwise at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials this week in Indianapolis, the two best American discus men right now are John Powell, who turned 41 on June 25, and Mac Wilkins, 37. Wilkins won at the 1976 Olympics and was second in 1984. He also won the national championship in June. Powell, who finished second to Wilkins this year, had won the previous five nationals and was second in the 1987 World Championships in Rome. The American-record holder is Ben Plucknett, a 6'7½", 300-pound stripling of 34.
July 24, 1988
"In a sense, the longevity [of Wilkins and Powell] is quite by accident," says Stanford coach Brooks Johnson, who has known both men for more than a decade. "They've tried to retire, but no one has really displaced them, so they've come right back. That has been possible because developing good discus technique is a matter of X number of productive repetitions. X is a very high number. These guys were and are willing to live the event. They're showing that age and aging are not the same thing."
All three are, fittingly, inhabitants of the peninsula south of San Francisco, that sorcerer's region of sequoias and elegantly joined semiconductors. Here the land's famous instability seems to jolt the collective unconscious in unexpected ways.
"There is a time warp to the discus," says Plucknett, in his log cabin in the hills above Woodside. He is a mountain man, bearded and standing half a head taller than his doorways. He has animal hides draped over the rafters, and elk, rattlesnake and alligator meat in the freezer. "I might have been born in ancient Greece and am only now working out what I began then. The discus is graceful ballet, magical and absorbing, and so hard for me to put down."
Plucknett has unfinished business in his current incarnation. He was boycotted out of the Moscow Olympics in 1980 and tore four muscle groups in his left leg before the 1984 Games. "I weighed 324 then," he says. "My form has so much radius and torque that after a certain level of strength, the technique just tears the body apart."
So there seems nothing in the act of discus throwing itself that preserves its devotees. It's less a question of biophysics than of character.
Plucknett, squeezed into his tiny Honda Civic or perched on a chair with his cats in his cabin, emits a jaunty serenity. He is from Beatrice, Neb., and was an individualist from the start.
"I hated my high school football coach," he says. "I hated to hurt people. I wanted something without human judgment. Just the tape and me." Plucknett went to the University of Missouri, placed but fourth in the 1976 NCAAs and moved to California the following year. Trained by weightlifter Richard Marks and fueled by vast quantities of canned tuna—"He grows like a plant on tuna," says Marks—Plucknett threw the discus 233'7" at Modesto, Calif., in May of 1981, breaking the world record of Wolfgang Schmidt of East Germany. Less than two months later Plucknett extended his record with a throw of 237'4" in Stockholm.
But whatever ancient vortex swirls about Plucknett, it is not an especially protective one. He gets hit by things, including discuses. "Oerter bounced one off Ben's hip at the AAU championships in '79," says Marks.
"I was out in the landing area, with my back to the ring," says Plucknett.
"I'll never forget the sound," says Marks. "It skipped once and...chunk!"
"I'll never forget it was Oerter that did it," says Plucknett, who still threw 214'2" before submitting to repair.
"You could see the white of his bone," says Oerter, who is careful to point out he didn't hit Plucknett on purpose. "How could he compete so well like that? It must have been anger, or some kind of primitive nervous system."
Anger will do. "Took 12 stitches to close the gash," says Marks. "But Ben got revenge the next year at the Olympic trials. He knocked Oerter down to fourth, and off the team."
A week after his 237'4", Plucknett took another blow. He was handed an 18-month suspension for testing positive for anabolic steroids five months earlier at a meet in New Zealand. Plucknett fought the action, saying he was denied due process and that the testing was conducted improperly. The International Amateur Athletic Federation rejected his argument and refused to ratify his throw as a record, even though TAC recognized it. Thus, for a while the U.S. record was farther than the world record. That has changed now; in 1986 Jurgen Schult of East Germany set the current world record of 243 feet.
It's an irony that discus men, creatures of such sporting fidelity, labor in an event thick with the stigma, and the reality, of performance-enhancing drugs.
But steroids are so widely used—and drug tests can be so easily avoided or passed—that many athletes feel they must choose between being competitive and being clean. Perhaps it's best not to indict the throwers so much as the conditions under which they find themselves competing.
Oerter, who says he has always been clean and is believed even by most of his rivals, is uncomprehending. "When I returned to throwing from 1977 to '80," he says, "most everybody you talked to was using steroids or human growth hormone, and I even saw some guys getting a jolt of some dilute cocaine in a nasal spray before competition. I said, 'What happened to civility?' Here were people changing personality a half hour before throwing.
"But don't cast everyone in shadow," he continues. "To say this or that athlete takes them [steroids] is beyond the point now." The problem, he feels, is an organizational one. "So long as a governing body exempts its best athletes from testing until the trials, or testing is done by Olympic committees that have an interest in not hurting the spectacle of the Games, we'll keep having this chemical war between the great powers. It should be put in the hands of an independent, neutral agency." By this he means a disinterested group that would also be responsible for disseminating the results in an open, unbiased manner.
Oerter has tried to counsel young throwers, with little luck. "You can't sit an athlete down and say, 'Work hard, enjoy the improvement that you make. De-emphasize winning.' Even thoughtful people—though I don't understand it—find it necessary to win."
Mac Wilkins has a signed Salvador Dali lithograph in his new home in Los Gatos. In it a massive golden discus thrower hurls the sun. Coiled staircases, climbed by tiny people, wrap like leather thongs about the thrower's ankles. He has windows in his ribs and sternum, opening on Roman archways within. Spirit figures dance around him with torches in ambiguous frenzy. Are they celebrating or exorcising?
" 'Light the long uphill climb to human perfection...with the divine life force radiated by the discus/sun,' " reads Wilkins from Dali's statement of the work's intent. " 'Let sportsmanship/peace be elevated into hope for all mankind.' " He stops with a smile both beatific and self-conscious.
Wilkins, 6'4" and 245 pounds, is happy to grant whatever symbolic benefit might be found in his craft, but when he interprets his event, he speaks of mysteries. "The hook that the discus gets into you is the same as the fascination of a golf swing," he says. "You've read Golf in the Kingdom [by Esalen Institute co-founder Michael Murphy]? The control you attain by letting go, the sense of rediscovery? Discus throwing is very similar to that. When you spin, you generate power primarily with your legs, keeping your upper body relaxed until the right moment. If you force it, you won't get it. You have to work without working. When you're throwing right, the forces become greater than the sum of the parts. It's a funny feeling at first. You say, 'Gee, if I'd only tried." But when you really try, it goes a lot less far."
Wilkins grew up in Eugene, Ore., went to the University of Oregon there and won the NCAA and AAU titles in 1973. Then, as he puts it, "I ran afoul of Powell."
John Powell, San Jose State-trained, had placed fourth in the 1972 Olympics in Munich. From 1971 to 1977 he was a San Jose city police officer. At 6'2" and 240 pounds, he is the smallest of the great throwers. His response to the arrival of this challenger, Wilkins, was to render him invisible. Powell turned away when Wilkins wanted to chat. He would seem to smirk when Wilkins's technique was discussed. "John is the only discus thrower I've ever disliked as a person," says Wilkins now.
Wilkins beat Powell for the 1973 national championship, but Powell beat Wilkins in 1974 and 1975 and also set a world record of 226'8" in the latter year. In April 1976, Wilkins broke Powell's record with a throw of 226'11". A week later came a meet on Powell's turf, San Jose State field. "By that time, Mac lived to beat John," says Plucknett. "His first throw had no sooner landed than he was screaming at John, 'It's all over! Take your discus and go home!' All the resentment broke loose."
Wilkins's first three throws, in his passion, were all world records: 229 feet, 230'5" and 232'6".
What I had done turned out not to be the best way to deal with Mac," admits Powell now. "Other people will wilt. But he channeled all of what he calls my abuse just as I would have, into work, into performance. After a while you say, 'Hey, I'm an idiot to give him stuff.' But how was I to know?"
Wilkins won the Olympic gold medal later that year in Montreal, with 221'5". Until the final round, Powell stood second with 215'7". Then the East German, the 22-year-old Schmidt, harnessed some of his potential and reached 217'3", taking the silver from Powell. When the distance was announced. Schmidt shot his arms up in the air and turned toward Wilkins, who was standing nearby. Wilkins, who knew Schmidt only slightly but sensed a kindred spirit, caught him in a bear hug.
"It was one of those rare times when the Olympics did what they're advertised to do," says former U.S. women's shot put-record holder Maren Seidler, who witnessed it. "A guy's respect for another guy's come-through effort transcended nationality and ideology. And what happened? People were offended by it. Offended"
Indeed. In the ensuing madhouse of a press conference Wilkins was repeatedly pressed to defend his gesture. He had congratulated an East German for beating his own countryman. If that was not un-American, then it had to be an expression of dislike for Powell, right? It wasn't, but Wilkins could not fully convince the press of that, in part because he and Powell were known antagonists.
There, amid undercurrents of misunderstanding, the Wilkins-Powell rivalry was inflamed and the Wilkins-Schmidt friendship cemented. In the following years, both relationships would mature and entwine like something out of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, becoming ever more gothic, unearthly, titanic.
Wilkins paid for his embrace of Schmidt. The commercial doors that had opened for fellow champion Bruce Jenner stayed shut to Wilkins. But that was nothing compared with how Schmidt suffered. A good deal more relaxed with Westerners than most East German athletes were, Schmidt had the perfect thrower's youth. His father, Ernst, had been the East German champion in the shot and discus. He eventually became the national throwing coach. Ernst provided the weights, the technique, the discipline; Wolfgang provided the talent. By 19, the young Schmidt was European junior champion and earned the dizzying privilege of traveling, of appraising the world with his own eyes.
At a meet in Cologne in 1976, he had a talk with Wilkins. This was accomplished through subterfuge, while the two of them danced near each other with a pair of mystified girls in a disco so Schmidt's G.D.R. chaperone would be out of earshot.
They started discussing Vietnam and moved on to the Berlin Wall. "I said, 'Many things are not good about my country,' " recalls Wilkins. " 'And many things are not good about yours.' "
Schmidt was touched by Wilkins's candor. "Mac didn't gloss over it," Schmidt has said. "He didn't defend himself. He didn't accuse me of the Hungarian revolution, the wall, the orders to shoot. He said, 'Yes, Wolfgang.' I had never met such a man before."
Schmidt went home and talked about his American friend, which drove his father nuts. Ernst Schmidt warned him incessantly that his contact with Westerners would cause him trouble with East German officials. "You are running into an open knife," he said.
In 1978, Schmidt threw 233'5" and broke Wilkins's world record. He did it with a discus Wilkins had given him that year in Zurich.
By 1980, Schmidt was chafing under his country's authoritarian rule. The more he chafed, the more politically unreliable he was thought to be. Favored to win the discus at the Moscow Olympics, he injured his foot and finished fourth. He believes it was then that officials decided to make an example of him, a lesson to other athletes on the consequences of nonconformity. The following year, just before his 28th birthday, Schmidt, ranked second in the world, was told by the G.D.R. track federation that he had been retired.
In mid-1982, according to an account given by Schmidt last year to the West German newspaper Bild, Schmidt was driving to a workout in East Berlin (despite his "retirement," he continued to train) when his car was pulled over by a police car and several unmarked vehicles. He was surrounded by 13 men, who took him to a secluded villa outside East Berlin. Two men, who identified themselves as members of the Ministry of State Security, questioned him.
"I want out of this country," Schmidt told them. "I want to throw the discus. If I can't do this here, then somewhere else." Schmidt has said he was kept at the villa for 10 days, then handcuffed and taken to a minimum security prison. He spent four months there before the authorities even arranged a hearing.
When the government finally tried Schmidt, he was convicted of more than 30 charges, including "antisocial behavior" and attempting to escape the country. He was sentenced to 18 months in a prison in Frankfurt an der Oder, near Poland. "You must understand," he has said, "only because I am so friendly with Mac, this is the reason for all."
Three months before the end of his sentence, he was released and given back his house in East Berlin. But he was never allowed to resume training.
Word of Schmidt's plight filtered out to Wilkins and other friends in the West. As the years passed, the one sure way to abruptly end an East German press conference was to ask, Whatever happened to Wolfgang Schmidt? Yet it may have been those embarrassing questions that helped save him.
Last November, Schmidt unexpectedly was told to leave the country. He went at once to stay with relatives in Hamburg. He called Wilkins, who went there to see him three weeks later. Together, shaking their heads, bursting into astonished laughter, they went out to a field in drizzly 35° weather and for 2½ hours threw the discus.
At Wilkins's invitation, Schmidt went to San Jose in February to train. There he obtained a document that he would take out and stare at often, saying, "It's a dream." It was a California driver's license. He sent photocopies of it to his former teammates in East Germany. For $1,000, Schmidt bought a big, brown 1974 Mercury Cougar. "But for it to run," he said, "I had to pay another $500 for reparations."
Thus began the San Jose spring of 1988.
John Powell created a monster," says Jon Hendershott, an editor of Track & Field News. "In Mac Wilkins, he just picked the wrong guy to mess with mentally. But once the monster was there, John had to rise to the occasion himself. And away we went...."
What followed was 15 years of magnificent, no-quarter throwing. Since 1973, Wilkins has won six national championships, Powell seven. "But from 1985 through '87, Powell won cheaply," says Wilkins. "I was retired then."
When Powell finished second to Schult in the 1987 World Championships with 217'3", Wilkins unretired. Last April, at the Mt. SAC Relays, Mac threw 222'11".
Unlike Wilkins and Schmidt, Wilkins and Powell are not soul mates. They are more like soul samurai, never slain, always rising and returning to battle again. "It goes beyond job or house or reward," says Hendershott. "They both have that incredible intensity toward the discus itself, that curious round piece of metal and wood. Add the prod of each other, and it must seem unbearable."
Powell, in bringing out an instructional videotape on the discus in 1985, put Wilkins in it without getting his permission. Then Wilkins brought out his own videotape. "I became convinced I could do better," he says. "But it's always been more my sense of what's right and wrong that has bothered me about John. He gives the impression he has the secret. He heaps abuse on people. He's a teacher. Well, I'm a teacher, and I don't think that's necessary."
When historic track rivalries, such as Bannister versus Landy, and Ryun versus Keino, are discussed, Wilkins says quickly, "Don't pair us up. I don't consider John to be my peer as a thrower."
Powell is the discus-throwing coach at Stanford. He trains and instructs at the same time, beneath the live oaks and eucalyptuses of Angell Field. He arrives an hour before his varsity throwers and pupils, such as American women's discus record holder Carol Cady and 1984 U.S. Olympic shot-putter Augie Wolf, a 6'7", 275-pound Minnesotan and Princeton graduate. Powell warms up by throwing the hammer. "He spins faster with the hammer than with the discus." says Johnson, the Stanford coach. "That trains him to think at a faster speed." Powell puts great emphasis on technique. Others are catapults; Powell is a fly rod. At least that's the principle. His forte is timing.
Wolf is struggling to regain his form. In 1985 he was suspended for 18 months for refusing to submit to a drug test at a meet in Norway. Since coming back in 1987, he has had a series of injuries. Powell works with him on technique.
"Those who believe they can and those who believe they can't...are both right," he says. "Get your butt in gear, Augie. Life is over at 30." Wolf is 26.
He winces when Wolf gets into a hunched position. "Why do that when you're losing a meter? Ah, a question only a Princeton grad would answer."
Wolf, this accomplished man with a powerful intellect, seems a puppy in Powell's presence. That's all Powell needs, a puppy.
"Yell when you throw that thing," grumbles Powell.
"I don't yell much."
"You gotta emote."
"I screamed on every throw in the Olympics, and it didn't help," says Wolf, who placed fourth in L.A.
"Anything Augie and I do, except throwing, he beats me," says Powell. "He's strong, smart and quick, with the wingspan of a condor. And he goes half speed. When I was younger, I'd do three-and four-hour throwing sessions. And the progress would come in the third hour."
"Remember, when our wills come into conflict, mine wins," Powell says. His voice takes on an electronic crackle. "Augie Wolf, ladies and gentlemen, in fourth place in the Olympic trials, must improve an inch to make the team.... Alternates will be given a uniform, a souvenir uniform...maybe."
Wolf uncoils, executes a throw without yelling and steps on the toe board. "He fouls," says Powell.
So bunched are Wolfs throws, they have blasted a crater. "As Wolfgang says," intones Powell, allowing Wolf an extra throw in this make-believe effort to make the Olympic team, " 'The train, she is leaving.' "
Before Wolfs final throw has begun to descend, Powell says, "Nice finish." The shot strikes a yard beyond any recently disturbed earth.
"Why? Oh, why did you over-achieve?" cries Powell. "You relax and you make a meter more!"
Wolf's expression combines elation and puzzlement. "John has it figured that I don't respond well to positive feedback," he says calmly.
Most of Powell's associates would understand what Wolf is going through. Once Powell didn't talk directly to Cady about the discus for a year. "If she was going to listen to every damn voice in the wind, fine," he says. "Mine wouldn't be one of them." Cady eventually regained her athlete-coach alignment and set the American women's record of 216'10" (the women's discus weighs one kilogram, half as much as the men's) in 1986. She is also the national weightlifting champion in the 82.5-plus kilogram class.
In dealing with others, Powell seems almost to welcome crises, even to create crises, so as to force them to find a way out. Powell himself is the essential way finder. "Schmidt said the East Germans hated it when John got second in the worlds," says Wolf. "In the G.D.R., people are old at 35. That's one reason Schmidt was let out. They thought he had to be finished at 33."
"I was lucky in Rome," says Powell. "There had been rain, and the ring had a funny dome shape. The center was an inch higher than the rim. It was chalky. I threw in training flats warming up and found they gripped. So I just kept them on for the finals."
His first throw was 217'3". "I could see everyone else slipping. They were like 400-horsepower cars on an oil slick. I was maybe a 200, but with a little traction. If it hadn't been for that wet ring, I'd have thrown like everyone else, and they'd have beaten the crap out of me."
Experience, however, told. Only world-record holder Schult, who reached 225'6", could pass him. "And remember, there was no pressure on me," says Powell. "The 40-year-old wasn't supposed to have a chance."
How could he be there in the first place? This man who recalls being told in high school, "You've lost a step."
"The discus just hasn't developed like the shot," says Wolf.
"Well, the discus is a higher art form than the shot," says Powell.
"People coming up are soft," says Wolf. Powell shoots him a funny-you-should-say-that look.
"There's going to be a Wolfgang Schmidt-type guy come along," says Powell. "Even as we speak, I'm retired, a recreational thrower. But these young bucks know everything I know, and still they don't beat us."
"Ah, now the secret," says Wolf.
"It's as much a secret as buy low, sell high," says Powell. "The secret is go to practice. Stay in the ring. Keep it in the sector."
Twice this spring Powell traveled to meets in Florida with Schmidt. "Wolfgang is driving, and we stop on the freeway," he says. " 'Animal,' says Wolfgang. 'Unknown creature.' He runs back and holds up traffic to see this thing. It's an armadillo, a little baby one. After that he had a great eye for armadillos. He announced every one. He sent a card to Udo Beyer [of East Germany, the former shot put world-record holder], saying, 'Udo, when you are in Miami, you must go to Coconut Grove.' "
Schmidt has lost some of the boyish beauty that pierced hearts a decade ago, but he is still majestic. "I was walking behind him on the boardwalk, looking at girls' expressions after he passed," says Powell. "He had on just a bathing suit. The girls were priceless. They were biting their hands. He came back and asked me, 'What is hunk?' "
Powell, who is so obviously enjoying Schmidt's liberation, seems far from the manipulative ogre of Wilkins's description. "Paranoia is always ready to go to work on the guys," offers Powell. "I remember giving Ben Plucknett a ride to a meet in Berkeley. I told him I had to make several stops, and I took a new route. I got lost. Ben thought it was a plot. 'Powell made me late,' he said. Sometimes the best psychological things come off by accident.
"And some people are just waiting for the psych. 'I know it's coming,' they think, 'I know it.' Then when it doesn't come, it's the old 'never-coming psychological ploy'...."
At 10 in the morning, Wilkins and Schmidt are at the San Jose City College field. They are throwing sticks. No, on closer inspection, they're throwing 5½- and 6½-pound lengths of steel rod. "Helps your strength and slows you down so you're more aware of technique," says Wilkins.
When he throws, he roars. "An exorcism when you yell," he says.
Schmidt enters the ring, faces the rear and chirps a little bird whistle, the signal to Wilkins, out in the field with his back turned, that Schmidt is about to throw. All you hear for minutes at a time are screams, warbles and the sound of the steel missiles chopping into deep green sod.
"We're bringing out the best in each other," says Wilkins. "I see his intense concentration and I come to that level, too. We're doing two-a-day workouts, throwing in the morning, lifting in the afternoon." The art and the strength.
Throwing finished, they run. Then they stretch, cool down and drive to some place that sells very large lunches. Wilkins's Volkswagen Rabbit license plate reads THE HOPS from his days as a home brewer.
"I still like to think that I'm almost crazy," Wilkins says. "I can't see boundaries to my behavior. But this thing [craziness] isn't a matter of fife-style so much as a matter of what you're doing in the ring. You don't have to be a Charles Manson outside the circle."
The bond between Wilkins and Schmidt grew out of a shared passion. "Human progress comes like waves on a beach." says Wilkins. "Wolfgang and I were part of a great wave."
"We were a little bit special," says Schmidt. "John, Mac and me, we all had the world record at one time. In 1976-78 we were five to 10 years ahead of the others with hard training and nearly perfect technique."
Wilkins and Schmidt became friends on the basis of a moment's impulse and a few stolen sentences. "Now it turns out we've known each other all along," says Wilkins. "We both hate it when things aren't right. We both cannot endure not being understood."
"Mac, the people who were against you in 1976 [over the hug]," says Schmidt, "what do they say now that I'm here? They're happy, right?"
Schmidt's blue eyes grow wide as he says, "I am here two months now. It is my life's dream to do this, to throw with Mac. I'm so happy. Now I know why I spent 15 months in prison."
In May, Schmidt returned to West Germany, which had accepted him as a citizen, as it automatically does all East Germans who go to live there. He will live and train in Stuttgart. Under IAAF rules, an athlete who has represented one country in the Olympics and wishes to represent another must live in the second country for at least three years before he's eligible to represent it in the Games. If both countries agree, and the IAAF approves, the waiting period can be reduced to one year. (Until June 22, Schmidt might have had a chance for such a waiver. On that day, in Reykjavik, Iceland, he threw 223'10".)
"I must go back," he says. "I am a German. But my heart stays here in California with the other discus throwers." They go to Wilkins's new home, a place of arches and tall rose bushes. Wilkins's wife, Fran, is there, with their 22-month-old son. Drew, who already has begun patterning his discus footwork. Wilkins puts on his discus videotape.
"This is my statement," he says. "I can do no more." The dedication flashes on the screen: "To Wolfgang Schmidt,...since 1981 a political prisoner in his native East Germany. He is a friend and fierce competitor...a man who loved to throw the discus."
Then you see Schmidt's last throw in Montreal, and the hug. It seems such a brief, civil coupling to have caused so many years of separation and longing.
"The throw is a little too much to the right, I think," says Schmidt.
"Yeah," says Wilkins. "A power throw."
These men all live in defiance of limits. In common, they storm against them, finesse them, weep over them, ignore them, grow whimsical or venomous because of them. All limits: gravitational, social, political, metaphysical, pharmacological. Age.
It follows that they are the most open of men, always ready to adjust an angle for the better. Perhaps it was that, or perhaps the moral phosphorescence of Schmidt's visit, but things were different in San Jose this spring.
On May 8, Wilkins had a going-away party for Schmidt. To Wilkins's astonishment, Powell attended. "He was quite amicable," said Wilkins later, letting it soak in. "There was a special feeling in the air." He glanced at the print of the giant thrower on his wall. "So there is hope for the human race yet."