Milan Tiff, 40, stood on the triple jump runway at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., the past swirling around him. Al Oerter, 52, had just thrown the discus 205'10" and was prowling the infield with a towel around his neck, just as he had paced in Mexico City 21 years ago before winning his fourth Olympic gold medal.
Tiff had taken part in the 1972 Olympic trials in this same stadium. He looked at the sky. "They were the same heavens I saw two decades ago," he said.
And he was virtually the same jumper. Last Thursday he ran with lightfooted speed, twice bounded low, then rose with remarkable power and struck the sand at 51'6¼", an age-group world record for men 40-45. That was less than a foot short of his distance in the '72 trials.
Then Tiff sat, a little stiff but enthralled, as the VIII World Veterans Championships, the largest track meet in history and surely the most congenial, unfolded around him. Some 4,950 athletes from 58 nations had come to Eugene for 10 days of reunion and rediscovery, contesting each of 30 track, field, road and cross-country events in 12 age brackets, beginning at 40 for men, 35 for women.
August 13, 1989
The opening ceremony had been a spectacle of the ages. The 1968 Olympic 1,500-meter champion, Kip Keino of Kenya, now 49, carried the torch with his smile undimmed, intensifying the heady sense of Olympic dèjà vu. The younger athletes, of whom this writer was one, marched in front of the more mature, so with a glance back we could see our future selves coming along behind, ever more gray and leathery. This seemed comforting. There was obviously a lot of life yet to come down the line.
That could be seen in the first of the 21 separate finals of the 200-meter dash, in which the oldest raced first. Among the men were 94-year-old Wang Chingchang of Taiwan and 90-year old Herbert Kirk of Bozeman, Mont. Wang bolted to a five-meter lead off the turn. But Kirk charged with 80 meters to go and passed Wang with 40 left, as the crowd stood roaring. Wang, amazingly, dug down and repassed Kirk, winning by a foot, 52.21 to 52.33. But this race wasn't over.
Kirk, who had given up tennis at 86 because he could no longer see the ball, didn't see the finish line either. He kept right on sprinting. Wang, fiercely competitive, went with him, and they dueled for another 70 meters before they were stopped. As they trotted back, it was in front of a delirious, tearful throng.
The crowds in Eugene reached as high as 7,500, drawn most, it seemed, by the childlike quality of these oldest athletes. The 80-, 85-and 90-year-olds were sometimes unconscious of superficial aspects like finish lines because they were so intent on showing off and delighting in their very practiced movements.
"Guy 90 years old triple jumps 12 feet!" said Tiff of Mikko Salonen of Finland (who actually leaped 11'8¼"). "That's amazing. It's a goal of mine now, in two parts. First, get to 90, then be jumping, be still leaving the earth."
Seventy-six-year-old Johanna Gelbrich of West Germany, tan and strong, shot by en route to winning her 200 in 38.65. "She's German," mused Tiff. "She came through all that Hitler stuff, all that war when she was in her 20's, and look at her now. How are we going to get through everything that faces us?"
Paula Schneiderhan, also of West Germany, won a tight race for the 200 in an age 65-69 world record 31.65. "Thirty one seconds!" said Tiff. "That's hard for anyone, of any age. Think what an extraordinary sanctuary we've come to. How on earth have they all reached it?"
Another older competitor, 72-year-old Pay ton Jordan, has kept very close to his sport. The coach of the 1968 U.S. Olympic track team, Jordan coached at Stanford from 1956 to '79 and perfected a personal system of very gradual warm-ups, drills and rest days that have preserved his speed. He won the age 70-74 100 in 13.28 (his world record for that age group, set two years ago, is 13.00) and added the 200 in 27.09 and the 400 in 1:06.02.
The 200s concluded with the return of Eddie Hart, 40, who won the 1972 Olympic trials 100 in a then world-record-equaling 9.9 and anchored the U.S. Olympic 400-meter relay team to victory. Now, alas, he is better remembered for being one of two U.S. sprinters who showed up late for the 100-meter quarterfinals in Munich and was disqualified. Hart had already won the 100 in Eugene in 10.87, and as he pulled away to take the 200 in 21.74, he seemed identical to the sprinter of memory, his hair only lightly touched with white, as if he had dashed through a freezer. "This could get a lot more competitive," he said, "Plenty of guys, if they could see this, they'd start training today."
The evergreen Oerter won by almost 31 feet, troubled a little by the new discus he had to take up at age 50. It weighs but 3.3 pounds, down from the regulation 4.4. "It's like trying to throw a cookie or a potato chip," he said. "It's gone before you can really lean on it."
But of the gathering, Oerter spoke in the highest terms. "This is more like the Olympics than the Olympics." he said. "None of the drugs, politics or money. Just people who enjoy competition without being desperate or unwell about it. Of course, this is an elite group. They have a lot of advantages."
They all could afford the trip, for one thing. A study has shown that the competitors in these veterans' meets (masters is the term more commonly used in the U.S.) are affluent, educated and competitive, but only about half made a career out of athletics in their youth.
"I didn't know any of the guys in my event." said Tiff, "but they were good. I asked them, Where were you in '72?' They said they'd jumped for fun, but didn't buy into the 'athlete' label. They did it more for the art of jumping."
Indeed, the few Olympians who have persevered seem most moved by the act of testing themselves and less by the reward. Yet in the older brackets, those who shone in youth have long since been eclipsed by those who rose up later.
With one glaring exception. The Reverend Bob Richards, 63, won Olympic pole vault golds in 1952 and '56 and has been hurling himself over the bar ever since. In Eugene, a recurrence of an old injury in his right knee forced him to miss the decathlon, but he entered the vault anyway. "It's bone against bone, and it hurts." he said, "but you have to live with the aches and pains."
The sight of Richards gimping around in search of ice and DMSO gave rise to a passing fear that masters' competition provides a convenient venue for obsessive souls to grind themselves down to nubs. And a man who has given 14,000 motivational speeches can hardly be expected to know when to quit.
Even wounded, Richards cleared 10'6" but lost the gold to Alfred Woods, 60, of Great Britain, who made 10'10". Woods picked up a pole for the first time at the age of 55. In the end, Richards' doggedness seemed to be put into perspective by a remark elderly competitors often make about their continuing absorption: "Consider the alternative."
A preponderance of the champions in Eugene hailed from lands where sport is conducted not in schools but in clubs, where men and women may train and compete throughout their lives among old friends. So as athletes from Australia, New Zealand, West Germany and Finland amassed medals and records, they became testimony to the vigor that the club system sustains.
New Zealand's Ron Robertson (age 45-49 steeplechase, 10K road race and cross-country) and Derek Turn bull (60-64 800, 1,500, 10,000, 10K road race, cross-country and marathon) and Australia's John Gilmour (70-74 1,500, 5,000, 10,000, 10K road race, and cross-country) ran tirelessly and with fiery purpose, winning 14 gold medals. Gilmour set two age-group records.
Dozens of such records fell, and who could sort through all the ages and events to somehow fix on the most significant? The most dramatic was that of Wilson Waigwa of Kenya in the 40-44 1,500 meters. Passing the 800 in two minutes fiat, he hung on to finish in 3:49.47, breaking the age-group record of 3.52.00 set by Michel Bernard of France in 1972.
Waigwa also won the 5,000 and seems the best bet to be the first man over 40 to run a sub-four-minute mile. His 1,500 is the equal of a 4:06.5 mile.
Keino, who had a sore knee and didn't make the final of the 44-49 1,500, gaped at Waigwa's race and said, "These people are serious. If I want to run, I have to be serious, too. Next time [the IX Games are set for Turku, Finland in 1991], I'll be 51 and in a new group and running harder."
Of course, seasoned old runners, as this 1968 and '72 Olympic marathoner found in attempting the age 45-49 5,000-meters, are sometimes so seasoned we crack. "I guarantee you, when it starts to hurt, the adrenaline won't be there," said 1968 and '72 Olympic 1,500 runner Arne Kvalheim of Norway. "We used it up in the old days."
I scoffed. I had prided myself on finding emotional peaks in big races. But after a mile the old hot desire flickered to merely an idle wish that I run a little faster. I finished in 16:11, half a minute slower than I felt was possible. This left me to marvel at the fierceness of winner Antonio Villanueva, 49, of Mexico, as he lapped me on the way to 14:46.66.
I had never been lapped before in an outdoor race. But an odd thing happened. Instead of castigating myself for not being tough enough, I allowed that it wasn't a bad run off three months training. No one else seemed to be let down, either. "Remember the nerves we used to have coming onto this track, and how much we hurt?" said an old Oregon teammate. 1965 NCAA steeplechase champion Bruce Mortenson, who had turned in less than his best time in the 10,000. "I'm happy it's not that way now. Finally, it's fun."
So it sank in that there were no—or very few—sufferers in the Veterans Championships. Losing had lost its sting, though to watch the whooping victors, winning never goes stale.
"Right now, this is the place where the elephants go to lie down," said Tiff grandly. "A place all of us who were born athletes and who will die athletes can come and be with our kind. It's pure. But perhaps not for long. Look at these crowds. As the baby boomers age, the audience will continue to grow for masters sport. Soon, they'll corrupt this. There will be commercial sponsors and shoe deals and pretty soon it will be, "Carl Lewis, we're waiting for you.' "
The final indignity shone clearly ahead for Tiff. "It's inevitable," he said. "In a few years they'll fuse the Olympics with the Masters."
In that light, the meet again seemed suspended at a golden moment, its participants set free from the seriousness of youth. Set free, as Tiff saw it, even from the forces that make us wither.
"Time doesn't change," he said. "It's only in our minds that it's rushing past."