Five ‘What if.?’s That Might Have Changed the Course of Track & Field

Wilma and friends

—by Red Shannon

Second-guessing history can be a fool’s pursuit. Certainly, no amount of hindsight will change its outcome. But if we can analyze history’s twists and turns, and determine the factors that changed its course, perhaps the lessons of the past can actually affect the unfolding of the future. In that spirit, I look at five critical landmarks that defined the course of track and field and shaped it into the sport as we know it today. Questioning how things might have been different, I dare to ask “What if . . ?“.


1. The Olympic Boycotts of 1980 and 1984

The former Soviet Union (USSR) and the United States were the definitive powerhouses of track and field for most of the latter half of the 20th century. The popular USA vs USSR dual meet series  ( 1958—1985 ) exemplified the intense rivalry between the two nations, both in the political sphere and in the arena of sports.

When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1980, U.S. president Jimmy Carter used a threatened boycott of the Moscow Summer Games in an attempt to convince the USSR to withdraw. The Soviets refused and the Americans, along with a handful of allies, followed through with the boycott.

When the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics rolled around, the Eastern Bloc nations got payback through their own boycott. While Carter’s action may have had some misguided justification based purely on political grounds, the Soviet Union’s counter move in 1984 was clearly one of blatant retribution.

In both cases, the forced stand-down by the respective heads of state had near zero political effect and regrettably, the athletes and fans of Olympic sports were the biggest losers. I’m of the opinion that the boycotts, and their long-lasting aftertaste, marked the beginning of track and field’s downward slide in terms of popularity among casual sports fans and in preferential treatment on the sports pages.

In a time when televised international sports (in living color)  was beginning to blossom and the wall of secrecy between East and West was just beginning to crack, it seemed an optimal time for athletics to soar to new heights. Unfortunately, it was also the worst time to call for a boycott, and at the stroke of Carter’s pen, what is now known as the heyday of track and field took the first slippery steps toward its decline.

What if both world powers had shunned politics in favor of allowing sport do the thing it does best—settle differences on the field of play, which usually culminates in a handshake or a hug?


2. Light Penalties for Convicted Drug Cheats

At the entrance to the ancient Olympic Stadium in Athens, Greece there stood a gauntlet of stone pedestals the athletes were required to pass through as they entered the stadium’s tunnel. On each pedestal the likeness of a former competitor, along with his family members’ names was engraved for all to see, as a reminder for all eternity.

Those granite athletes were not feted as victorious champions. They were cheaters who had been caught in the web of their own chosen method of performance enhancement. In that day bribery, intimidation, assault and simple herbal recipes were the preferred forms of cheating.  As punishment, along with the obvious personal sting of the “gauntlet of shame”, the offenders were banished from competition for life.

By the mid-20th century the stigma of cheating in sports was not so deep-rooted. In the 1960s, the growing practice of chemically-induced performance enhancement was so widespread it was openly used with little consequence—even celebrated. Only when its life-threatening side effects became known did it arouse concern.

Eventually, in an apparent act of new-found conscience, the governing body of track and field (IAAF) instituted testing and sanctions to curb the rampant culture of sports doping. Other sports bodies and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) followed suit.

Lyle Alzado - Steroids came to collect

Lyle Alzado – Steroids came to collect

A standard two-year ban and the relinquishing of medals and titles by convicted drug cheats was a punishment much too little and too late. In 2015, a possible four-year ban (depending on circumstances) was implemented to raise the stakes even higher for potential short-cutters. Sadly, the sports headlines related to drug scandal are today still just as prevalent as those for achievement.

The obvious next step in punishment is lifetime bans for proven intentional doping yet the relevant governing bodies cannot bring themselves to accept that threshold based on a perceived cultural taboo against violating an offender’s rights. Ironically, they stop short of enacting the one measure with a sufficient deterrence factor to actually do some good.

The various federations’ reluctance to take that next step may be a moot point if current research at the University of Oslo reaches the most probable conclusion in its study: that performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), once they are introduced into the human body, have a permanent performance enhancing effect—even long after the benefiting agent is withdrawn.

That study’s driving force, Prof. Kristian Gundersen, seems convinced the proof found in preliminary research with mice will transfer correspondingly to human testing. From an October, 2014 article by Tom Fordyce of BBC Sport:

“I would be very surprised if there were any major differences between humans and mice in this context.

“The fundamental biology of muscle growth is similar in humans and in mice, and in principle any drug that builds muscle mass could trigger this mechanism.

“I was excited by the clarity of the findings. It’s very rare, at least in my experience, that the data are so clear cut; there is usually some disturbing factor. But in this case it was extremely clear.

“If you exercise, or take anabolic steroids, you get more nuclei and you get bigger muscles. If you take away the steroids, you lose the muscle mass, but the nuclei remain inside the muscle fibres”[*ready to reactivate when exercise resumes].
*implied in article

Such a finding would immediately have the effect of disqualifying any past or current proven drug offender from sanctioned competition for life. The recovery from the resulting decimation of the sport of track and field would take years, not months. But sometimes, drastic surgery is necessary in order to save the patient.

What if the IAAF or IOC had stepped in much earlier with youth awareness, education, testing and extreme measures (lifetime bans) in an era when the rights of innocent victims (clean athletes) carried at least as much weight as the rights of the perpetrators? Early prevention is always better than a late cure.

3. IAAF Boss Lamine Diack Goes Unchallenged in 2011

In May of 2011, I asked in a Bleacher Report piece why Lamine Diack’s corrupt regime was apparently going to get another four years to further taint the sport without so much as a speed bump of resistance.

Lamine Diack – Took more than he gave.

Diack mercifully vacated his position in 2015 but not before unleashing one of the most unethical tenures in the history of the IAAF, including two controversial influence-peddling allegations related to the site selections of the 2019 and 2021 World Outdoor Championships.

The Diack family and some of his inner circle are even now under investigation for money laundering, drug coverups and other ethics violations.

The two candidates who vied for his vacant seat, former track and field greats Sebastian Coe and Sergey Bubka, were both available in 2011 but chose not to challenge Diack at that time. Coe presumably opted out in order to oversee the organization of the London Olympics in 2012. In an ironic twist, it has recently come to light that Coe presided over a  London Summer Games now being labeled as “unprecedented” in terms of doped performances.

And now Lord Coe, who did eventually win the IAAF’s top spot in 2015, finds himself up to his neck in a sport besieged with scandal. What if someone—anyone—with the qualifications, ethics and love of the sport had stepped up in 2011 to wrest the levers of power from Diack’s runaway train? Instead of Coe now having to spend months bringing that train under control, we might otherwise be comfortably rolling down the tracks to the World Championships in London ’17.

4. U.S. Defies Move to Go Metric

During the 1970s, those of us alive at the time were told to prepare for a global movement to standardize weights and measures to the metric system. It was a hard sell in the United States due to a collective stubborn streak fostered in the early days of America’s independence from Great Britain.

The movement had some initial success, primarily in the medical, science and manufacturing sectors. And by virtue of its international footprint, track and field was one of the first sports to convert. The common American sports fan, however, would not yield to the pressure, unable to imagine a football or baseball game being played on a metric field.

In time, hardcore track fans became accustomed to making the mental conversion from imperial length and height measurements to metric. But the casual fan was lost without a conversion chart, and could not comprehend a 6.0 meter pole vault or an 89.0 meter javelin toss, much less a 5kg iron ball.

This mental disconnect has inhibited, if even in a small way, the attraction of new fans to the sport. The world’s simplest and purest sport has one tiny flaw when its least informed spectators can know who won but not “how high?” or “how far?”.

In a sport where distance and height (along with elapsed time) are the primary components in determining winners, the eventual total conversion to the metric system cannot come soon enough. Announcers, reporters and on-field reader boards actually do a  good job of providing both the imperial and metric equivalence for now, but until education (or attrition) eradicates the old ways in our sport, it’s a glitch we’ll have to live with.

There really is no “What if . . ?” answer to this problem unless it would be to mandate a metric converter as standard equipment on every new smartphone.

5. Two of Track & Field’s Iconic Figures Fail to Meet

Pavarotti performed at Carnegie Hall. Secretariat raced at Churchill Downs. But in one of the sport’s most tragic marketing fails, Usain Bolt never once competed at Hayward Field.

Please. No arguments about clashing shoe contracts, conflicting seasonal windows of opportunity or the Oregon income tax laws. It should have happened but it never did and it’s a crying shame that not one person has ever witnessed the decade’s signature athlete run on one the world’s most hallowed and fastest tracks with the benefit and aid of the legendary Hayward magic.

The most practical and probable occasion would have been the annual Prefontaine Classic meet, a Diamond League stop in early summer that is almost exclusively rated the top single-day invitational meet in the world. But it could have just as easily been a twilight meet or simply an all-comers meet. Lesser invitationals than the Pre have produced world records at Hayward. The point is, it could have happened but no one ever made it happen.

The good news is: someone can still make it happen, but time is short. What if someone did?

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Published in: on December 18, 2016 at 7:56 am  Leave a Comment  
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Wayde van Niekerk’s Triad Deserves More Than a Footnote in History

image credit: stadiumastro.com                                          (photo: stadiumastro.com)

—by Red Shannon

On Saturday, Wayde van Niekerk delivered a personal Piece de Resistance to one of athletics’ most respected, yet underrated accomplishments. And hardly anyone noticed.

It was overshadowed in the U.S. media by concurrent indoor track and field championship meets at both the professional and collegiate levels.

It did not come close to attaining the prestige of an Olympic or World Championship gold medal.

Heck, by today’s elite sprint standards and given the generous tailwind (1.5 m/s) and altitude factor, it would barely register on a global championship scale.

Even so, by winning the 100m final of the Free State Championships in Bloemfontein with a time of 9.98 seconds, the reigning South African 400m world champion became the only man in history to have run a sub-10 second 100m, a sub-20 200m and a sub-44 400m.

And this is what makes it a big deal:

It’s a feat the great Michael Johnson or Usain Bolt were never able to achieve. Johnson never broke 10 (10.09) and Bolt has yet to eclipse 45 (45.28). In fact, Tyson Gay was the only previous member of the now obsolete sub-10, sub-20, sub-45 club.

That’s some pretty good company to be stepping over as van Niekerk climbs into exclusive territory. And it deserves more than an asterisk in the record books of track and field.

Consider this: It can be argued that any one of Niekerk’s best marks (9.98, 19.94, 43.48) could draw him a lane in most major world-class track meets. This is incredible versatility and range for a quarter-mile specialist.

The same argument could be applied to Gay’s triple (9.69, 19.58, 44.89)—a short sprinter who could competitively cover a world-class one-lapper, if he chose to make that his focus.

Regrettably, we’ll probably never know what a now aging Bolt could have accomplished in a full lap had he determined to exploit that distance. His notorious weakness (first 10 meters) would have been minimized while his long stride and physique would have been maximized.

Which makes Niekerk’s accomplishment all the more noteworthy. No one owns the totality of the 400 meter track in the way he alone does.

Not only is he knocking on the door of Johnson’s 400m world record (43.18), his youth only promises room for improvement in the other two distances.

What a shame that his recent trifecta will undoubtedly top out at the level of “trivia”, and no more!

 

Red’s notes:

There are other examples of great accomplishments being relegated to trivia status, mostly through improvements/modifications to implements.

For example, some argue that the pole vault records established before the advent of the flexible fiberglass pole should have their own place of honor. And javelin records, before the old 700g spear was weighted (800g) and reconfigured.

Virtually all the old track records based on yards (not meters) are gathering dust in some museum or trophy case.

Can you name some others?

 

 

Published in: on March 14, 2016 at 8:02 am  Leave a Comment  
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Mac Wilkins’ Incredible Day: 3 Throws, 3 World Records

Mac Wilkins

I once rubbed elbows with Hercules.

It was at the 1976 Olympic Track and Field Trials at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore. My wife and I were crossing a grass practice field during a break in the action. From a distance, our attention was drawn to a tall, dominant figure striding in our direction.

With each approaching step, the figure took on the glowing countenance of someone special—almost beyond human. Tanned, handsome and muscular, he was clothed only in the thin garments of competition—obviously an elite athlete in peak condition.

As an athlete myself, I had been around a few hard bodies, but I had never seen such a physical specimen as this. He whisked right by us, his long hair and mustache accentuating the aura of a Greek god. We were speechless, mouths agape.

When we caught our breath, the dawning of reality hit us both at once: That was Mac Wilkins!

That simple brush with greatness gave us a focal point for the summer. Wilkins became our hero (and my wife’s not-so-secret crush). Via television and newspapers, we followed his exploits right through his Olympic record and gold medal in the discus at the ’76 Montreal Games.

And though that Olympic masterpiece will no doubt be considered the high point of Wilkins’ incredible 23-year career, it may have been eclipsed (in terms of sheer accomplishment) at a relatively insignificant track meet in the Bay Area of California in early May of that year.

The San Jose Invitational was typical of the many regional meets of the era. World-class athletes—most of whom competed for clubs—would gather for semi-formal, fan-friendly competitions, without the instant fanfare of the all-seeing digital media of today.

On May 1, 1976, Wilkins, an Oregon native and University of Oregon graduate, was already at the top of his game. Only days before, he had broken John Powell’s world record by three inches with a 226-foot, 11-inch effort.

The two of them, on their march toward Montreal, faced off again in San Jose. Apparently, Wilkins thought his narrow squeaker past Powell’s record might be seen as a sign of weakness.

If any notion of weakness did exist, it was dispelled by what happened next.

With that in mind, I’ll let Garry Hill, who wrote about the meet for Track and Field News, describe the action:

Mac’s first warmup toss, a thunderous 230-footer, brought screams from a cheering section standing behind a barrier (protecting the vaulters) at about 240 feet.

It was a portent of things to come, as Wilkins went into his quick spin, utilized his great whip and unleashed a toss of 229-0. More screams from the cheering ‘section (i.e., decathletes Fred Samara, Bruce Jenner and Vince Pluckebaum).

Not even needing the measurement to know he had the record, Wilkins stepped out of the ring and yelled at Powell, “Put it away, John. It’s all over.”

Over for Powell perhaps, but not for Wilkins. “I wanted it again,” he said. And he got it, this one stretching out to 230-5. “Damn,” he said. “I’ve still got to catch Jay [Silvester’s never-recognized 230-11] and Faina [Melnik’s new women’s WR of 231-3] .” He did that too, with throw No. 3.

That one firmly established him as the all-time farthest discus thrower. A superb 232-6 (70.86 meters).

Three throws, three world records. Even with the remaining three throws tailing off at 219’9″, 223’4″ and 218’5″, it has to be one of the greatest throwing series’ ever.

And yet Wilkins was almost apologetic in his post-competition assessment.

From the Associated Press account of May 2, 1976:

“I felt good. I wanted to peak for this meet,” said Wilkins. But he added things could have gone even better.

“I hate to say my technique is off, but it is. It just wasn’t there. If everything had gone right, I feel I could have thrown 8 or 10 feet more.”

Later in Eugene, my wife and I watched from the stands as Wilkins won the trials.with a mere toss of 224’2″. Powell and Sylvester rounded out the US Olympic discus team. Later that summer, as we viewed the action from our living room, Wilkins went on to get his Olympic record and gold medal in Montreal, launching the disc 224′ even.

Powell took bronze behind Wolfgang Schmidt of the German Democratic Republic.

Wilkins would eventually further his personal best throw to 232’10” and make the US Olympic teams for 1980, 1984 and 1988, claiming a silver medal in the ’84 Los Angeles Games.

As would be expected from someone who has had such an investment in his sport, Wilkins continues to be seriously involved. His Mac Wilkins Throws Academy, just outside Portland, Ore., is his way of giving back.

And in spite of staying with me for over 40 years, I’m not sure my wife has yet gotten over that crush.

Rojofact: On June 6, 1986, late in Wilkins’ career, East Germany’s Jurgen Schult launched a monster world record throw of 243 feet (74.08 meters). It has not been breached in 27 years.

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Hayward Field Flashback: Michael Johnson, 1993

The world’s greatest quarter-miler has enjoyed over two decades of respect and admiration. As is true of most iconic sports figures, Michael Johnson has seemingly always been the face of his primary event—the men’s 400-meter run.

But there was a time when Johnson was shunned from the exclusive club of tried-and-true world-class 400m runners.

Fittingly, it was in the magical confines of Eugene’s Hayward Field—and the 1993 USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships—where Johnson paid his dues and entered the club.

Or at least got his foot in the door.

Johnson’s credentials to that point certainly merited attention. He was undefeated lifetime in all his 400m finals races. He was the only human to have broken both the 20-second barrier in the 200m (19.79) and 44-second barrier in the 400m (43.98).

Yet his elite 400m detractors questioned his durability and conditioning. Johnson was regarded as a 200m man who only ran the 400 in single races—without having to endure the grueling qualifying rounds of say, the World Championships or Olympics.

In addition, Johnson’s relatively short physical stature and running style—leaning backward, with short choppy strides—defied the accepted convention for a true 400m runner.

Butch Reynolds: “…the 400m is a MAN’S race…”

And so, as if to make a statement in Eugene as to his conditioning, Johnson arrogantly burst into a huge lead in his preliminary heat, then casually ambled—almost walked—to the finish line in 45.62.

World record holder Butch Reynolds (43.29), seeing the gauntlet thrown down, kept his powder dry in his quarterfinal heat but then blistered the track in the semis (44.81).

Quincy Watts, the 1992 Barcelona Olympic champion (43.50) also saw Johnson’s display and was determined to overcome an injury-plagued season (only five races) and put the young upstart in his proper place.

On the final day of the championships, in the final race, eight quarter-milers approached their blocks in one of the most anticipated contests ever held on the hallowed grounds of Hayward. Even a bothersome north wind which had rudely pestered the venue all weekend, suddenly settled down for the start.

Johnson, one of the best turn runners ever and aware of the visual advantage of the inner lanes, smugly claimed his lane three assignment. Andrew Valmon, the consummate 4×400 team runner—with multiple Olympic and World gold medals in the relays—knelt in lane four.

The 6’3″ Reynolds folded himself into the blocks in five. The 1991 world champion Antonio Pettigrew settled in lane six, and way out in lane seven, Watts—blind to the rest of the field—had but one option: make like a scared rabbit and “catch me if you can”.

Derek Mills, Darnell Hall and LaMont Smith would join the chase.

As the gun went up, the tension which had been building for three days—indeed all summer—congealed into a morgue-like silence.

Watts went out hard, quickly separating himself from Valmon, Johnson and Reynolds. At 200 meters, he clocked 20.95 and looked for all the world like the reigning Olympic champion.

Quincy Watts: “…if I was going to lose, they’d have to chase me down in the woods…”

Then, at about 250 meters, Johnson hit the after-burners, with Reynolds following on his right, rear flank. Valmon seemed frozen in their wake as they shot by on either side.

Coming out of the final turn, Watts’ dull racing edge (from inactivity) betrayed him. He relinquished his position first to Johnson, then Reynolds.

In the final straight, ironically it proved to be those short sprint races Johnson had been derided for which gave him the leg speed to fend off Reynolds’ challenge.

Johnson won in a new meet and Hayward Field record time (43.74). Then, it was Reynolds (44.12), Watts (44.24) and Valmon (44.28). Pettigrew (44.45) and Mills (44.62) also finished sub-45.

If this race finally got Johnson’s foot in the door of the 400m clubhouse, then a win at the World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany later that August would certainly guarantee a reserved seat at the head of the bar.

And that’s exactly what happened. In Stuttgart, Johnson (43.65) and Reynolds (44.13) again finished one-two with Kenya’s Samson Kitur (44.54) third.

Maybe even more impressive was the team of Valmon, Watts, Reynolds and Johnson winning gold in the 4×400 relay in a world record time ((2:54.29). Johnson’s split time was an unbelievable 42.94.

Of course, Johnson went on to win multiple World and Olympic golds and became the most dominant 400m runner of all time. He set the current world record (43.18) in 1999.

And once again, we see that uncanny connection between the Hayward Field mystique and the world’s greatest athletes.

Watch video of both men’s and  women’s 4×400 finals at 1993 Worlds.

also published (Feb. 2011) at:

Bleacher Report

Sports Then and Now

Track & Field: Simplicity is its Appeal

 

The common kitchen match.

It’s been around for nearly two centuries, essentially unchanged. Today’s high-tech geniuses have not come up with a cheaper, safer, more portable source of fire.

John Browning’s Colt .45 auto-loading pistol.

In an age where a missile can be guided through a knothole from outer space, Browning’s 1911 design is still without peer in regard to efficiency and reliability.

The Great White shark.

No frills. No attractive lures. It sees what it wants and gets it. Over millennia, it has not changed or evolved. The perfect killing machine has no need to adapt.

The beauty is in the simplicity.

Since man first became aware of his own existence, he followed a pattern observed in his fellow four-legged creatures: a playful pre-enactment of more serious matters to come.

Just as young pups and adolescent colts feigned aggressive behavior as practice for future survival, humans engaged in games, mimicking the skills necessary for hunting and warfare.

Running, jumping, throwing.  Strength, agility, speed.  An inborn competitive spirit drove man to seek the fastest, the strongest, the most enduring.

And such was the genesis of what we now call Track and Field.

The basic elements of my favorite sport have not changed over the centuries. It still comes down to a single individual, sometimes with a single implement, striving against an opponent to determine how fast, how high, or how far.

No frills, no protective gear, rain or shine, clothed in only the essentials. Competition in it’s most raw and fundamental form.This is why the sport appeals to me.

The beauty is in the simplicity.

Lately my sport has lost some of it’s popularity. Some blame drugs. Some blame a lack of media attention. Others say not enough blood and violence.

The drugs have been prevalent in almost every sport. Track and Field now has one of the most stringent testing regimens in sport, to the point of even banning some substances which have no performance enhancing properties at all. The modern athlete is subject to an ever-invasive presence few of us can relate to.

Since the “Golden Age of Track and Field” (1960s and 70s), yes, media attention has been diverted to other sports, more by default than public demand.

When one considers the two Track and Field powers of that day (USSR and USA), perhaps the two misguided Olympic boycotts in 1980 and 1984 did more lasting harm to the sport than good for the world.

Blood and violence? Society, with it’s onslaught of non-stop multimedia and virtual reality has become de-sensitized, and clamors for more and more stimulus. Is the sight of Usain Bolt twice demolishing two world records not stimulus enough?

The temptation by those in power, to right the sport’s ship, may tend toward the way of the world: more glitz and gimmicks. I appeal to those in power to not go in that direction. It will surely lead to the dilution of one of history’s purest sports.

The inaugural Diamond League Series, featuring the world’s top talent, teeters precariously in that direction. The format eliminates many of the traditional events at each venue to satisfy the time constraints of television—a reflection of today’s  “microwave” society.

While the basic concept is good in that it does guarantee the most elite athletes will appear at 14 venues across the globe, the series needs some tinkering. What is not guaranteed is that the best of the best will consistently meet head-to-head throughout the season.

A thrill-seeking public will quickly tire of yet another predictable outcome as the superstar athlete avoids his top rivals.

Given Track and Field’s steady popularity over the decades, perhaps a look back would be more prudent in searching for answers.

The current down cycle in the sport is but a blip in the grand scheme of things.

Track and Field has endured the Fall of Rome, the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, the Crusades, the Industrial Revolution, two World Wars and the Beatles. Through it all, it has maintained its purity, simplicity and integrity.

Society is not the constant in this equation. Our sport is.

Society will eventually sicken itself as its tolerance level for more stimulus is finally achieved. It will come full circle and again long for the pure and simple. Hopefully our beloved sport will be there waiting, unchanged, for a new generation of fans.

The beauty will be in the simplicity.

 

This article (originally written 2010) also published at Sports Then and Now

Published in: on November 26, 2011 at 9:41 am  Leave a Comment  
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A Match Race Made in Heaven

“It is the glory of God to conceal a matter.
It is the honor of kings to search it out.”

– Proverbs 25:2

So explains the many mysteries of this world, indeed the universe, and the possibility that some of the answers are there for us to uncover.

In the world of sport, the search for answers has led to breakthroughs in nutrition, equipment design, training techniques, playing surfaces, and the like.

However, not every mystery will be solved this side of eternity.

Yet we persist in digging, probing, and excavating tons of information in hopes of finding the ounce of truth: who is the fastest, the strongest, the greatest?

Jesse Owens or Carl Lewis?

Pele or Maradona?

Babe Didrickson Zaharias or Jackie Joyner-Kersee?

No definitive answer will ever come, given the disparity of eras, conditions, circumstances and information. We’re left with finding solace and satisfaction only in the pursuit of facts and in our final subjective opinion.

In that vein, one of the most cruel yet tantalizing of mysteries arises from the sport of kings: who was the greatest racehorse of all time?

We may have our personal favorites such as Affirmed, Seattle Slew, Citation, etc., but the consensus top-two equine champions of all time are none other than Man O’ War and Secretariat . The fantasy match up of these two superb athletes makes for one of the most exquisite quandaries one could imagine.

Separated by decades, there may be only a handful of humans still alive who were witness to the incredible feats of both horses. Even so, because the constantly-evolving sport was so different for both horses, an accurate comparison is impossible.

Nevertheless, allow this writer to provide some pertinent facts concerning these two front runners in the race for the title, Greatest Racehorse of All Time. Then, if you haven’t already made up your mind, you may decide.

Man O’ War and Secretariat’s uncanny similarities were more numerous than their differences. Both were big, strong, imposing stallion thoroughbreds. Chestnut in color, each was known affectionately as “Big Red.”

Secretariat was blessed with refined features and chiseled musculature, pleasing to the eye. Man O’ War was half-a-hand taller and slightly more bulky in frame…ruggedly handsome. Neither horse would have met rejection in the presence of an amorous filly.

War was foaled on March 29, 1917;  Secretariat on March 30, 1970. Each had 21 races and competed only as 2 and 3-year-olds. Part of the mystique surrounding these two specimens is the  speculation as to “what might have been” had they continued racing as 4 and 5-year-olds.

What separates these two subjects from all other outstanding horses is their total dominance during their racing years. Man O’ War’s record was 20 wins, 1 place. Secretariat had 16 wins, 3 place and 1 show.

If happenstance had placed the two stallions in the same era, it would have seemed as if twins were sent to thrill the sporting world for a few brief, magical years… and settle the issue once and for all. But it was not meant to be, and we must look at each horse individually, on his own merits.

Man O’ War

Out of Mahubah and sired by Fair Play , Man O’ War was foaled before the introduction of European bloodlines. He was truly “All American.” He raced on tracks far inferior to the fast surfaces of today.

He so dominated his competition, he was handicapped regularly with weights of 130 pounds as a two-year-old and 138 pounds as a three-year-old. This meant – above the weight of the jockey –  giving up over 30 pounds to his rivals…an incredible disadvantage by modern standards!

Testifying to his brute strength and willful heart, he was still able to set three world records, two American records and three track records in his career. His only loss was a controversial race where poor horsemanship by the jockey cost him a perfect record.

Man o' War - powerful, sturdy, courageous

In the Sanford Memorial, before starting gates were implemented, Man O’ War was caught facing the wrong way when the barrier fell. Giving the field a huge head start, and in spite of several jockeying errors, War still managed to finish second by a half-length to a horse named Upset .

As a three-year-old, the rugged chestnut easily won the Preakness and the Belmont before they were regarded as jewels in the Triple Crown. His owner, fearing the Kentucky Derby came too early in the year for a young horse to run a mile-and-a-quarter, opted out of that race. Thus, what later became known as the Triple Crown was denied Big Red.

The champion stallion was Horse of the Year in 1920 and entered horse racing’s Hall of Fame.

Man O’ War was retired to stud as a four-year-old, siring the likes of Crusader , Battleship, and War Admiral . His grandson, through Hard Tack , was the legendary Seabiscuit . He produced 64 stakes winners.

The great Man O’ War died in 1947 of an apparent heart attack.

Secretariat

Sired by the famous Bold Ruler and out of Somethingroyal , Secretariat was foaled one day after Man O’ War’s birthday anniversary.

His racing career lasted only 16 months but the standard he set during that time has been unequalled since.

At a time when television sports coverage was exploding, Secretariat acquired the phenomenon known as “star power.” After his two-year-old successes, expectations which would have crushed a lesser athlete, seemed to fuel the stallion’s fire.

Secretariat – chiseled, sleek, refined…

Like the greatest two-legged athletes, Secretariat always seemed to come through in the big races. As a three-year-old, he set track records in the Preakness and Belmont which still stand. Of course, he had earlier won the Kentucky Derby in record time, and went on to become the first horse in 25 years to win the Triple Crown.

In 21 races, the big colt set two world records, three track records and one American record. He was Horse of the Year in both his competitive years, running against some of the best horses in racing history. Of course, an induction into horse racing’s Hall  of Fame followed his brilliant career.

Secretariat retired as a four-year-old, eventually siring 57 stakes winners. At 19 years he developed laminitis, a painful and incurable hoof disease, and was put down in 1989. His most noted offspring were Lady’s Secret, A.P.Indy , Storm Cat and Smarty Jones .

~   ~   ~

Man O’ War and Secretariat: each dominated their half of the 20th century. They stand so obvious in their position as the best of the best…it seems a pity that the world will never witness a match race.

But perhaps someday, on the other side of eternity, (after waiting for the right moment of course) I’ll propose a best-of-seven match race series – on differing surfaces, at differing distances to settle this thing once and for all.

I have a feeling it will be a standing-room-only event.

But wait – on second thought, there won’t be a bad seat in the place.

Follow @rojosports

(November, 2009)

Published in: on July 8, 2011 at 2:01 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Undeniable Mark of a Champion: the Wheaties Cereal Box

"...better eat your Wheaties..." -Michael Jordan

Achievement. Controversy. Beauty.

And yes, even (perhaps especially) scandal and shame can get you on the cover of Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, or Time magazine.

But one—and only one—necessity is required for an appearance on the coveted face of a Wheaties cereal box: Champion.

In one of history’s most brilliant marketing schemes, the idea of merging the image and relevant minutia of a popular sports figure with a nutritious morning meal launched an American tradition, which has endured for over 75 years.

And what better way for average Joe to justify casting etiquette aside in favor of reading at the table?

Wheaties first hit the market in 1924. It was sold in a rather plain box without the famous action images generations have come to expect. Even so, the cold cereal—in flake form—was a novelty and quickly became popular. Previously, breakfast cereals were only of the hot porridge variety, similar to oatmeal or creamed wheat.

In early 1930s America, sports was in its heyday. Clever marketing agents at General Mills seized on the idea of placing fictional athletes on the Wheaties box. They were given names suggestive of positive athletic ideals, such as Jack Armstrong and Betty Fairfield. Jack and Betty were depicted in action poses with golf club and tennis racquet.

Soon, popular real-life athletes jumped on General Mills’ gravy train and offered their endorsement of the cereal in exchange for an appearance on the box—at that time, on the back or side panel. The commercial coup de gras came in 1933 when Knox Reeves, in a moment of  marketing brilliance, coined the simple slogan, “Breakfast of Champions.”

The great Yankee baseball icon, “Iron Horse” Lou Gehrig was the first pro athlete to grace the Wheaties box in 1934. Babe Didrikson Zaharias, the versatile “do anything well” phenom, in 1935 lent her endorsement and image and became the first female athlete on the box. In 1936, who else but Jesse Owens should become Wheaties’ first black athlete?

In 1958, General Mills took a gamble, and for the first time placed an athlete on the front of the box, giving the sportsman equal billing with its famous name and slogan. That athlete was Olympic pole vaulter Bob Richards.

Apparently the gamble paid off as Wheaties has maintained a record of longevity and popularity worthy of the “Iron Horse” himself.

In recent years, entire teams have been emblazoned across the front of the Wheaties box, symbolic of  the original theme of “Champion”.

Micheal Jordan, in keeping with his mega-star status and multiple championships, has been on the box an incredible 18 times. His memorable admonition “You better eat your Wheaties” still rings in our subconscious.

While “Champion” remains the sole qualification for a Wheaties box appearance, General Mills cannot guarantee the future conduct of its featured athletes. Tiger Woods for example, has had 14 appearances. It is doubtful he will be featured again.

Any elite athlete worth his salt longs for a spot on the Wheaties box. The honor is truly a stamp of approval in the American sports scene. Trophies and medals are nice but they remain, for the most part, unseen on the mantle or wall.

However, the Wheaties box—and its contents—is devoured literally and figuratively by millions of sports fans across the country every week.

To an athlete, that is an honor mere hardware cannot convey.

Anyone else craving a bowl of cereal right now?

Published in: on April 30, 2011 at 8:50 am  Comments (2)  
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Wimbledon, 1969: A Portrait of Pancho Gonzales

Some people are like a battered old pine

Not far from my place, there stands an old windswept pine, so hardened by the elements that even on a calm day it exhibits the posture of resistance. It seems unrelenting in its refusal to bow.

More than once, the old tree has symbolized for me the human traits of stubbornness, perseverance, endurance and toughness. Its sinewy skin and tightly-clenched roots tell of a life filled with challenge and pain. Yet it still stands there in defiant victory.

That sun-bleached, aged pine has not merely survived…it has actually thrived. The perplexity of that thought has often brought to mind a particular person. As I set about to research this story, it became clear that my subject was one such person.

Ricardo Alonso Gonzalez, the son of Mexican immigrants, faced the winds of adversity from the onset of his tennis career.

As a young minority teen-ager in 1940s Los Angeles, he was shunned by the upper levels of society. Gonzales often spent time watching tennis enthusiasts unwind at neighborhood parks and public courts.

He was intrigued by the combination of power and finesse that tennis required and would emulate the moves he so diligently observed through the fence. Thus was laid the self-taught foundation of Pancho Gonzales’ fabulous career.

Tennis became his obsession and predictably, his studies and social skills suffered. Truancy and trouble with the law soon followed. Then, a year of juvenile detention.

Though his talent was by now undeniable, his rowdy reputation and cultural roots ensured his exclusion from LA’s upper-crust tennis clubs.

Gonzales persisted, training on the public courts, and by the age of 20, he surprisingly won his first U.S. Championship title. He followed up with another U.S. title the next year and in 1949 he turned pro.

Between 1952 and 1961, he won eight U.S. Professional Championships and was regarded as the best player in the world in that span.

In those days, Grand Slam tournaments were amateur-only, denying Gonzales entry due to his professional status.

One can only estimate the number of Grand Slam titles he might have won between 1949 and 1968, the year the Slams were finally “open” to professionals.

Gorgo, as he was known in tennis circles, consistently dominated the likes of Frank Sedgeman, Tony Trabert, Ken Rosewall, Lew Hoad and Roy Emerson during his glory years. He prospered by relying on one of the most feared serves ever in men’s tennis – and a potent net game. He was equally adept playing on grass or clay.

At well over six feet tall, his imposing presence was enhanced by a panther-like quickness. The most devastating weapon in Gonzales’ arsenal however, was his competitive fire.

Some who knew him might argue it was his off-court conflicts which fueled that fire into a burning will to win. Others in his inner circle took that perception a step further, considering it more of a “rage” to win…

Known to be temperamental and sullen, Gorgo was generally not well-liked and seemed to relish the life of a loner. His six marriages testify to his fierce independence and hot temper.

In a career extending long past his peak years, Pancho continued to compete at a high level well into his 40s, eventually hanging up his racquet at 44. His tenure at the highest level of competition included at least 91 singles titles and 10 pro tour championships.

For such a long and colorful career, one event remains as a vivid portrait of Gonzales the person, the athlete, the legend: an unforgettable match against his former student.

It was Wimbledon 1969.

The record-setting contest was not a “Battle of the Titans” pitting No. 1 against No.2 in a climactic finals showdown. It was instead a first-round clash between a 41-year-old greying grandfather and a hungry young lion whom many at Centre Court considered the best first-day player.

The aging Gorgo, in a script appropriate for Hollywood, was to meet his rising understudy, 25-year-old amateur Charlie Pasarell.

What was predicted to be a competitive, yet routine battle turned into an epic 5 hour, 12 minute war: the longest match in Wimbledon history.

Set One

Interest and attendance was high for this particular match as the Wimbledon crowd had seen little of Gonzales over the years, due to the professional ban during his prime.

The student/teacher relationship provided an element of intrigue. Pasarell’s ascending status among the tennis elite helped fill the seats as well.

The tie-break had not yet been instituted in tennis, so combatants simply played on until one player achieved the two-point margin of victory.

The first set established the tone for the entire match.

Between Gonzales and Pasarell, there were 45 held serves. Neither player established a dominance. It was basically a point/counter point struggle.

This single set took on the characteristics of an entire match, with fatigue and muscle cramping eventually affecting play…especially for the elder pro.

Finally, as the sun was sinking low, the young Puerto Rican upstart placed an exquisite lob in Pancho’s backhand corner for a winner on his 12th set point.

Game (24-22) and set (1-0) to Pasarell.

Set Two

Physically weary and with daylight fading, Gorgo made repeated requests to suspend play. The umpire, Harold Duncombe, was firmly and curiously unrelenting.

When the fiery missile of Pancho’s will met the brick wall of Duncombe’s refusal, a classic Gonzales tantrum ensued.

As a statement of protest, Gonzales reportedly threw the set. After play was postponed, he stormed off the court, refusing the customary bow to the Royal Box.

A stunned crowd, which had been equally divided in their support, became unanimous in their boos.

Game (6-1) and set (2-0) to Pasarell.

Set Three

For Pancho, the bright morning sun was symbolic in its contrast to the dusky hues of the previous night. He seemed energized and gathered mentally, ready for the task at hand.

Pasarell appeared willing to continue his tactics of the first day: repeatedly hoisting lobs, hoping to tire the seasoned legs and neutralize the net game of his former teacher.

“Charlie, I know what you’re doing…and it ain’t working!” hissed Gonzales on a changeover. Was the teacher exploiting a known weakness in the student?

The set progressed as a tit-for-tat affair, both men holding serve. At 4-4, Gorgo’s once deadly serve began to shorten and Pasarell’s became stronger. Momentum started to swing in favor of the younger man.

Then oddly, as if taking to heart Poncho’s earlier verbal jab, Pasarell deserted the lob and reverted almost exclusively to his forehand. It failed him twice, in crucial chances to break serve at 8-8 and 10-10.

With Gonzales up 14-13, the young Puerto Rican prolonged the set (and saved set point) with three straight service aces. Then, serving again at 14-15, Pasarell betrayed himself with two disastrous double-faults.

Gorgo broke serve with a brilliant forehand pass – and another titanic set, which included 29 held serves, was over.

Game (16-14) and set (1-2) to Gonzales.

Set Four

The double-faults clearly unhinged Pasarell’s concentration. Smelling blood in the water, Gonzales began to envision victory, even as his body was beginning to wilt.

The boos of the previous night were all but forgotten as the crowd came alive, sensing the history being played out before them. Pancho, rather than Charlie, seemed to feed off the buzz.

By now, both men were beginning to struggle physically. At 3-3, Gonzales found success in moving his opponent back-and-forth across the baseline, peppering him with angled shots.

Two lost serves and another critical double-fault by Pasarell brought the match to even.

Game (6-3) and set (2-2) to Gonzales.

Set Five

Like two punch-drunk heavyweights, the combatants staggered to their opposite ends for the decisive set. In 1969 there were no timeouts for TV or rest stops at the changeover. It was a quick swipe with a towel and a swig of water…period.

The June sun was now high in the sky. Fatigue had stolen the sting from both players’ power strokes. They resorted to caressing the ball with english and finesse. Pasarell had returned to his lob. Gonzales leaned on his racquet between points, gasping for air.

As if dancing with death, Gonzales served at 4-5, down 0-40. Pasarell sent two lobs just wide and Gorgo hit a center-line ace to wipe out three match points and get to deuce. Six deuces later, Pancho saved his serve, 5-5.

Gaunt and grey, on the verge of the crippling stages of dehydration, the die-hard Mexican looked every bit the part of a haggered old tree still refusing to bow to the elements.

At 5-6, and again down 0-40, Gonzales found a reserved vigor and hit a smash, a cross-court volley and another ace to erase three more match points and draw even at 6-6. He saved another match point at 7-8. Riding a wave of successful first serves, Pancho became the aggressor, Charlie the defender.

After fighting off seven match points, Gorgo had the “dignified” Wimbledon crowd worked up to a lather as if it were World Cup Finals.

Finally, at 9-9, Pasarell faltered and lost serve at love.

Then, in the 112th game, Gonzales valiantly held serve as Pasarell’s lob at match point went long.

Game (11-9), set (3-2), and match to Gonzales.

If the tennis gods were cruel in depriving Wimbledon of Pancho’s presence during his prime, they at least were benevolent in granting her this spectacle…and on Centre Court at that!

Pancho Gonzales somehow recovered enough to win his next two rounds, then lost to Arthur Ashe in the quarterfinals. In an all-Aussie final, Rod Laver defeated John Newcombe in that memorable event, Wimbledon 1969.

To say that Gonzales influenced the game of tennis would be an understatement. This match in particular provided the impetus to finally institute the tie-break: a scoring concept which had been gradually gaining favor among the players.

Its intent was to shorten sets which had progressed to a 6-6 impasse. At that point, the tie-breaker would come into play, presumably to hasten the set’s outcome.

Earlier in Gonzales’ career, rule changes were introduced to handicap his dominant serve and immediate approach to the net. When Gonzales simply found other methods of domination, the rules were disbanded.

For over 25 years, Gonzales had an endorsement deal with Spalding. Then, after retiring from competitive tennis, he was Tournament Director for Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas for 16 years.

Yet when he died of cancer in 1995, he was virtually penniless and friendless…except for his last wife, Rita, and their two children. Rita’s brother, Andre Agassi, paid for his funeral.

~ ~ ~

After having drafted this piece, I went back to visit ol’ Mr. Pine Tree. I don’t know why, but I was half expecting him to be leaning a little lower, colors a little more pale…

Nope. He was still standing tall, showing the ravages of time for sure, but proud and very much alive, not unlike my memories of one of tennis’ all-time greats.

We keep our heroes alive by celebrating our memories with others who knew them and by introducing them to others who did not.

I hope Pancho Gonzales came alive for you.

written November, 2009
– for m.

Published in: on March 5, 2011 at 9:33 am  Leave a Comment  
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Barefootin’ – a new (old) trend in running

Sole upon soil: one of life's simple pleasures

Going barefoot in the summertime was a normal part of my early youth.

My brothers and I would shed our shoes at the first appearance of spring wildflowers and not return to their suffocating confinement until the nippy mornings of October.

Something primal and deep-seated compelled us to fling off our leather shackles and once again set sole upon soil in that most liberating of childhood rituals.

Within two weeks, our feet would form a callus pad and become impervious to gravel, pavement, hot sand and thorns. Then it seemed as though our running, jumping, darting and dodging reached new levels of intensity, excitement and joy.

For me, in those days (1950s), shoes were merely an inconvenient necessity. They provided warmth and protection from the elements—and an acceptance in our sophisticated fashion-conscious society.

Converse and Keds were the hot athletic brands of the day. Then Nike, Adidas and Puma took the track and field world by storm with their lightweight, specialized models. Research and development in shoe technology became a branch of science unto itself.

Shoe design then moved into every area of sport.

Emphasizing comfort, performance, and art, the foot covering became the prominent piece of athletic equipment—not just on the field of play, but on Madison Avenue and Wall Street as well.

And, apparently, even on the mean streets.

Shoe science has certainly played a huge role in the up-tick in athletic performance over the decades since the 1950s. But there has not been the expected decline in injury—especially injuries to the lower extremities. If anything, leg and foot injuries have increased .

This perception stirred me to write an earlier semi-satirical piece on injuries in professional basketball. My instincts as a former barefoot boy have led me to believe that sometimes, in our effort to move forward, we forget to look back.

And now there is a growing body of thought among runners that shoe technology may have inadvertently forced us to run in ways which are not natural to the human form. Consequently, undue stresses have been placed on areas of the body not designed to withstand those stresses.

For example, today’s highly cushioned shoes (especially in the heel area) have conditioned runners to place more weight on the mid-foot to heel, rather than the more natural ball of the foot. The increased pounding is then transferred as stress through the leg bones, affecting the ankle, knee and hip—and adjoining connective tissue.

Also, high-tech shoes by their very nature have given the foot a false sense of security, thereby weakening the very component designed by nature to be the strong foundation in the running motion.

More and more runners are implementing barefoot training in their regimens and are discovering better form and fewer injuries. Perhaps track legends like Zola Budd and Abebe Bikila, both world-class barefoot runners, were really onto something.

While barefoot running may be on the verge of rediscovery as a means of training or  competition or simply pleasure, it may not be for everyone. Strict warnings are given to consult an expert first, if one is being treated for conditions such as diabetes for example.

The big shoe companies have wisely not dismissed the current interest in the return to nature. Sensing instead a possible wave of the future, they have designed minimal footwear such as Vibram’s Fivefinger (photo) and Nike’s Free 4.0.

This open-mindedness on the part of Big Shoe has led to internal research which has only validated the claims of the barefoot crowd: running shoeless is more natural, more efficient, less stressful and more enjoyable.

And now, as I lean back in my chair, feeling a bit more justified in my instincts and suspicions, I do the most appropriate and normal thing in the world: kick off my shoes!

Recommended reading:  Born to Run

(written January, 2010)

Published in: on January 15, 2011 at 9:37 am  Leave a Comment  
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Rojo Remembers: pole vaulting’s quantum leap

The image of pole vault icon Bob Richards’ smiling face is still vividly etched in my mind. He was the first athlete to grace the front of the famous Wheaties cereal box.

Over many a morning meal, I remember being entranced with the idea of a man launching himself 15 feet in the air, propelled only by his own momentum and a rigid metal pole.

Almost as amazing to me was the fact that one could survive the fall from that height into a thin bed of wood shavings.

The element of danger and the prospect of flying was high-octane additive for a young lad who had just consumed his Wheaties.

I obtained a bamboo pole (used to carry rolls of carpet) from a friend’s dad. My brothers and I set up a backyard vaulting pit using 2 x 4s as standards and a thin piece of corner moulding as a crossbar. Carefully spaced nails in the 2 x 4s provided a serviceable height adjustment. Several wheelbarrow loads of sand became the landing area.

I’m sure the sight of our industry would have inspired a Norman Rockwell painting.

From those humble beginnings (and after a transition to a metal pole), two milestone achievements have stuck with me over the years: I managed a vault of eight feet in elementary school and increased that to 11 feet in junior high school.

I was already setting my sights on new horizons in high school.

About that time (early 1960s), Jon Uelses revolutionized pole vaulting by eclipsing the magical 16-foot barrier using a new, flexible fiberglass pole.

The sport has never been the same since.

The rigid tubular aluminum poles became obsolete almost overnight – and the century-old technique of vaulting with a rigid pole went the way of the dinosaur as well.

It was my good fortune to have witnessed this quantum leap in the sport – and equally my misfortune to endure a forced return to the proverbial drawing board in my training.

Everything from the planting of the pole to the fly-away at the top had to be de-programmed and re-learned.

But it was inevitable. At the elite levels, rigid-pole vaulting had nearly reached its peak. Athletes could not generate the runway speed necessary to overcome the leverage problems created by longer poles.

Indeed, the world record had hovered in the 15-foot range for nearly 20 years.

In my sophomore year of high school, my vaulting buddies and I were like cavemen discovering fire as we experimented with the new poles. It must have been a comical sight to behold three curious Neanderthals as they were hurled about by the rubbery sticks.

Coach found some instructional film and in time, we learned to control the things. That sophomore year was spent in studying and practicing a whole new way of vaulting.

The old, stiff poles required much more upper body strength to literally pull one’s own body weight up and over the bar. The new fiberglass poles used the stored energy in the flex of the pole to do more of the heavy lifting.

Tumbling and trampoline work were popular cross-training methods employed to develop the acrobatics necessary at the top end of the vault.

Choosing the right pole in relation to the vaulter’s weight and controlling the bend of the pole are both critical elements to the successful modern vaulter.

Today’s fiberglass and carbon fiber poles are very temperature sensitive as well, and the stiffness factor built into each pole can be critical – especially in outdoor meets.

As a junior, I finally began to get the hang of the new pole and increased my PR to 12 feet. The following year, I vaulted 13-7 at the district qualifier for the State Championships. The state high school record at that time was 14-6.

Today, high schoolers are vaulting 18 feet.

Pioneers I remember from those early days of flex-pole vaulting are John Pennell, Brian Sternberg and Bob Seagren. They, and others, took an already exciting event and literally elevated it to new levels.

Pole vaulting (both men’s and women’s) is now one of the most popular and technically demanding events in Track and Field. The current world record, set by Ukrainian Sergey Bubka in 1994, is over 20 feet.

It’s been 16 years since that standard was set. Is it time for a new innovation?

*

In the next installment of Rojo Remembers, I take a personal look at another event which was transformed during that same time frame: the high jump. My contemporary and former cross-valley rival, Dick Fosbury literally turned the event upside down.

Rojo Fact: Casey Carrigan, out of Puyallup, Washington, made the 1968 Olympic team as a 17 year old pole vaulter. He set the national high school record of 17-4 in 1969 – quite a feat, considering Pennell’s world record at the time was 17-9.

Watch  video clip

(Wheaties image courtesy of General Mills)

Published in: on December 4, 2010 at 11:01 am  Leave a Comment  
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