An Unconventional Encounter With a Real Track & Field Fan

Soviet relay team

photo: Soviet women’s 4 X 100 relay team

by Red Shannon

Out of the blue, an e-mail recently came across my feed from a stranger who had read my historical account of the iconic 1962 USA vs USSR track meet in Stanford Stadium. The writer’s dad had been an attendee at that two-day meet from yesteryear.

Lew, a teacher, was enrolled in a summer class at Stanford that year and had decided to get a seat in the massive arena. It was quite the hot ticket during the heyday of track and field—especially since the Americans and Soviets were locked in a bitter Cold War rivalry, both in sports and in politics.

At my computer, I imagined sitting next to Lucky Lew even though I would have been only 13 in 1962. Still, I was a serious follower of track and field in our local sports pages.  In those days it was regular fare on the fledgling ABC’s Wild World of Sports. I was well aware of the USA vs USSR series and knew the meet in Palo Alto was about as close to home (southern Oregon) as it was ever going to get. As I drifted back to my younger self, I pondered the possibility and just how much I would have given to plop down in that imaginary seat next to Lew.

In hindsight, we now recognize that 1962 meet as one of the greatest track meets of all time—certainly one of the top-three dual meets ever. Its prominence in history has as much to do with the somber implications to the planet (think Cuban Missile Crisis and armed Soviet nuclear warheads aimed at the USA) as the extraordinary level of camaraderie, sportsmanship and competition on the field.

Further into the email, the writer (Steve) told me his dad died in 1991. Steve and his wife were moving and, after apparently deducing I was a track and field fan, he asked if I’d be interested in some of Lew’s mementos from the meet. I was thinking a program perhaps, and some vintage newspaper clippings and a few copies of black-and-white photos of the stadium and track.

After all, old Stanford Stadium filled to the brim with enthusiastic track fans on both days (total attendance over 150,000) is something we just don’t see anymore. And the hammer, featuring Hal Connolly, contested on the main field? The remarkable Soviet duo—tiny Irina and her stout sister, Tamara Press? The great world record high jumper Valery Brumel in his prime?  Even from the nosebleed seats, photos of those attractions would have been keepers. Not to mention some long-lost names from the past on authentic yellowed newsprint. Sure, I’d be very interested.

Two days later, a large manila envelope arrived in the mail. One by one, as I pulled the contents from the envelope, the impact of having received the artifacts themselves became almost secondary to me. An intriguing picture of a guy who was really into this meet began to emerge.

ticket stub '62 USA vs USSR

Lew got close

 

First, the customary ticket stub. Lew couldn’t have been bothered with upper deck seats. The stub indicates he sat in section R, first row, seat 4, at what would be the 45-yard line at a football game—spitting distance from the track.. He shelled out $6.00 total for both days, plus a dollar for a 65-page program.

The program itself is a near pristine testament to Lew’s diligent and astute nature. Every event was meticulously recorded, listing the top-four finisher’s respective time or distance. From Lew’s scribbled notes alone, a decent reaction piece from the meet could have been written.

Let’s see: There was “Bullet” Bob Hayes winning the 100 meters. Wilma Rudolph, taking the 100m and anchoring the 4X100 relay. Former Oregon standout Jerry Tarr upsetting Hayes Jones in the 110m hurdles. Brumel, a world record in the high jump. Jim Beatty winning the 1500. The Press sisters, 3 wins and a world record. Janis Lusis, javelin. Ralph Boston, long jump. Connelly, hammer world record. The names, now etched in history, go on and on.

Program cover '62

Program cover prophetically suggests friendship

Richfield Boron (gasoline), Arnett (starting blocks), Fiberlite by Gill (vaulting poles) and Track and Field News—touting its 15th year as the bible—were some of the advertisers of the day.

Apparently, Lew was a prolific photographer as well. I assume by the voluminous snaps of the Soviet team in playful poses, he took advantage of a scheduled fan availability day. Probably later, at the meet, he had each developed photo personally autographed. Some were flourished with stick-figure cartoons and/or impressive world record times and distances.

It’s important for the reader to remember the historical context of that weekend in July: The world teetered on the edge of self-destruction. American (and presumably Soviet) schoolchildren had been regularly drilled in hiding under their desks. The Iron Curtain kept the two nations in a mutual state of secrecy. Yet here was Lew, up close and personal, peeling back the layers of suspicion and mystery to discover that people are pretty much the same all over. And worth preserving.

Even long after the meet, Lew kept in contact with several athletes who competed there. Cordial hand-written letters from miler Kieth Foreman, vaulter John Cramer, hop-step-jumper Bill Sharpe and sprinter Roger Sayers (Gayle’s brother) were enclosed in the yellow envelope.

A twinge of embarrassment needled me as I pored through a stranger’s obviously-valued keepsakes. At the same time, a comforting sense of camaraderie neutralized my uneasiness. I think Lew would have approved.

I know little else about the before and after of Lucky Lew. Only that for two days he took part in the most timely of track meets. One that temporarily took away the fears, doubts and questions of the day. One that perfectly portrayed the antithesis of a divided world not unlike ours today.

News reports tell us that when the meet had concluded, even after the athletes had left the stadium in a procession of open friendship, most fans—to the accompaniment of a live band—stayed on for at least an hour in an afterglow of unity.

After a few days of relishing Lew’s tokens, I put them away. I pondered the irony of competitive sport: How the struggle of human against human in the arena of sport can also be an agent of healing on a grander and harsher stage. Certainly the therapeutic effect of that meet was enhanced by the healthy state of the sport in its heyday. It’s as if the world stopped its bickering and took a deep breath on that weekend.

Beyond the fading memories of a long ago kid and a few research notes, I now have some tangible reminders of the good that surely still exists in people. And thanks to Lew, the track and field fan, those reminders hit me in the most susceptible of places.

Across the span of decades a bond has formed.

 

—My special thanks to Steve Grimm and the Grimm and Greatbanks families.

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Published in: on September 15, 2017 at 7:34 am  Comments (4)  
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Five ‘What if.?’s That Might Have Changed the Course of Track & Field

Tatyana Chernova

(photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images)

—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?

Follow @rojosports on Twitter

Published in: on December 18, 2016 at 7:56 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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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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USA vs USSR 1962: the greatest track meet of all time

Annihilation.

Such fatalism and finality we associate with that word.

Yet in the early 1960s, that is exactly what the planet faced as the two world powers of that time postured behind their immense nuclear arsenals. Never before or since had the world been so close to self-destruction.

In the midst of those tense times, perhaps as a subliminal human survival instinct, the two powers somehow continued to participate in a popular athletic rivalry: the USA vs USSR Track and Field dual meet series.

Obviously, Earth survived.

Historians would eventually credit diplomacy, through detente,  glasnost and perestroika, with the ending of that Cold War. But at the moment when fingers in high places crept closest to that mythical red button, the 1962 USA/USSR dual track meet may have just provided the distraction which caused both sides to blink.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had already spewed his famous “We will bury you!” tirade. The failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba had President John F. Kennedy reeling on the defensive.

Only days before the meet, Soviet experts were secretly whisked to Cuba to oversee the installation of nuclear missile sites—targeting American cities. Fallout shelters and routine survival drills by school children were the order of the day. US pilot Gary Powers had recently been shot down and captured by the Soviets in the famous spy plane incident.

As if confrontation on terrestrial levels were not enough, the so-called “space race” added to the contentious spirit of the times.

It was into this atmosphere of hatred and suspicion that one of the most stirring displays of camaraderie and friendship was injected.

The people groups of the world were much less homogeneous in the early 1960s. The Soviet Union, for example, was hidden from American eyes behind a mysterious shroud of secrecy. Likewise, the Western lifestyle was intentionally shielded from the view of Soviet citizens by their Socialist Party elites.

The tremendous popularity and rivalry of the dual meet series was spawned by national pride and loyalty on both sides, and always seemed to extract the best performances from the athletes.

In the previous meeting at Lenin Stadium in 1961, four world records had been broken. Athletics stars like Wilma Rudolph, Ralph Boston, and Valery Brumel solidified their legendary status at that meet. Signalling a slight warming of foreign relations (at least on the sporting front), ABC’s Wide World of Sports was awarded for the first time an exclusive right to telecast from Moscow.

The American men won that meet, 124-111. The Soviet women won, 68-39. The meet series began in 1958 and ran in off-Olympic years almost continuously through 1985. That era was considered the “Golden Age” of track and field. Outside the Olympics, the USA vs USSR rivalry inspired more world records than any other international competition.

Mirroring that rivalry on the political stage, Khrushchev and Kennedy continued to joust, with all humanity hanging in the balance. Countering Kennedy’s failed plan to invade Cuba, Khrushchev threatened to invade democratic West Berlin. The famed Berlin Wall would later divide the city. American reconnaissance had discovered the Soviet missile sites in Cuba and a 13 day stare-down (the Cuban Missile Crisis) would later ensue.

It was a critical-mass moment in world history…and on a warm July weekend in 1962, a two-day track meet would provide the emotional escape a tense and anxious world was longing for.

The congenial tone of the meet was set by its two greatest proponents and promoters—fittingly an American and a Russian. Former world-class athlete and head track coach at Stanford, Payton Jordan and his Eastern Bloc comrade, Gavriel Korobkov, coach of the Soviet national team, conspired to stage a track meet which had implications beyond their wildest dreams. The two friends had connections reaching back 24 years.

Jordan and Korobkov worked together behind the scenes to convince the AAU (USA’s track and field governing body at the time) to override its east coast bias and hold the meet in Palo Alto, California, the site of Stanford’s campus. Jordan, who was accustomed to track crowds of 10,000 to 20,000, boldly guaranteed the meet would be a sellout and a money-maker.

Known as the “P.T.Barnum of track and field”, Jordan knew how to put on a show. He innovated his track meets with loudspeaker intros, rotating signboards, personalized jerseys and plenty of colorful banners. Aware of television’s intrusive nature, he limited ABC’s producer, Roone Arledge to two roving cameras on the field.

Perhaps Jordan’s piece de resistance was his determination to be a gracious host and welcome Korobkov’s countrymen with warm and open arms.

While negotiations in Washington and Moscow intended to diffuse a ticking time bomb were falling apart, the few days in Palo Alto leading up to the competition were a demonstration of the very best humanity has to offer.

Private homes were opened up to the Soviets. Spontaneous cross-culture pickup games of basketball and baseball broke out in parking lots and streets. Host families organized informal tours of the many attractions in the San Francisco area. Banquets and press conferences were characterized by levity and mutual respect.

The charming Soviet world-record high jumper, Valery Brumel, entertained the press by doing his famous high-kick, touching a basketball rim with his toe, ten feet above ground.

Not one protest or demonstration marred the entire week.

On Saturday, July 21, 1962, 72,500 track fans filed through the gates of Stanford Stadium. The following day, another 81,000 filled the seats. It was the greatest two-day crowd to ever witness a non-Olympic track meet.

While the enthusiastic fans were indeed partisan, any superb effort was rewarded with cheers, regardless of nationality. The Americans were especially curious to get a look at Brumel and long jumper Igor Ter-ovanesyan who had recently eclipsed Ralph Boston’s world record—and of course the famous Press sisters, Tamara and Irina.

In a manner typical of those days, the Americans dominated the sprints, middle distance, and pole vault. The Soviets ruled the longer distance races and jumping events.

The crowd got its money’s worth. “Bullet” Bob Hayes, who went on to a second career with the Dallas Cowboys, won the men’s 100 meters. His female counterpart, the great Wilma Rudolph, noted for her childhood battle with infantile paralysis, won the women’s 100 meters and, through a gutsy anchor leg, secured a dramatic come-from-behind win in the 4×100-meter relay.

Al Oerter, America’s ageless wonder, captured the discus. Jim Beatty, the first man to run a sub-four-minute mile indoors, withstood a Soviet strategy to burn him out early, and won the 1500 meters. Olympic champion Pyotr Bolotnikov amazed the fans with a double win in the 10,000 and 5000 meters.

Tamara Press also captured a double win for the Soviet women in the shot put and discus. Her sister, Irina, won the 80 meter hurdles. Ralph Boston tasted sweet revenge in winning the long jump. His Eastern Bloc rival, Ter-ovanesyan, who had stolen Boston’s world record only weeks earlier was a close second. Another future NFL star Paul Warfield came third.

The crowd was abuzz with the excitement of the world-class drama being played out before it. And with the atmosphere of friendship and unity pervading the stadium, the tensions of a world gone mad seemed far in the distance.

Then the aging giant Harold Connolly gave the home fans a moment to remember in the hammer throw.

Normally the hammer is contested outside the main arena for reasons of safety. Thanks to some clever intuition on Jordan’s part, for this meet Connolly had center stage. Some critics had considered Connolly a washout for his poor showing in the 1960 Rome Olympics. The fans seemed to take this criticism personally and stood in unison as “Hal” launched a missile of his own to a new world record, 231’10”.

It is probable the shouts of the crowd were heard all the way to San Jose. Connolly would later set two more world records before retiring. Washout indeed!

Even with all the incredible talent gathered in Stanford Stadium that weekend, there was no denying the main attraction at this meet was Valery Brumel. After clearing 7’2″, Brumel’s last competitor (former world-record holder, John Thomas) was out.

The bar was raised to 7’3″. Brumel cleared easily.

The bar went to 7’5″, a new world-record height.

There was silence. Then Brumel approached the pit in long strides, finally converting lateral speed into upward thrust. His lead foot rose high in the air, just like his earlier high-kick antics for the press. His body followed, barely brushing the bar. Suspense held everyone’s breath captive as the bar settled…and held.

Like a cannon’s report, 81,000 voices boomed at once. A five-minute standing ovation followed. Brumel was mobbed by Soviets and Americans. Ter-ovanesyan would later remark, “It was not two teams. It was one team.”

In the awards ceremony that followed, Tamara Press emphasized the overall goodwill with a little comic relief: when 5’3″ Harold Berlinger struggled to reach Press’s head, Tamara grabbed Berlinger by the armpits and hoisted him higher in order for him to place the medal over her head. She then sealed the deal with a kiss to his bald forehead.

If any pent-up tension remained in the crowd at that moment, it was released in a torrent of laughter.

Perhaps the most symbolic and heart-gripping moment came as the athletes prepared to exit the stadium. The plan was to exit directly through the south end, in two columns. At the head of the columns, American John Thomas and Soviet javelinist Viktor Tsybulenko held a mini summit meeting of their own and decided instead to make a final victory lap.

All the athletes followed in unison, holding hands, embracing, waving their national colors. The fans stood and cheered as the entire formation of American and Soviet athletes completed their lap, then disappeared through the south gate.

The press would report that the American men won, 128-107 and the Soviet women prevailed, 66-41. No one really cared.

And no one wanted to leave. The Marine Corps Band continued to play for nearly an hour. Tears came easily for most of the record crowd as a cleansing torrent of emotion washed over them.

Ralph Boston would later recall, “I can’t remember if the Cold War ever came into my mind at any time. All I was thinking was ‘here was this super track and field team from the other side of the world…'”

A sportswriter for the San Francisco Examiner would later describe it as “the greatest track meet of all time.”

Based solely on the athletes in attendance and their remarkable feats, an argument could be made in support of that statement. However, it’s almost certain the writer was referring to something intangible, beyond the physical plane. Something higher. Something more enduring.

* * *

Two months later, a nuclear exchange seemed imminent, as the Cuban Missile Crisis reached the boiling point. Then in October, finally, mercifully, an agreement was reached for a mutual withdrawal of missiles from Cuba and Turkey. Eventually more talks ensued, resulting in increasing stages of nuclear disarmament.

Today, the nuclear threat still exists. But now there are several modern deterrents to that threat: an increased awareness of the finality of its potential, an ever-increasing value on human life, and a realization that the good of mankind shines brightest in the darkest hours—and that benevolent, respectful side of humanity – at least at the grass roots level – is worth saving.

Is it possible the seeds of that revelation were planted on a summer weekend in Palo Alto in 1962?

Some think so.

-written May, 2009

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