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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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

Skydance: the secret tryst of the pole vaulter

Not many hear the music, let alone embrace the dance

I wait, rehearsing the steps in my mind
At the end of the runway – the bar, as a taunting rival – silently stands
even daring to touch the object of my dreams
I lift my eyes to the deep blue beckoning of my tantalizing partner

The music begins…

Like a charger-mounted knight I raise the lance
Fair Lady waits with a wink of romance
If strength and form come together perchance
the sky and the rider will embrace in the dance

Planting the pole, it bends like a hickory bow
I lay back, thrusting feet upward at the bow’s release
Straight as an arrow, into a handstand I twist – six meters high
Then, as a jackknife closing, over the bar

Releasing the pole, on my partner entranced
I pass over my rival with nary a glance

When the aerie Lady and I join hands
for the briefest of moments
, ours is the dance

The music fades…

As if torn from a lover, I fall back to earth
The lingering fragrance, the fading notes sustain my joy a little longer
Then, the cheers remind me: the crowd sees only the jilted rival
They know nothing of the sky dance.  Just as well…

Secrecy only sweetens its beauty.

Published in: on November 20, 2010 at 9:21 am  Leave a Comment  
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