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?

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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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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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