When the twin-engine Finnish Convair crossed into Russian territory the American athletes aboard peered curiously out of the windows, down onto a rolling countryside darkening rapidly. Then, with night, the ground was an unrelieved black, lit only at lonely intervals. The face of Russia seemed empty and ominous.
Athletes who had joined the group in Helsinki had warned the others that they could expect to be stoned when the ship landed in Moscow, but the American track and field team was greeted with flowers, not rocks. Discus Thrower Nina Ponomareva led some 200 Russians in a cheerfully noisy demonstration, although the team arrived after midnight. The Americans were hustled through customs in what must have been a world-record time for Russia, where the simplest things are difficult and the difficult impossible.
Soviet bureaucracy took a holiday as far as the American track team was concerned. American jazz was provided on the loudspeaker system at the central stadium where our athletes practiced last week, and officials laughed happily when some of the team members dutifully jitter-bugged to the music.
When the Russian athletes arrived from Tallinn, the Estonian capital where the national championships were held, they gathered in disciplined groups (by events) around the American performers. Soviet coaches with cameras took movies of every American gesture, but they are due for some surprises if they expect their own athletes to use the same warm-up methods, since some Americans—such as Charley Dumas, the world record holder in the high jump—invented exercises to suit the occasion. "They've got a dossier on me going back to 1952," boasted Parry O'Brien, U.S. world record holder in the shotput. "I've watched them practice and I've seen them in competition and they have my technique down pat, but I don't think they'll ever get over 60 feet by imitating me. It's a matter of the Russian temperament, I think. They don't have the faculty of squeezing all their nervous energy into a tight ball and exploding it in one tremendous burst of effort. They're great in things which require endurance and application but they're not temperamentally suited for the things which take this kind of explosive energy."
O'Brien's analysis of the Russian character insofar as it relates to track might have been a blueprint for the meet itself. In the events requiring an intense expenditure of effort over a relatively brief time the Americans were easily the best.
Some of the Russian good nature wore away during the first afternoon of the competition. Radio Moscow carried only the first three events of the afternoon. When the Soviets failed to win any of three, Radio Moscow abandoned the track meet abruptly, and shortly afterward the Moscow TV network did the same.
Although the original agreement between the United States and Russian track committees had been that the men's and women's meets would be scored separately, the scores were flashed on the big boards at each end of Lenin Stadium as a composite of the two divisions. The Russians whistled at an American athlete only once. Whistling is the Russian equivalent of a Bronx cheer, and it broke out shrilly when Gordon McKenzie, lapped by both Russian entrants in the 10,000-meter run and well out of the race when it was only half over, slowed to a walk. He was disqualified later on the grounds that it was illegal for him to slow to a walk during the race. Pincus Sober, the American referee, filed a protest against the ruling, but it was rejected. "I've heard of walkers being disqualified for running, but not runners for walking," he commented.
O'Brien's appraisal of Russian capabilities continued to stand up. Ira Murchison and Ed Collymore placed one-two in the 100-meter run, although the Russian sprinters Leonid Bartenyev and Yuriy Konovalov began surprisingly well, reflecting the thorough study they have made of starting techniques.
O'Brien himself provided the most startling vindication of his own theory. Like many of the Americans, O'Brien was sick for the two days immediately preceding the meet. During the first two or three practice sessions the team had only five or six community glasses to drink from in the dressing room, and Team Trainer Frank Medina said this caused a rash of sore throats to spread through the 60 athletes. O'Brien's sore throat developed into a sinus infection, and he did not exercise seriously during the two days preceding the meet. But when he entered the clean-swept shotput ring O'Brien, warming up slowly, put the shot 62 feet 9.56 inches on his fifth attempt, less than six inches short of his world record.
"This was one of the rare occasions during my career in which I was so concerned with my health that I became very nervous," Parry said later in his slightly pedantic style. "However I feel that in the final analysis this became an advantage. I built up a tremendous reserve of nervous energy which I was able to release in one burst."