Even wounded, Richards cleared 10'6" but lost the gold to Alfred Woods, 60, of Great Britain, who made 10'10". Woods picked up a pole for the first time at the age of 55. In the end, Richards' doggedness seemed to be put into perspective by a remark elderly competitors often make about their continuing absorption: "Consider the alternative."
A preponderance of the champions in Eugene hailed from lands where sport is conducted not in schools but in clubs, where men and women may train and compete throughout their lives among old friends. So as athletes from Australia, New Zealand, West Germany and Finland amassed medals and records, they became testimony to the vigor that the club system sustains.
New Zealand's Ron Robertson (age 45-49 steeplechase, 10K road race and cross-country) and Derek Turn bull (60-64 800, 1,500, 10,000, 10K road race, cross-country and marathon) and Australia's John Gilmour (70-74 1,500, 5,000, 10,000, 10K road race, and cross-country) ran tirelessly and with fiery purpose, winning 14 gold medals. Gilmour set two age-group records.
Dozens of such records fell, and who could sort through all the ages and events to somehow fix on the most significant? The most dramatic was that of Wilson Waigwa of Kenya in the 40-44 1,500 meters. Passing the 800 in two minutes fiat, he hung on to finish in 3:49.47, breaking the age-group record of 3.52.00 set by Michel Bernard of France in 1972.
Waigwa also won the 5,000 and seems the best bet to be the first man over 40 to run a sub-four-minute mile. His 1,500 is the equal of a 4:06.5 mile.
Keino, who had a sore knee and didn't make the final of the 44-49 1,500, gaped at Waigwa's race and said, "These people are serious. If I want to run, I have to be serious, too. Next time [the IX Games are set for Turku, Finland in 1991], I'll be 51 and in a new group and running harder."
Of course, seasoned old runners, as this 1968 and '72 Olympic marathoner found in attempting the age 45-49 5,000-meters, are sometimes so seasoned we crack. "I guarantee you, when it starts to hurt, the adrenaline won't be there," said 1968 and '72 Olympic 1,500 runner Arne Kvalheim of Norway. "We used it up in the old days."
I scoffed. I had prided myself on finding emotional peaks in big races. But after a mile the old hot desire flickered to merely an idle wish that I run a little faster. I finished in 16:11, half a minute slower than I felt was possible. This left me to marvel at the fierceness of winner Antonio Villanueva, 49, of Mexico, as he lapped me on the way to 14:46.66.
I had never been lapped before in an outdoor race. But an odd thing happened. Instead of castigating myself for not being tough enough, I allowed that it wasn't a bad run off three months training. No one else seemed to be let down, either. "Remember the nerves we used to have coming onto this track, and how much we hurt?" said an old Oregon teammate. 1965 NCAA steeplechase champion Bruce Mortenson, who had turned in less than his best time in the 10,000. "I'm happy it's not that way now. Finally, it's fun."
So it sank in that there were no—or very few—sufferers in the Veterans Championships. Losing had lost its sting, though to watch the whooping victors, winning never goes stale.