Milan Tiff, 40, stood on the triple jump runway at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., the past swirling around him. Al Oerter, 52, had just thrown the discus 205'10" and was prowling the infield with a towel around his neck, just as he had paced in Mexico City 21 years ago before winning his fourth Olympic gold medal.
Tiff had taken part in the 1972 Olympic trials in this same stadium. He looked at the sky. "They were the same heavens I saw two decades ago," he said.
And he was virtually the same jumper. Last Thursday he ran with lightfooted speed, twice bounded low, then rose with remarkable power and struck the sand at 51'6¼", an age-group world record for men 40-45. That was less than a foot short of his distance in the '72 trials.
Then Tiff sat, a little stiff but enthralled, as the VIII World Veterans Championships, the largest track meet in history and surely the most congenial, unfolded around him. Some 4,950 athletes from 58 nations had come to Eugene for 10 days of reunion and rediscovery, contesting each of 30 track, field, road and cross-country events in 12 age brackets, beginning at 40 for men, 35 for women.
The opening ceremony had been a spectacle of the ages. The 1968 Olympic 1,500-meter champion, Kip Keino of Kenya, now 49, carried the torch with his smile undimmed, intensifying the heady sense of Olympic déjà vu. The younger athletes, of whom this writer was one, marched in front of the more mature, so with a glance back we could see our future selves coming along behind, ever more gray and leathery. This seemed comforting. There was obviously a lot of life yet to come down the line.
That could be seen in the first of the 21 separate finals of the 200-meter dash, in which the oldest raced first. Among the men were 94-year-old Wang Chingchang of Taiwan and 90-year old Herbert Kirk of Bozeman, Mont. Wang bolted to a five-meter lead off the turn. But Kirk charged with 80 meters to go and passed Wang with 40 left, as the crowd stood roaring. Wang, amazingly, dug down and repassed Kirk, winning by a foot, 52.21 to 52.33. But this race wasn't over.
Kirk, who had given up tennis at 86 because he could no longer see the ball, didn't see the finish line either. He kept right on sprinting. Wang, fiercely competitive, went with him, and they dueled for another 70 meters before they were stopped. As they trotted back, it was in front of a delirious, tearful throng.
The crowds in Eugene reached as high as 7,500, drawn most, it seemed, by the childlike quality of these oldest athletes. The 80-, 85-and 90-year-olds were sometimes unconscious of superficial aspects like finish lines because they were so intent on showing off and delighting in their very practiced movements.
"Guy 90 years old triple jumps 12 feet!" said Tiff of Mikko Salonen of Finland (who actually leaped 11'8¼"). "That's amazing. It's a goal of mine now, in two parts. First, get to 90, then be jumping, be still leaving the earth."
Seventy-six-year-old Johanna Gelbrich of West Germany, tan and strong, shot by en route to winning her 200 in 38.65. "She's German," mused Tiff. "She came through all that Hitler stuff, all that war when she was in her 20's, and look at her now. How are we going to get through everything that faces us?"