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Tom Murphy is a very large, very strong half-miler who is worried. He is probably the best half-miler in the United States, but two weeks ago he checked his local newspaper—a New York paper—and found that Ernie Cunliffe of Stanford had run a 1:47.3 half-mile. That meant that Cunliffe had qualified for the Olympics, although he still must place first, second or third in the U.S. Olympic trials in July.
"Tom's a little frantic now," said George Eastment, Murphy's coach while he was at Manhattan College. "It will be late May before the tracks in the East are fast enough for Tom to run under 1:49.2. That's the Olympic qualifying time, and Tom is better than that, but he's impatient. All of our athletes want to qualify so they can concentrate on making the Olympic team."
The qualifying times that our track men are concerned with (see box) are something new for the Olympics. For the first time, an athlete must prove that he can turn in a performance of international caliber.
"We had to do it," says Pincus Sober, who is one of the U.S. delegates on the international governing body of track and field sports. "More and more independent nations are being created, and each of these nations wants to be represented in the Olympics. But only so many athletes can be accommodated. So we decided after the 1956 Olympics to limit the competition. Of course, for the prestige of the new nations we had to allow one man from each country in each event, regardless of his performance. So what we did was to give every nation the right to one competitor in each event. But for a nation that wants to be truly competitive in an event—enter two men or the maximum of three—all of the entrants must be able to meet the qualifying requirements."
These qualifying requirements were decided upon by a committee of the International Amateur Athletic Federation. They may seem unreasonably stiff for the U.S. in the longer races, but they are well chosen and intelligent qualifications. The U.S. does not ordinarily have runners of international caliber in the 5,000- and 10,000-meter races, and there is, truly, no point in sending three completely outclassed competitors to Rome. On the other hand, the U.S. could very likely finish one-two-three-four-five-six in the shotput and the pole vault, but we are allowed only three entrants. The shotput and the pole vault qualifying marks are ridiculously low by our standards, but consider what would happen if the IAAF had set them to conform with U.S. performances: say 60 feet in the shot and 15 feet in the vault. We would still qualify three men in each event, but the rest of the world would qualify only two or three.
Actually, the fact that the U.S. as of now has not qualified anyone in the longer races may be beneficial.
There are many young runners in the U.S. who hanker to make the Olympic team. When they see the qualifying times and heights and distances, and the number of U.S. athletes who meet the qualifying standards—the plethora in the short distances and in certain field events, and the paucity elsewhere—it will become obvious to them that the golden opportunity for the young American competitors is in events like the steeplechase, the longer races, the hop, step and jump. Logically, then, we will have fine young athletes who wanted to compete in the 400 meters or the broad jump or the metric mile changing to events in which their Olympic chances are better.
If enough of them follow this line of reasoning the U.S. may eventually produce, for the first time in track history, quantities of topflight competitors in every event.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]