The biggest disappointment of the day came late in the evening, with the Roman dusk pouring into the stadium and the lights creating an aura of brightness around the high-jump pit. John Thomas, the best high jumper in the history of mankind, faced three methodical, competent Russians.
John Thomas is 19 years old and never, before this mild, pleasant Roman evening, had he competed against anything like his equals. Here he faced three near-equals, and he could not match them. Early in the week Thomas had worked out for the benefit of the Russians. He jumped 6 feet 10 eight of nine times, with the Russians watching. Then he easily cleared seven feet twice. Some of the Russians were awed. One, a mustachioed student named Robert Shavlakadze, watched impassively. Asked what he thought about Thomas' performance, Shavlakadze said quietly, "I am very consistent at seven feet."
On the night of the competition Shavlakadze was very consistent. He went clean—missed no jumps—until the bar reached 7 feet 2 and Thomas had been eliminated. He won, and Valeri Brumel, his teammate, placed second. Thomas, so nervous that his legs trembled between jumps, placed third. In a moment of youthful bravado, he passed at 6 feet 11�, and while he waited for the other jumpers to clear that height he went back into the dressing rooms and drank a soft drink. "I always pass 6 feet 11," he said later. "It's unlucky for me." So were the Russians.
He made seven feet and a fraction on his second jump. By then it was Thomas and three Russians, and Thomas was jumping last. Faced with competition which cleared these heights with the regularity of a metronome, Thomas felt unaccustomed pressure. ("He is not used to competition," one of the Russians said later. "He is too young.") When the bar was raised to 7 feet 1, Thomas missed. On Thomas' last jump at that height, with the stadium dark but for the lights on the high-jump pit and with the quiet of 70,000 people a palpable thing, you knew that he would not make it. No 19-year-old could, with the weight of the world on his shoulders.
"His form was not good," said Shavlakadze later. "His trailing leg was not clearing the bar." Shavlakadze should know. He is a graduate student in physical education in Russia. His thesis is on "Stability in Results in the High Jump."
After that disastrous day, U.S. fortunes turned dramatically. In the 400-meter hurdles Glenn Davis, Cliff Cushman and Dick Howard placed one-two-three. ("You feel like you're being led to the slaughter," Howard said. "The pressure out there is unbelievable.")
Then a tall, lissome young lady from Tennessee State, the home of most of America's female track talent, won the women's 100 meters by four full strides. Wilma Rudolph, a delightfully graceful, pretty girl, virtually walked away from the field in her event, breaking the world record by three-tenths of a second (11 fiat) and winning superbly. The record was disallowed because of a light following wind. Two days later she became the first American woman ever to win the 200 meters, thus scoring our first double in track.
Next Ralph Boston, a thin, calm young man from Wilma's alma mater, broke the Olympic record and won the broad jump with a fine jump of 26 feet 7� inches. Oddly, it was not the most dramatic jump of this competition. Boston's great effort came on his third try. He was first, and America's Bo Roberson was second until the final round of jumping. Then Russia's Ter-Ovanesian returned 26 feet 4? inches to move ahead of Roberson for second. Roberson, the last jumper in the finals, hesitated a long time at the head of the runway. He stood for a still moment, arms dangling, head low, tape on his thigh showing white in the late dark, then came down the runway very fast. He jumped, reaching for the last fraction of an inch in the doubled bend of a good broad jumper, and the crowd roared because it could see he had gone over the 26-foot mark. He made 26 feet 7? inches, three-eighths of an inch behind Boston, well ahead of Ter-Ovanesian and the best broad jump of his life.
"He hated Ter-Ovanesian enough," said a teammate. "He didn't hate Boston. But when the Russian went ahead, he hated it, and he jumped that far. You got to hate the guys you want to beat."
On the day of America's resurgence two New Zealanders nearly stole the spotlight. One of them was a complete surprise, the other was expected to win. Peter Snell, a burly, strong and completely unknown half-miler, whipped the world record holder ( Roger Moens of Belgium) and the popular favorite ( George Kerr of Jamaica) in the 800 meters. Murray Halberg was the favorite in the 5,000 meters, and he won quite easily with a cleverly run, beautifully executed race.