SI Vault
Roy Terrell
July 24, 1961
Valeri Brumel jumped higher than anyone ever had, but U.S. track men were faster and stronger. They won a duel of giants in Moscow's Lenin Stadium.
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July 24, 1961

The High Meet The Mighty

Valeri Brumel jumped higher than anyone ever had, but U.S. track men were faster and stronger. They won a duel of giants in Moscow's Lenin Stadium.

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So the American boys and girls and assorted AAU officials and coaches and journalists and a man from Wheaties, which was co-sponsor of the ABC television report, climbed aboard.

John Thomas tried to fold his 6 feet 5 inches into a seat designed for midgets in the years when midgets (and everybody) were shorter than they are now. "Man, what happened to all our jets?" he said. "When we land in Moscow in this thing," said Ralph Boston, "those cats are going to think we've invented a new kind of airplane."

It is true that American athletes have been known to complain once in a while, but it is also true that they are among the most adaptable individuals in the world. Long before the flight left the ground (it was an hour late), off had come the trim blue blazers with the brilliant U.S. patches on the pockets, and the polished shoes. In their places appeared a colorful array of sport shirts, sweat suits, muu-muu dresses, sneakers and house slippers. And, as the old Douglas groaned across the Atlantic, the team sprawled in the aisles and across the seats and slept.

In London each of the two buses carrying the squad to the Mount Royal Hotel clipped a private car. This could be par for London bus drivers, since no one got very excited. Later the team worked out in Hyde Park. The appearance of so many shiny new white sweat suits with the red-and-blue U.S.A. on their backs broke up several very important meetings on Communism and freethinking and drew a great gathering. "Where's Parry O'Brien?" asked a watcher.

The team also worked out on Monday morning at White City Stadium before a large crowd that didn't know Parry O'Brien from a petrol pump, since it had come to watch the greyhounds, not a U.S. track team.

At one p.m. the flight was reboarded. At 1:15 it was unboarded. The Russian embassy had telephoned that it wanted two of its men to go along to navigate Pan American safely past vital defense establishments and mine fields.

The flight took off at 3:30. It landed in Moscow that night at 10:53, one of the few American planes ever to visit Russia (not counting U-2s). The Russians thumped on the door. The chief stewardess opened it. "Tourists?" asked a uniformed proletarian with a gun at his hip. "No," answered the stewardess. "We're the American track team." The Russian looked confused. "The what?" he said. "You know," said the stewardess, "track team." And she jogged vigorously up and down. The Russian shrugged and looked around for help.

It arrived in the person of Leonid Khomenkov, who is a sort of Dan Ferris of the U.S.S.R. Khomenkov presented large bouquets of flowers to Wilma Rudolph and Ralph Boston and the Wheaties man. He also kissed Pincus Sober of the AAU on both cheeks. "Spasibo," said Sober, who had been to Berlitz. "Spasibo," said Khomenkov.

Since no members of the American embassy showed up (there was an International Film Festival in town and they had gone to see Liz Taylor and Gina Lollobrigida), the team went into the terminal, where the whole crew waited for two hours while the Russians mixed up all the luggage.

It was a 50-minute drive to the Metropole Hotel aboard buses that had seen a good bit of prior service. One caught fire just outside the airport gate. While the driver threw open the hood, grabbed his fire extinguisher and fought the blaze, the Americans cheered and the Russian interpreter yawned.

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