In eight days the U.S. track and field team competed in three international dual meets. Say it fast enough and it doesn't sound difficult at all. A fascinating trip to Moscow, a brief stop in Stuttgart and then on to jolly England. But to the athletes concerned the 6,000-mile tour was comparable to running a relay race up a sand dune—not exactly impossible, but hardly a lot of fun.
On six of the eight days the Americans were in competition, and on the other two they traveled. They ate unfamiliar food and slept too little in too many different beds. They spent interminable hours in airports or coiled like pretzels on buses, where their long legs did not fit. They walked too many miles down the streets of strange towns. Their laundry remained dirty, their stomachs stayed queasy and their wants went unanswered in three foreign languages, not the least puzzling of which was the English they found in London. They signed autographs by the hundreds and shook a thousand outstretched hands. They ran on hard tracks and soft tracks, in sun and rain, and the real wonder was that three times they forced themselves to the thin, sharp edge of competitive readiness, and three times they won.
As a show of athletic excellence under constant pressure and amidst trying conditions, the trip was an unqualified success. As a formal part of the cultural exchange program among nations, its worth was evident too, if more difficult to assess because each stop along the way presented a different set of circumstances and required different measuring standards.
The Russians were fascinated by the Americans, curious about them and perhaps a little astonished. Where touring Russian athletes are closely supervised and remain much within their own group, the Americans spread out. They behaved in a pleasantly undisciplined way that must have been difficult for Russians to understand. No Russian team would ever make so much noise, argue so violently over card games or demand so much service in restaurants and stores. There was nothing improper, you understand. It was just that the ebullient Americans acted as if they owned the joint—behavior likely to disturb a regimented Muscovite.
Ice cream at the Metropole
Even more surprising must have been the sight of Cliff Cushman and Wilma Rudolph sightseeing together in Red Square or John Thomas and Pat Daniels eating ice cream in front of the Metropole Hotel. The Communist party line had been trumpeting that Negro athletes were a new kind of slave, competing unpaid for the prestige of the United States while fat whites sat back to reap the benefits. The only visible benefits to white members of the U.S. team were friendship and ice cream cones.
In Germany the Americans ran into a tumultuous welcome. Hordes of autograph seekers surrounded the buses and hotels. The athletes were hounded on the streets and bothered at their meals—and they loved it. "I feel like Mickey Mantle," said Jim Beatty. The interest of the Germans was due to several factors. First, they admire Americans greatly. They do not always like them, perhaps, but they admire them. Second, track and field is the biggest sport in Germany next to soccer, and German track stars are national heroes. So, too, are world record holders and Olympic champions from other countries, and the American team was loaded with these. So they signed autographs and answered questions and shook hands.
By contrast, the American arrival in England had the impact of a damp sponge. Hardly anyone knew they were there. This is partly because London is already full of Americans at this time of year, and a few more, whether athletes, tourists or Campfire Girls, make little difference. Also, track and field ranks just a bit above bullbaiting in the British sporting spectrum these days. The English haven't had many Roger Bannisters to get excited about of late. Yet 15,000 did come to White City stadium on Friday and 21,000 on Saturday. Whether, finally, the tour's achievements were worth the effort only the athletes themselves can answer. But theirs was a performance to be proud of.
In the one meet they had to win, the Americans were tigers. They clawed and snarled and fought their way to victory over the Russians with a vicious intensity that must have stunned the 60,000 Pravda subscribers in the stands each day and caused not a few to consider switching to The New York Times. Where were the soft and sedentary products of the luxurious life of which they had read? Perhaps the Soviet citizens learned something.
It is unlikely that either the Germans or British learned anything new, for they have known us well for a long time, and although the American team eased up visibly once out of Russia, it showed that even a tame old tiger is hardly a docile beast. Last week the U.S. team won in Stuttgart 120-91 and in London 122-88. In each case the result was one-sided, and perhaps it was easy, but the U.S. athletes will never believe that, for by then the trip was getting tough.