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The fact that the AAU national indoor championships held last week in Albuquerque finally could be called successful and not disastrous was striking tribute to the remarkable recuperative powers of sport. It was proved once again that even the most vigorous administrative bungling is seldom a match for the resilience, energy and enthusiasm of athletes.
To begin with, Albuquerque's high altitude—5,100 feet at Tingley Coliseum, where the meet was held—was hardly an inspiration to great performances, but nonetheless eight world and nine championship records were tied or broken. National television viewers were treated to only a 12-minute scrap of delayed taping, but the 18,000 spectators who cheered their way through 26 men's and women's events on and around the coliseum's gleaming red board track could hardly have cared less. Most of the big names actually listed in the program as entries were back home in France, Kenya, Canada, Russia and various parts of the U.S. instead of on hand in New Mexico, but young, exciting and completely fresh new personalities bounded forth to serve as more than satisfactory replacements. People like Richmond Flowers Jr. (see cover), the practically perfect athlete who, though still just a freshman at the University of Tennessee and plagued by a sore back, grabbed off second places in both the sprint and hurdles. Or Billy Gaines, a short, stubby but brilliantly fast high school sophomore of 17 from New Jersey, who tied a world record in the 60-yard dash. Or Lajos Mecser, a redheaded Hungarian distance runner, who utilized what little oxygen there was left in Albuquerque's rarefied air with such efficiency that he won the three-mile title with a fast finish that left everyone else breathless. Or some 150 lithe and graceful girls who trod Albuquerque's fast and springy boards in a display of skill that paid off in some unusually fast times. Or, finally, tall and muscular Bob Seagren, a teenage sophomore at Glendale ( Calif.) College, who achieved indoor track's first 17-foot pole vault a full hour after the rest of the weekend's lively activities had passed into the record books.
Despite the comic-opera phase it was to pass through later, this year's meet seemed to be off to a good start last May, when it was announced that, after 40 years of practically uninterrupted residence, the championship was to leave New York's Madison Square Garden and move to the Southwest. Albuquerque's Junior Chamber of Commerce offered a $15,000 guarantee to provide transportation for the contestants and a fine 10-laps-to-the-mile board track that glows under the coliseum's bright lights like an oblong dish of raspberry Jell-O. In accepting Albuquerque's bid the National AAU not only took a first step toward making the championship a truly national one but also set up the interesting challenge of athletes vs. high altitude that must play such an important part in our preparations for the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.
There was immediate cause for concern, however, in the dates chosen for the meet, March 4 and 5. The selection served as a classic example of the uselessness of being in the right place at the wrong time. This first weekend in March clashed with the staging of the IC4A indoor meet on the East Coast, with the Big Ten championships in the Midwest and with the traditional opening of the outdoor track season on the West Coast. These burdens, added to the already existing one created by the AAU's long-term feud with the National Collegiate Athletic Association, gave meet sponsors a real problem in trying to line up a first-rate field. But this wasn't grief enough. According to AAU policy, expense money can be dispensed only from its home office in New York. This left meet officials in Albuquerque with the recruiting firepower of a cap pistol.
"About all we could do was send out entry blanks," griped meet chairman Dick Kerekes, an Albuquerque civil engineer, as he riffled through a program on the eve of the meet, dolefully scratching out such names as France's Michel Jazy, Kenya's Kipchoge Keino, the University of Kansas' distance runner John Lawson and half-miler Bill Crothers of Canada. "Without the power of the purse we could beg a guy to come here but then had to say, 'Oh, yes, and call the AAU to make sure you don't have to pay your own way.' "
One man Kerekes was lucky to get was Wilson Kiprugut, the Olympic 800-meter bronze medalist from Kenya, who was in Toronto, accompanied by his manager, John Kidiwa. All he knew for certain was that he owned a plane ticket to Albuquerque.
"We did not hear from anybody," says Kidiwa. "All we did hear was a rumor that they were not even holding Wilson's event, the 1,000-yard run, because too few had entered. We came ahead anyway."
"That doesn't make sense," claims Colonel Don Hull, the AAU's executive director, a genial man who holds the kind of job only an efficiency expert could love. "The Canadian AAU had entry blanks for the meet. All they had to do was ask."
Keino, according to Kidiwa, was hoping to make his third trip to the U.S., but his airline ticket arrived too late for him to arrange the time off from his work. "We sent him a ticket by wire," claims Hull, "but he never picked it up at the TWA office in Nairobi."
One of the indoor season's hottest box-office attractions, Miler Jim Ryun, was exposed to a sales pitch so lacking in enthusiasm that it seemed almost like an invitation to stay away. He and his schoolmate, Lawson, received letters from the AAU's Missouri Valley Association inviting them to Albuquerque. The letters ended "Please find enclosed check for $100 to cover traveling expenses." No checks were enclosed. There had been other communications with the boys' coach, Bob Timmons, but these made no difference. Long before the check less letters arrived, Ryun and Lawson were committed to run in a Kansas meet.