Until last week track coaches pretty much agreed there was a classic way to equal or break the world 440-yard-dash record. Somebody terribly fast, like Adolph Plummer or Otis Davis or Mike Larrabee, would blast out of the starting blocks and into the turn. He would continue to accelerate until he hit the backstretch, where, lengthening his stride and coasting just a bit, he would concentrate on rhythm and form and, most important, would conserve precious strength for the last 100 yards. At the far turn he would open up again and drive to the finish, where he would break the string with one final desperate lunge, utterly spent, his legs like rubber and his lungs fighting for air.
Runners who followed this script had come to dread that last 100 yards because of the physical beating they took, and coaches had grown used to running out on the track to catch their collapsing athletes before they crashed to the cinders. Then, Saturday afternoon in San Jose, Calif., along came Tommie Smith (SI, May 22), the very picture of tranquillity as he breezed through two strings, one set at 400 meters, the other at 440 yards, and all theories about the classic quarter mile suddenly had to be revised.
Smith not only seemed to be picking up speed as he finished, but in the process he was setting two world marks—44.5 in the 400 and 44.8 in the 440. He beat his teammate and close friend, Lee Evans, who himself missed Plummer's world 440 record by only .4 of a second, by five yards that were rapidly approaching six. Shortly afterward he assured everyone that his own new records would not last for long.
"I still had something left," Smith said. "My start was bad and I didn't have a good first half. The next time I'll run a faster 220 in the beginning and my time might be better."
Smith at the moment holds world records in the 220-yard dash over the straightaway (19.5) and the curve (20.0), so there is reason to believe that he can do better than 21.7 over the first half the next time he goes after the quarter mile. Certainly his coach, Bud Winter, can see nothing to hold him back. "All I can say is that he's even more amazing than I thought, if that's possible," said Winter, shaking his head. "I wouldn't be surprised if he runs a 42-plus or 43 whenever he sets his mind to it. In fact, I'll be most surprised if he doesn't."
But Winter, who is losing Smith, a senior at San Jose State (he will have Evans back next year), was quick to emphasize the effect Evans' presence had in the assault on the record. Evans led throughout the first 300 yards, and even when Smith drew abreast of him in the far turn he was confident of winning. "I thought to myself, here comes Tommie," Evans said, "but it really didn't get to me. I was strong and I wasn't tired. Then he passed me and I just couldn't keep up."
"I always run a whole lot better when I'm behind," said Smith. "But today I ran a whole lot better because Lee was the man in front of me. I know him so well, you see—his personality, his determination—that I knew the only way I could win would be with something extra."
"Lee would have won against anybody else," said Winter. "It's just that he ran against somebody who may be superhuman."
Ever since Evans transferred to San Jose hoping to shoot for relay marks as Smith's running partner, it had seemed clear that the two would have to race against each other someday, somewhere at 440 yards. Three times they had met—but at 220. Smith won a close first match, Evans the second in a near dead heat but Smith won the third in 20.8 to Evans' 20.9. Three weeks ago Winter called each separately into his office and told them that he was pairing them off at the quarter in the team's final home meet of the season.
"We kept them apart as long as possible," Winter said. "But with Tommie approaching his last race on the San Jose track, it seemed logical they should meet. They both agreed and appeared more than anxious to go through with it."