SI Vault
John Underwood
July 08, 1968
The quadrennial U.S. Olympic trials, once the severest test in track and field, turned out to be a rather casual meet in which losers did not necessarily lose and not even winners definitely won
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July 08, 1968

The Non-trial Trials

The quadrennial U.S. Olympic trials, once the severest test in track and field, turned out to be a rather casual meet in which losers did not necessarily lose and not even winners definitely won

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The Olympic trials held last weekend in the Los Angeles Coliseum were 1) very useful, 2) useful but not very necessary, 3) a nice way to collect a buck for the cause. Choose one. Or two. If anyone takes these questions too seriously, turn in your paper and we will give you something else to do until recess. For you others, try to go on, remembering that regardless of your selections you cannot derogate the evidence that some excellent young athletes, black and white, have come out of the incubators of American track and field this Olympic year and, black boycott or no, the U.S. is going to be well represented in Mexico City.

The trials did not by any means serve the expressed on-the-front-of-the-one-dollar-a-copy-program purpose, which is to say they were not the trials. The final final trials will be held within arm's length of the Nevada baccarat tables at South Lake Tahoe, Calif. September 9 through 17, after those who qualified have had a chance to live there at 7,377 feet and see what high altitude does to the blood, the legs, the lungs and the inferiority complex. The others, those who did not qualify, are too few to mention.

Certainly the trials were a nicely decorated exhibition. Painted replicas of muscular Grecian Olympians on giant sheets of canvas adorned the east end of the Coliseum. At the opening ceremony, sky divers trailing varicolored smoke dropped onto the infield like the first assault wave from Venus. Pigeons flew, bands played, choirs sang. Certainly, too, in drawing 50,000 customers for the two days the trials were good for the Olympic cashbox at a time when expenses are up, primarily because of the three-month training program at Tahoe. Contributions alone are never enough. Every little bite helps.

It is certainly not true, of course, that the trials did not eliminate anybody. It just so happens that circumstances make selection a lot more demanding this year. As in getting to the heart of an artichoke, one cannot be too careful what one strips away. Because of the altitude problem (who will acclimate quickly enough to be ready for Mexico City? who will not?), it is a wise decision to get as many good athletes into the training camp as possible.

At Los Angeles the first six in each event plus four plus more, if necessary, qualified for Lake Tahoe. Harry Edwards, the Black Boycott leader, says that this was so they could get down to where a few of the white cats could qualify and be available for fill-in service should the boycott succeed. Although the logic in that is good enough to make such precaution advisable, the fact remains that in 15 of the 24 events the great majority of those good enough to qualify is lily white, and the conclusion to bring such an expensively large number to camp was foregone when the altitude became a factor.

Then there was the matter of automatic byes for the dozen or more Olympic potentials who were injured—Jim Ryun, Preston Davis, Willie Davenport, Richmond Flowers, Ralph Boston, Bill Mills, et al.—and another two dozen who were behind one way or another and still need a chance to prove themselves. They will get that chance in "development" meets in August. In 1964 the number of prominent lames-and-halts at this stage was very low. Only Bob Hayes and Ulis Williams come immediately to mind.

The winners last weekend were, nevertheless, not happy with having to prove themselves all over again in September. They were assured nothing for winning except that they would be on the team "if they maintain a degree of excellence" through the next trials. They complained that this meet was therefore meaningless.

"What is the use of finishing first when sixth will get you to the same place?" mused Tracy Smith, who then convincingly won the 5,000 meters. "What if I finish fourth in September?" puzzled Wade Bell, the 800-meter winner. George Young, who won the steeplechase, said it would do his currently active ulcer no good to have to wait another three months for a decision, although it would appear at the moment that there is no one in the world who can beat him except maybe a Russian or a Kenyan or a Belgian wine salesman named Gaston Roelants.

But would a team be more meaningful without Ryun and Boston and those others? Or more meaningful without Earl McCullouch, who, while leading, caught a spike on the eighth high hurdle, stumbled and almost fell, and finished seventh? Or distance-runner Gerry Lindgren, who scratched from the 5,000 meters the first day of the trials because of a strained Achilles' tendon? "I broke it," said Gerry. Broke your Achilles' tendon? someone asked. Was it a clean break? "No," said Lindgren. "A dirty break." He tried again the next day in the 10,000 but had to drop out after five and a half miles.

Actually, the selection procedure should not have been a surprise to anybody, and it was not to some. "I've been pointing for September all along," said Discus-thrower Al Oerter, the three-time Olympic gold medal winner who has not yet reached 200 feet this year and has not beaten Jay Silvester in two years—and did not do it again last weekend. Nor can avarice (in the form of gate receipts) alone be called the motive, else Hilmer Lodge, chairman of the U.S. Olympic track-and-field committee, would not have insisted that the final finals be moved from the Coliseum to Lake Tahoe, where conditions will come closest to approximating Mexico City and where gate receipts will be peanuts.

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