SI Vault
John Underwood
September 23, 1968
Past heroes like Billy Mills and Gerry Lindgren failed at the U.S. Olympic Trials and Jim Ryun nearly did, but for others, like John Carlos, Lee Evans and Bob Seagren, the meet was sheer heaven
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
September 23, 1968

Triumph And Tragedy At Tahoe

Past heroes like Billy Mills and Gerry Lindgren failed at the U.S. Olympic Trials and Jim Ryun nearly did, but for others, like John Carlos, Lee Evans and Bob Seagren, the meet was sheer heaven

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2

There are men who have made great comebacks, like 25-year-old Willie Davenport in the 110-meter hurdles (he was eliminated in Tokyo after an injury, was written off earlier this summer and is now the best in the world), and John Pennel, who was second in the pole vault, and others who never went away. Al Oerter qualified to try for his fourth straight gold medal in the Olympic Games in the discus, and there probably will never be an American Olympic team without Harold Connolly and his hammer.

It was, however, almost an Olympic team without Jim Ryun, if you can imagine that. Ryun was eliminated in the 800 when, by his own admission, he ran "a stupid race." He stayed out in lane three when he should have snugged up tight inside. Out there he probably ran an extra 30 yards. Kutschinski and Mark Winzenreid began a prolonged surge from 500 yards out—they had been advised that it was folly to wait and kick with Ryun in the last 200. Keeping up with them sapped Ryun of whatever kick he might have had, and when he realized the race was lost he slowed down and trotted the final 100 yards, not quite believing what had happened. Later he could not recall that people had spoken to him as he made his way back to his trailer where he showered and, alone, thought it out.

"People build up this big image of Jim Ryun, that he is this super athlete," Ryun said. "I don't feel that way. I don't like to blow races, but to expect me to be the best half-miler is stupid. I am not a half-miler. I don't have the experience in the half mile. Lately I haven't had the speed work. At least now the pressure is off."

Ryun emerged from his trailer a sadder, wiser and more determined man. Four days later he qualified handsomely in the 1,500 meters, an event he does consider his specialty.

In the end, it is this kind of determination that separates the Olympian from the Olympic candidate. The kind of thing that brings Bob Seagren back after being in the hospital prior to his record vault (he has a congenital back problem). The kind of thing that drove John Carlos into fasting almost from the time he got to Echo Summit (he starved his weight down from 198 pounds to 187). When Tom Farrell returned from his upset of Ryun in the 800, he told his wife Chris he wanted to do nothing but lie in bed and stare at the wall for six hours. "So what else is new?" said Chris. "You've been doing that for the last week." The night before his 44-flat 400 meters Lee Evans ran so much in his sleep that wife Linda got out of bed and slept on the floor.

Echo Summit will be remembered as a plus for the U.S. team. There were rough spots—contaminated water, lousy food, erratic transportation, one-channel television, too many busybody coaches—but they were smoothed over. For the great majority, the physiological and psychological adjustment to altitude was accomplished quickly. For a few, however, it was a more painful process. Sprinter Jim Kemp twice was a stretcher case. Hurdler Russ Rogers blacked out after a race, pitched forward and fell heavily. Ten stitches were needed to close the hole in his chin.

But no one died, except in spirit, and of those the saddest was Mills, the 7/16th Sioux Indian who had been such a hero in Tokyo. His spirit died very slowly. He is an intelligent man, but he was totally unable to accept the fact he will not be having a second chance for glory. Except for a stomach problem, a weakness in the stomach wall that caused him to develop stitches at inopportune times—like when he was running—Mills was in excellent shape at Tahoe. This is what goaded him. Having failed in the 10,000 because of the cramps, he hoped he would be allowed into the 5,000, though he had not qualified for that event. He hung around for days trying, and the athletes even got up a petition in his behalf. But the officials had ruled against others in similar circumstances. They could not justify an exception for Mills and they did not.

"Dammit, Billy," said George Young, who will try a steeplechase-marathon double at Mexico City and is the only American entered in two events, "you ought to do a war dance."

"With my luck," said Mills, "it would rain."

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

1 2