A HIGH TIME FOR SPRINTERS—AND KENYANS
A young Mexican was found on the floor of a cathedral in Mexico City last week, all broken up over being made to set a record for descending the bell tower. The Mexican said that four pushy Cubans had gotten him off to a flying start. At the hospital where he was taken for repairs he told police that the Cubans chased him into the cathedral and up the tower after he refused to go along with their plan to execute an athlete—any athlete, apparently—on the United States Olympic team. The Cubans wanted to create an "incident." The young Mexican was to have been paid for the service, but he said he reneged.
The absence of a juicy conspiratorial homicide—real or fancied—did not, however, reduce in the least the spectacle the XIX Olympiad was making of itself. After one week of natural progress the Games had lived up to every fear that had been expressed for them—except, perhaps, the fear of the Mexicans themselves. The troops that ringed Olympic Stadium on opening day in anticipation of continuing the blood war with student rioters were mostly there for the sun. A passing German girl was whistled at, and when she looked she could see in the tall grass the lounging soldiers, dressed for battle, and a sergeant with a switch trying to keep them awake. The students, bless them, had called a truce for the duration.
But what is peace except a very relative condition? There was no peace for those who feared the altitude. There was, instead, the awful sight of the great Australian distance runner, Ron Clarke, gray as dust, an oxygen mask pressed to his face as he lay unconscious by the track for 10 minutes after the 10,000 meters on the first day of competition. Everybody knew Mexico City was 7,349 feet high and that there was this crazy thing called "oxygen debt." Who had not heard the story of the International Olympic Committee meeting five years ago when Mexico City was chosen for the Games? One of the IOC members was supposed to have asked, "Will the altitude be a factor?" and the Mexican representative stood up and answered, "No," ending discussion.
Well, Ron Clarke has set 17 world records in his lifetime of running, and by sheer volume of statistics he could be considered the best distance runner of all time. At 31, he was having his last fling at an Olympic gold medal. He was fit and confident of victory and he ran the 10,000 beautifully until, with three laps to go, he tried to give it a little extra. His legs began to deaden, and then his arms. His vision blurred. He said he felt as if his heart was rapping through the wall of his chest. While Kenyan Naftali Temu was running away with the gold medal, Clarke ran just to finish. "The straightaway looked two miles long," he said, and at the finish he collapsed. Australians, weeping, clustered around him.
Clarke used to make light of runners who collapsed after races, having never found it necessary himself. "I apologize to them all," he said. That night in the Olympic Village he complimented Britisher Dave Hemery for his showing in one of the heats of the 400-meter hurdles. "Good show, Dave," he said. Only it was not Hemery he was seeing, it was John Boulter, the British miler.
Two days later, after a series of electrocardiograms to make sure he was not risking his life, Clarke ran 5,000 meters more, and in the finals two more days later did better (fifth place). He established a fast enough pace so that Tunisian Mohamed Gammoudi—who had trained for a solid year in the Pyr�n�es to accommodate his particular fears—could hold off Kenya's star, Kipchoge Keino, for the gold. Whenever they met in the village after that, Gammoudi would run up and kiss Clarke on the cheek.
The Kenyans, meanwhile, seemed to mock the altitude and those who were succumbing to it. Like the Ethiopians and the Mexicans, they came conditioned by an accident of geography—they live way up there, too. When they finished their races, while others stopped to suck oxygen and moan on the grass, they ran on up the ramp leading out of the stadium, waving and smiling to the cheers of their countrymen as if they had participated in nothing more debilitating than Chinese checkers. Amazed journalists began writing about the "super Kenyans" and to ask them silly questions like, "Do you believe black athletes are trying to dominate the Games to prove their superiority over whites?"
The fact was that in events over 800 meters the times were (with one exception, the 1,500) as bad as predicted, and even the top Kenyan and Ethiopian runners—Keino in the longer distances, Temu, Mamo Wolde—have done better at altitude. The tip-off on the advantage of being born to it was provided by young Amos Biwott. A Kenyan schoolboy (he is 18) and unsophisticated in the ways and means of steeplechasing, Biwott attacked the hurdles like a high jumper, doing little hitch kicks as he went over. He declined to set foot in the water hazards. Over those he made grand leaps to stay dry. But nothing could tire him, not even his own technique. He won the gold medal in a breeze, and his more stylish countryman, Ben Kogo, was second.
Americans had won both the 5,000 and 10,000 in Tokyo. Here in Mexico they were nowhere in sight at those distances. George Young, trained to his best and, like Clarke, expecting to win—and convinced he would have won at sea level—finished third in the steeplechase, and had to run a magnificent race to do it.