By contrast, the steeplechase winner was a tall, rather ungainly Kenyan, Amos Biwott, who ran his first steeplechase race a year ago and still leaps the hurdles like a farmer jumping a gate. I am really in favor of Kenya winning as many medals as she can, and Biwott will in time become a great steeplechaser. I simply want to make it clear that a novice won an Olympic title because of the chance of his birthplace. I think this is utterly wrong.
As the Games unfolded it became apparent to me that if Jim Ryun, holder of the superb world's record for the metric mile of 3:33.1, came close to Kipchoge Keino of Kenya I could salvage some sense of justice for the sea-level distance runners. I thought he would win, but Ryun told me a few days before the race that he had learned from running at altitude that a fast first-quarter mile would build up too much oxygen debt. It could not be cleared during the race and would prevent him from finishing the race in a respectable time. As soon as Ben Jipcho, Keino's teammate, set a 56-second first quarter for Keino, I realized, and so I suspect did Ryun, that the situation was near hopeless. Ryun might have tried to keep up with Keino, but he chose the reasonable alternative of running 30 yards behind at a pace he knew he could sustain. Who could blame him? I can recall only too vividly the agony, under fairer circumstances, of just catching John Landy in the third lap at Vancouver when I had lost contact by allowing him to gain almost half this distance. Allowing four seconds for the effect of altitude, Ryun ran a time not far short of his own world record. But all praise to Keino, who must now be rated the finest 1,500-meter man in the world, because his Olympic record is worth close to 3:30 at sea level. Let us hope that Ryun and Keino will meet soon under fairer conditions. The race could be the epic of the next athletic decade.
Can any sea-level athlete acclimatize completely to altitude? I doubt it. While sea-level runners were collapsing at the finish line, the Kenyans and Ethiopians ran up the ramp that leads out of the stadium with an almost contemptuous ease. Medical evidence supports the theory that they can suck more oxygen into the muscles from the blood than sea-level born athletes.
We now face the immediate situation in which altitude has opened a nightmare box of problems. How amateur can the distance runner of the future be if he must find some way of living most of the year at altitude? Perhaps he needs a special identity card registering him as a runner at a certain level.
In many ways, the Mexico City Olympic Games were very successful, and it would be churlish of me not to say so. I am a fervent supporter of the brilliant idea of the Olympic Games. The fact that my predictions for the altitude distance events came true, sometimes too grimly true, gives me no satisfaction, unless out of all this there emerges better planning in the future. Of course I know no competition can be absolutely fair. Some athletes are rich in opportunities and natural gifts, some are poor, but the IOC, with a whole world to choose from, could easily have selected a fairer place than Mexico City. Never again should it be allowed to do as it pleases, regardless of consequences.