SI Vault
Pat Putnam
July 20, 1970
Starting a tour of Europe, a fat and sassy U.S. track team showed up in Paris expecting a laugher. Instead they ran into a French team that acted as though it had been eating jackrabbits instead of snails
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
July 20, 1970

Zut! We Nearly Got Guillotined

Starting a tour of Europe, a fat and sassy U.S. track team showed up in Paris expecting a laugher. Instead they ran into a French team that acted as though it had been eating jackrabbits instead of snails

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

The French track team? Poof! A breeze, man; no more competitive than a lighthearted stroll down the Champs �lys�es, and if the French get so much as a second in anything it's got to be an upset. No wonder the French eat snails. It's the only thing they can outrun. This is going to be like stealing foie gras from a b�b�, and if the U.S. team, fresh from the AAU championships, is a trifle fat and sassy, well, so what? With those big meets coming up with West Germany and Russia, who can blame the Americans for not getting psyched up over a light workout in Paris with the Little Sisters of the Poor? Just get the kinks out of your muscles, fellows, and for God's sake, when you are smoking them out of the stadium, smile and be gracious. Well, Lafayette, we are here again, and while it's not what you had in mind, at least the AAU officials, with their tunnel vision, have softened the thunderous blow we are about to strike.

Ah, the French. All last week the Paris newspapers gloomily predicted that the powerful U.S. team would win by the length of the Seine. Another Waterloo at the least. Nobody beats American runners. As the French say, zut! To hell with it!

"To hell with nothing," muttered George Frenn, the U.S. hammer champion, as he paced the Champs �lys�es on Tuesday, the day before the meet would begin. When he reached the Arc de Triomphe, Napoleon's massive tribute to himself and his armies, Frenn paused, ignoring the fall of a fine Gallic rain as he studied the glorious four-legged monument. "I wonder how much that rock weighs?" he wondered. He shook his head and grimaced. "I'll tell you something: tomorrow, unless this team does better than I think, the French are going to drop that thing right on our heads."

"But, George," said a friend. "This is only a tune-up. You can't be serious. The French?"

"Listen, they'll be so high they'll be able to float over that erector set of theirs."

"The Eiffel Tower?"

"Yeah. And what we've got is a team of babies, young guys without any international experience. Ninety percent are making their first trip. And look at the schedule. All the meets are in the middle of the week. That really fouls up everything. We're all geared for Saturday competition. Our training is set up that way. My event is on Thursday. I have to make believe it's Saturday. Then Friday is Sunday, a day of rest. Then you have to train over the weekend. Crazy. I don't know who made up the schedule, but damn!"

The team arrived the Sunday before the meet minus many of its stars. Among the missing were Bob Seagren, Marty Liquori and Lee Evans. Also Charlie Greene, Randy Matson and Russ Hodge. They wanted to compete but had requested to travel on their own, showing up only for the meets. The rest of the time most of them would compete in other track meets scattered around Europe with all expenses covered. The AAU gives its athletes room and board plus $2 a day. Giving an athlete $2 a day in Paris is like sending a kid to Coney Island with a nickel in his pocket. "Two bucks. Won't even cover my laundry," said Frenn.

The AAU was outraged, of course. It likes all its athletes in a tight little bunch, right under its fat thumb. If the AAU, breathing pious fire, can't cut a piece of the cake, then go without dessert. Most of the barred athletes didn't learn of their exile until after they landed in Europe and telephoned Paris for instructions. Stay away, they were told. "You're kidding," Hodge reportedly said by phone from Milan, Italy. He is America's top decathloner, and there is no decathlon until the Russian meet. "You expect me to sit around a hotel with the team for three weeks and then compete? When I can be competing in other meets and staying in top shape?" Hodge hung up.

Evans wasn't so lucky. He had gone to Oslo, Norway to work with a secondary-education group to pick up credits toward his master's degree. Using that as a base, he ran in meets in Zurich, Milan and Berlin; then, paying his own way, he came to Paris to join the U.S. team. He was told he might as well go back to Oslo. They wouldn't even let the Olympic champion eat at the training table.

Continue Story
1 2 3