With only two events to go in last week's AAU national decathlon championship, a group of officials gathered in solemn conclave before a big scoreboard in the infield. The figures showed that Russ Hodge, the former American record-holder who was once known as Magnificence on account of his physique of the same description, led Rick Wanamaker, the 6'8", 210-pound former Drake basketball center and 1970 NCAA decathlon champion, by 33 points.
The decathlon, which consists of 10 events over a two-day period, is often called the most grueling human activity. It isn't. The most grueling is compiling the table used for scoring the decathlon; this has been revised half a dozen times since the Swedes cooked up the event early in the century, little items like the fiber-glass vaulting pole having thrown the finest calculations out of whack. Suffice it to say that the better you do in each event, the more points you get, and leading by 33 points after eight events isn't a whole bunch, a good score for the decathlon being 8,000.
To get back to the officials, they, like almost everyone up in the grandstands at Porterville ( Calif.) College, were trying to figure out how the leaders would fare in the final events, the javelin and the 1,500-meter run.
Only a few yards away, Hodge, wearing a red, white and blue track suit of his own design, was walking around glaring at everyone and muttering encouragement to himself. "C'mon, Russ," he would say with a snarl or "O.K., Russ, O.K." Although he claimed to be in "the best condition of my life," Hodge had been uptight all week. Now he was alarmed that he might once more lose the AAU title which had eluded him throughout his injury-filled career.
While Hodge fumed and fussed, Wanamaker lounged against a bench and grinned. That was hardly unusual because Wanamaker always grins. Throughout the meet Wanamaker was so nervous that he often seemed in imminent danger of going to sleep. But look at it this way: after going head to chest against Lew Alcindor, what has a man to fear from a mortal like Russ Hodge?
"There is no use getting tense or upset about this thing," said Wanamaker, smiling. "You just go to pieces. Hodge takes it so seriously he can beat himself. He's out there pushing all the time while I stand here relaxing."
Sure enough, Hodge did beat himself—with the help of some strategic pressure from Wanamaker. In the javelin Hodge huffed and puffed, but all he could come up with was a best heave of 193'8". He has done as much as 212. On his last try Wanamaker uncorked a throw of 214'5�"—a personal best. Suddenly Wanamaker had a 44-point lead heading into the 1,500, which meant Hodge had to beat him by more than eight seconds in that race to take the overall title. Why eight seconds? You can look it up in the scoring table.
"I told myself that I'd better throw the javelin hard so I wouldn't have to run the 1,500 too fast," said Wanamaker cheerfully. "That seemed like the logical thing to do."
As six runners took their mark for the 1,500, everybody was watching Wanamaker and Hodge. Granted, Army PFC Jeff Bennett, who is only 5'8" and 155 pounds, won—to finish third overall—but in the decathlon the action isn't necessarily up front. Way back there were Hodge and Wanamaker, and with less than a lap to go Hodge began his move.
Throughout the race Wanamaker had glanced over his shoulder, looking for Hodge. "Going into the far turn," said Wanamaker later, "I heard a fan yell 'Here he comes!' and I figured it was time for me to move." But even as Wanamaker picked up his own pace, Hodge swept past him, and as they thrashed down the stretch it was a question of how many seconds Hodge could gain. The answer was not enough. Hodge finished only 10 yards and two seconds ahead of Wanamaker, who became the new national champion, with 7,989 points to 7,958 for Hodge.