First, in two breathtaking bursts of speed, came Rodney Milburn and Dr. Delano Meriwether, setting world records, one legal, the other disallowed because the wind was blowing too hard in the right direction at the wrong time. Milburn, 21, is greatly talented, greatly ignored, a cool dude in muttonchop side whiskers with a hurt inside because people do not talk about him when they talk about high hurdlers. But no more. Looking only to qualify in the semifinals of his event in the national AAU track and field championships in Eugene, Ore., the Southern University junior-to-be flowed over 120 yards in 13 flat, knocking 2/10ths of a second off track's longest-standing world record, one which was held by six famed hurdlers and first set by Martin Lauer of West Germany in 1959.
"Before, when they hear of Milburn they don't know who it is," he said after winning the final in 13.1. "Everybody will wonder where I came from, but I've been around. Like there's a part in the Bible. It explains that all that's happening now happened before."
Almost. Nowhere in the Bible is it writ that a man ran 100 yards in nine flat, even aided by a 6.2 mph wind. (The legal limit is 4.473 mph.) But bursting out of the blocks in last Friday's final came not-so-young Dr. Meriwether, the lanky leukemia specialist, his buttocks tightly encased in gold nylon swim trunks, gold-and-white suspenders over his hospital shirt, at 28 probing the improbable.
After he had become the second man in history to run nine flat ( John Carlos was the other, and he had an aiding wind of 15.6 mph), the doctor said, yes, winning was nice, but his family is moving from Baltimore to Boston and how in the world was he going to ship his large collection of tropical fish without losing a few? "I've heard some comments on the fact that I'm not elated enough over my times," Dr. Meriwether continued, "but I know, and all the other runners know, that I just as easily could have torn a muscle. I've done it three times this year. Time is nice, but the competition is the thing. Today was a lot of fun. Next time I could just as easily finish seventh."
The dramatic tempo of the meet was established, and hardly had the crowd screamed itself hoarse at one astonishing performance when it was rising to its feet to scream at another. Steve Prefontaine of the University of Oregon gave the home folks a treat when he ran three miles in 12:58.6, less than nine seconds off Ron Clarke's world record and only the second sub-13-minute three mile in five years. The next five finishers did 13:07 or better. "Three years ago you could hardly find a 13:07 three-miler in the country," said Prefontaine, shaking his head. "Now you run that, and all you get is sixth place. Things just keep getting tougher and tougher."
Then on Saturday, Ralph Mann picked up the opening day's pace, winning the intermediate hurdles in 49.3, which was what the world record had been until he broke it last year with a 48.8. "The last time I did something like this," he said, "those 440 guys came behind me and spoiled everything. Curtis Mills set a world record. One minute everybody was talking to me, and the next I was alone. Hey, where's everybody going? Oh, Lord, they've done it to me again."
They sure had. John Smith churned out of the final turn with UCLA teammate Wayne Collett, turned on his burner and blasted through the tape in 44.5, which was 2/10ths under Mills' record. Collett came in second in 44.7.
Smith knew the time was fast, but not how fast. When the crowd continued to roar, his hopes rose. "And then I heard the public address guy say it was a record," he said. "Man, I felt great. When Wayne and I got up this morning we felt like it was a world-record day for one of us. Funny, all Friday, I couldn't get awake. But when I went to bed I couldn't get to sleep. From 10 to 10 I stared at the ceiling Wayne couldn't sleep either. When we came to the field we decided we'd both go for broke. And if we tied up, well, it would just have been the wrong decision."
More was to come. Marty Liquori ran a 3:56.5 mile but, like Mann's performance, it went relatively unnoticed as Sid Sink won the steeplechase in an American record 8:26.4, more than four seconds better than George Young's old mark.
Young was supposed to go in the three mile, but due to a mix-up he did not get an invitation until two days before the meet, and decided it was too late to compete, although at least one of his opponents expected him to turn up.