In a world that looks upon Ping-Pong as a diplomatic breakthrough, the once intensely contested track meet between Russia and the U.S. has come to be a quiet note in the background, a comfortable old affair that has long since lost the hot-eyed glamour of its youth. Which is a shame, really. The meet may provoke yawns in diplomatic circles—and even among those who run, jump and throw—but there are those who love it, and it can still give off sparks. This happened again last week in Berkeley, in the University of California's Edwards Stadium, when a relatively obscure American high jumper named Pat Matzdorf leaped 7'6�" to break one of track and field's most revered world records, the 7'5�" mark set by Russia's Valeri Brumel back in 1963.
Matzdorf, who is tall and slim, with sloppy brown hair, long sideburns and a soft, modest little mustache, is a 21-year-old math major from the University of Wisconsin whose previous best was 7'2" (the highest he ever even tried was 7'4"—in practice) and whose most notable accomplishment had been a second place behind Reynaldo Brown in the AAU championships a week earlier. Against the Russians, Matzdorf climbed to 7'3" with Brown and kept going up after Brown faltered. "I didn't shave this morning because I wanted to feel mean," he said later.
He set a new U.S. record at 7'4�" (topping the height Dick Fosbury reached in winning the Olympic high jump at Mexico City) and then barely missed in his first two attempts at the world record. On his final attempt he twisted over the bar, brushing it as he did, and then lay on his back on the landing pad watching with trepidation as the bar vibrated. But it stayed put, and Matzdorf sprang out of the pit in triumph.
That was the big moment in the American men's 126-110 victory, their eighth in 10 meetings with the Russians. The U.S. girls, despite pre-meet optimism, were ground down by their Soviet counterparts, 76-60, the ninth time they have lost (they have won only once) in a series that started back in 1958 as a warm touch in the cold war. Last week's meet included a skimpy collection of athletes ostensibly representing the rest of the world. The rest of the world did not do too well as a team, finishing last behind the American-Russian juggernaut.
Early evidence that the edge had gone from the meet's appeal was provided by the absence of some outstanding Americans who could have been on hand but weren't. Marty Liquori, the best miler in the world, was doing his thing in Europe. So were Ralph Mann, world-record holder in the 440-yard hurdles, and John Smith, world-record holder in the 440-yard run. Jay Silvester, world-record holder in the discus throw, had taken the wife and kids on a tour of Europe, while America's best hammer thrower, George Frenn, was mad at the AAU and stayed home.
"It is a great pity that the best Americans are not competing here, that they don't think this meet is important," said Russia's stocky 32-year-old Janis Lusis, the 1968 Olympic javelin champion, who then put down the meet himself with faint praise: "This meet is important—not as important as this summer's European Championships, of course, but important because this will help us get in shape for it."
Lusis was one of only a handful of oldsters on a team that the Soviets hope is the vanguard of a youth movement that will revive Russia as a world power in track. The oldest of all—in experience anyway—is 33-year-old Igor Ter-Ovanesyan, the enduring long jumper who has competed in nine of the 10 Soviet-American meets. Ter-O put the present state of the series in perspective. Slouched comfortably on a sofa in the lounge of the University of California residence hall that was being used as the meet dormitory, wearing brown slacks, brown plaid jacket and a burgundy and white sports shirt open at the collar, he said in his excellent, amiable English: "It is much more of a relaxed competition now, even more so than last year. In the old days it was very serious. Everyone used to be so nervous. We didn't know each other then. But even so, this meet is still most important to us because American track and field is the best in the world."
At 33, what kind of shape is the ageless Igor in?
"I may be 33, but I keep feeling younger," he smiled. "Maybe it's because I'm half Armenian. I want to compete all my life. You know, I have never won my event in this dual meet. I'm always second. I'm afraid to think about it, so I won't. We have a writer at home who has said, 'You are not a brave man if you take part in a fight and are worrying about who will finish first or second, who will be the winner or the loser. You should just go and fight.' So that is what I will do, all that I can."
Igor's attitude contrasted notably with that of the U.S. team as its members limbered up before the meet. Most were competing for reasons that did not have much to do with the meet's status as a sporting classic.