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The hollow thunk thunk of conga drums and the singsong rhythms of bongos pulsed down from the upper rows of Duke University's Wallace Wade Stadium. The scene last weekend in Durham, N.C. was not supposed to be musical and, in fact, the dozen or more drummers were merely spectators at the Pan-Africa-U.S.A. International Track Meet. Yet their playing sounded the right note for the first appearance of an all- Africa team in America.
Indeed, except for the alternately bizarre and brilliant races of a tiny Ethiopian distance runner, Mirus Ifter, the meet was more a triumph of spirit than of track. There were no major records at Durham, where the weather was too hot and muggy and the recently resurfaced track too springy. There were, however, plenty of firsts. Never before had the visitors joined together as one team, all wearing the same green uniform with the gold letters A-F-R-I-C-A across the backs and lining up behind one flag, the banner of the 14-nation Supreme Council for Sport in Africa.
Whether the Supreme Council's achievement in Pan-Africanism will have any political impact on that continent is doubtful, but it was immediately clear that the presence of a unified African team was a unique occasion for Americans. The meet was the first of international stature ever held in the South, and it was a success, drawing financial backing from the local government and businesses and a surprising total crowd of 52,000 for the two days. It also provided a moment of special pride for the Afro-Americans who made up most of the U.S. team. And it was an hour of triumph for Leroy Walker, the dynamic black coach at Durham's North Carolina Central University who dared to dream of bringing Africa to the South.
Although the visiting men lost 111-78 and the U.S. women easily won, the meet demonstrated that Africa continues to heat up as an incubator for track and field talent. Africans won five Gold Medals at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, but all were regarded with suspicion because the winners were accustomed to competition at high altitudes. The African men won the same number of first-place medals in Durham, along with nine seconds, including unexpected ones in the shotput and discus. Two of the wins, Kipchoge Keino's in the 1,500 meters (3:37.5) and John Akii-Bua's in the intermediate hurdles (49 flat), were tainted despite their brilliance by the absence of America's—and the world's—best. Miler Marty Liquori and hurdler Ralph Mann, the only two runners with better times than the Africans in those events this season, decided to compete in Europe instead of in Durham, a decision that hardly enhanced their sport. Robert Ouko in the 800 meters and steeplechaser Ben Jipcho won clear victories over the best U.S. competition. For the U.S., Pat Matzdorf, the new world record holder, showed his consistency by easily clearing 7'4" on his first try.
The Africans might have won six men's events had it not been for the strange happenings during Ifter's 5,000-meter race against Steve Prefontaine. Prefontaine was expected to be an easy winner, because nobody west of the Blue Nile had ever heard of Ifter. Nobody was likely to notice him either. He may stand as much as 5'4", but it is hard to be sure since he speaks only Amharic, reticent Amharic at that. When an interpreter asked him how tall he is, Ifter deepened the furrows on his already worried-looking face and answered, "I don't know."
In the 5,000 meters, while Prefontaine maintained his usual steady pace, Ifter kept shifting position between first and fourth. Then with 300 yards to go on the next-to-last lap, Ifter broke into a sprint. Prefontaine kicked briefly with him and then slackened back to his usual speed. When Ifter reached the finish line to begin the gun lap, he led Prefontaine by 40 yards. He threw up his hands in supposed victory and came to a stop, thinking the race was over. In the ensuing confusion, Prefontaine completed the final lap and won in 13:57.6.
After the race Ifter, looking even more worried than ever, said he never saw the lap cards, that he could not understand shouts from the sidelines and that he was accustomed to hearing bells, not a gun, signal the final lap. A teammate informed the press that Ifter was "bitter" about the whole affair.
To Prefontaine it was simply confusing. "I really didn't understand it until he put up his arms," Prefontaine said. "It came as much as a shock to me as it did to him. I was looking forward to that last lap. He sprinted for about 100 yards down the backstretch, but then he was already starting to come back to me and I hadn't even begun my kick. Still, I don't like to win that way. Nobody likes tainted victories. I'd just as soon run it again."
After the race, Jean Claude Ganga, the African team manager, reprimanded the interpreter who had been brought to the meet to count laps for Ifter but had failed to take his post at trackside. Ganga said of Ifter's error, "In some countries it's a gong, gong, in others it's a bing, bing, bing. Here it's a boom. He did not know this."
Ifter's confusion immediately won the crowd's sympathy, and meet officials awarded the Ethiopian a winner's watch for his efforts. They might not have been so generous with the jewelry if they had known what he would do the next day in the 10,000 against Frank Shorter. For this longer race, Ifter changed his style. Through virtually all of the first 24 laps he remained a step behind Shorter, never passing the American when he slowed, yet remaining on Shorter's heels whenever he stepped up the tempo to try to build a lead. With an interpreter and a bell at trackside, along with the usual lap cards and gun, Ifter made no mistakes in this race. At the start of the final lap he sprinted away from Shorter, opening a 20-yard lead in the back-stretch. Shorter, who felt overraced after an active spring and reluctantly agreed to appear in Durham only the day before the meet began, started his kick in the final turn and pulled even with Ifter at the top of the homestretch. But he got no farther. Despite the 91� heat, the African found the drive for another sprint and dashed away to a 10-yard victory in 28:53.1.