No one ever made an Olympic team by running beneath a roof, especially in a footrace which ends after 60 yards, but a national championship is a national championship, and in the cocky, swaggering world of sprinters there is no such thing as a meaningless race. Dash men are not unlike gunfighters. Each is ready to prove his is the fastest, be it in a challenge match down a back alley in Schenectady or, as it was last Friday night, over a slow, spongy Fastrac straightaway in Madison Square Garden in the AAU indoor meet. And, if this were not enough, for U.S. sprinters there is now the pale specter of Valeriy Borzov, the Russian who claims he is the world's fastest human and that all the rest are a bunch of Volga boatmen.
So last week's race was serious business, something, say, on the order of that closely reasoned debate at the O.K. Corral. When Frank Bailey, the starter, told everybody to get set, six hard-eyed, unsmiling men hunkered down into their blocks. As Charlie Greene had said that afternoon, "I didn't come here to run second. But then I don't think any of those other cats came to run second, either."
Among the other cats were Dr. Delano Meriwether, Herb Washington, Mel Pender, Gerald Tinker, Willie McGee, Bobby Turner and Marshall Dill. "That's a lot of speed," said Washington, the Michigan State senior who two weeks before had run the 60 in 5.8 to break the world record. "But ever since John Carlos went into pro football, nobody has been able to take charge of the sprints. Guys will be falling out of the bushes trying to make the Olympic team. And I tell you this, Borzov may be the favorite but we'll dominate again in the sprints."
Since the Olympics were revived in 1896, the U.S. has won the 100-meter dash 12 of 16 times and taken 11 seconds and three thirds. "We always come up with somebody," said Greene, who got a bronze in 1968. "It's just a question of who'll win, one of our old men reincarnated or one of our younger dudes."
If there is to be a reincarnation, there was little sign of it among the senior citizens at the Garden. Greene, 27, pulled up lame in the semifinals. Pender, 34, scraped through his semi, and worse was yet to come for him. Dr. Meriwether, 28, was right sprightly, but he is considered a youngster in the sprint set, since he did not take up the sport until he was 27.
But young or old, all six finalists were complaining about the starter. "He holds you and he holds you and he holds you," said Pender, shaking his head. "And the time I did get a good start, his gun misfired. This country had just two good starters and they both died."
"With the seven of us," said Washington, "it's going to be a hot race."
"Seven?" Dr. Meriwether said. "You mean six, don't you?"
"I mean us six and the starter," Washington said.
As the finalists—Dr. Meriwether, Tinker, McGee, Turner, Pender and Washington—began setting up their blocks, the starter seemed to eye Pender warily, almost as though he expected the burly 5'5" Army captain to begin tearing down the straightaway before the others had removed their sweat suits. Styling himself the world's oldest sprinter, Pender boasts that he is the fastest man out of the blocks, which does not endear him to starters. They watch him the way cops watch Carlo Gambino. "I have a God-given natural talent," protests Pender, "and the starters are always trying to take it away from me."