At 4:45 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 26, an 18-year-old West German police cadet named G�nter Zahn, a lad, it is said, chosen because of his unusually graceful running style, will carry the Olympic torch—the flaming three-pound, butane-fueled baton of a 3,470-mile relay that began four weeks ago in the rubble that once was the temple of Zeus at Olympia—into the magnificent Munich Stadium, and the 1972 Olympic Games will begin. Five days later, with the call for the women's long jump, the U.S. will unleash its youngest and most inexperienced track and field team ever and, well, hope for the best. Gloomy predictions have been heaped upon pessimistic prophecies and the overwhelming consensus is that the talented youngsters will be buried by their competitive naivet� "Yeah, I've heard all that junk," snaps Steve Prefontaine, 21, our brightest and brashest hope in the 5,000-meter run. "And I may get beat by some 30-year-old Russian—but only if he's faster, not because he's older."
If the measure of our team truly is international experience and not past performances, then, yes, we'll be in trouble. Apparently, the experts figure it this way: a West German gains more experience by running so-so races in Oslo, Helsinki and Moscow than, say, a youngster from Coos Bay, Ore. who turns in extraordinary performances in Des Moines, Bakersfield and Los Angeles. For example, Russia's Valery Borzov is the better for running a 10-flat 100 in Moscow against 10.2 competition, while Eddie Hart and Rey Robinson of the U.S. are none the better for running world-record-tying 9.9s in Eugene, Ore. against their compatriots—who were pushing them with 10-flats. Does racing against an Ethiopian make a man quicker than if he were facing a dude from Texas Southern? Perhaps. But, as in the past, the mystique of international competition will most likely be shown to belong in the same bag with the legend of Pelops, a Greek who won not because he was internationally seasoned but because he bribed a rival charioteer to throw the race.
"This thing could go either way for our kids," says Bill Toomey, the 1968 decathlon gold medalist. "It's not a question of talent. We have as much or more than ever. But the average age of all that talent is only 25 years, and only 15 of our 65-man team have any previous Olympic experience. There just aren't enough veterans around to hold the kids together. We had them in 1968, and it helped. A lot of these kids came out of the Trials thinking that if they could beat pressure like that, they could beat anything. In Munich they'll feel pressure they never thought could exist. In 1968 I almost went home before the decathlon started. But if we get off to a quick start, the team could get hot. If one of the kids wins early, then the rest will think, 'Heck, he did it and so can I." If something like that starts, it will be beautiful to watch. For us."
With the 5,000 as one of the last events, Steve Prefontaine will have plenty of time to assay the effect of Olympic pressure on his teammates. No matter how it goes, it is doubtful if it will alter the attitude of the supercocky junior from the University of Oregon. Last year he was beaten only once—in a mile—and this year he broke his American record in the 5,000 for the second time during the Olympic Trials. In Oslo earlier this month, he ran a 1,500—not his race—in 3:38.3 (the equivalent of a 3:56 mile), his fastest ever, finishing second to Finland's Pekka Vasala. "I was just running to get the carbon out of my system," he said. Then he growled: "Now there's a 3,000 race tomorrow, and these guys will pay for today's loss." They paid. Pre won in 7:44.2, 1.6 seconds under his American record, and left such international stalwarts as Dick Quax of New Zealand, Spain's Mariano Haro and Francesco Arese of Italy far behind.
But these will not be the runners he will face in the 5,000 at Munich. There they likely will be Great Britain's David Bedford and Ian Stewart, Australia's Tony Benson, Finland's newest sensation, Lasse Viren, Ethiopian Merutse Yifter—and West Germany's Harald Norpoth, who buried Prefontaine two years ago at Stuttgart. With such a field, plus such doubtful performers as Finland's Juha Vaatainen, the European 5,000 and 10,000 champion, and Ben Jipcho of Kenya, who are nursing injuries, the 5,000 promises to be the best race of the Games.
"I was really young when I raced Norpoth, and he smoked me," admits Pre. "He sat on my back for 11 laps and then just blew me off the track. But I learned. If he thinks the same thing is going to happen in Munich, I've got news for him."
If the race goes as Prefontaine and Dave Bedford plan, the pace will be blistering from the beginning, and the question will be whether the pair can withstand the crushing kicks of Norpoth and Viren. "A lot of people run a race to see who is fastest," says Prefontaine. "I run to see who has the most guts, who can punish himself into an exhausting pace, and then at the end who can punish himself even more. Nobody is going to win the gold medal after running an easy first two miles. Not with me. If I lose forcing the pace all the way, well, at least I can live with myself. But if it's a slow pace, and I get beaten by a kicker who leaches off the front, then I'll always wonder, 'What if...?' Right now I'd say we'd go out in world-record pace for the first couple of miles—and then I'll turn it on, start destroying people. If anybody wants to beat me, let them run a world record."
Prefontaine's fellow charger, Bedford, is a shaggy-haired 22-year-old phys ed student who lives in North London and, at the moment, is being investigated by the International Olympic Committee because his name and picture were used to advertise a newspaper article about the Olympics. It is a typically absurd charge, but the prim IOC rules prohibit an athlete from directly or indirectly allowing his name or photograph to be used for advertising purposes.
Something of a competitive chameleon, Bedford turns in staggering performances at home but seemingly loses something once off British soil. For example, he ran the world's fastest 10,000 last year in Portsmouth, but in the European championships at Helsinki he finished a badly beaten sixth. After that lackluster effort, the British press wrote him off as a potential Olympic medalist. "But he's different this year," says Neil Allen of the London Times. "He's more mature and has learned to avoid the pressures of self-imposed publicity."
In mid-July in London, Bedford turned in smashing victories in both the 5,000 and the 10,000 in the British championships, stamping himself once again as a strong contender at Munich. "It was the greatest double in the history of distance racing," proclaimed Ron Clarke, the retired world-record holder in both events.