Mike O'Hara's athletic specialty used to be leaping high and spiking a volleyball nearly straight down at 100 mph or more, and some of the balls he buried in the California sand 10 years ago still haven't been dug up. He spiked hard enough and often enough to make the U.S. Olympic team in 1964, make All-America seven straight years and get elected to the Volleyball Hall of Fame. Today, 40 years old and still skinny as a javelin, he is the founder and controlling stockholder of the International Track Association (ITA), a new set of initials in the crowded world of professional sports. And in going from volleyball star to track-and-field czar he made some interesting stops along the way.
This latest pro-track venture—none before has cleared even the first hurdle in this country—was revealed last month in New York, although ITA headquarters are in Los Angeles. O'Hara made sure to have some big names on hand, including four world-record holders—Jim Ryun, mile, 880; Lee Evans, 400 meters; Pole Vaulter Bob Seagren; and Shotputter Randy Matson—plus Richmond Flowers, a former top college hurdler who now plays safety for the New York Giants. Australian Distance Runner Tony Benson also has signed up. Ex-Villanova Miler Marty Liquori, who was a color man for the ABC telecasts from Munich, will be the master of ceremonies at ITA meets while continuing to run as an amateur.
Later ITA announced more converts: Miler Tom Von Ruden, two-miler Gerry Lindgren, Sprinter Warren Edmonson, 1968 Olympic 100-meter champion Jim Hines (who has been cut by three pro football teams), Long Jumper Henry Hines (no relation) and—the ultimate test of Liquori's announcing skills—Sprinter Jean-Louis Ravelomanantsoa from Madagascar. He is the biggest mouthful since UCLA had a high jumper named Nagalingam Ethirveerasingam.
The basic plan is this: ITA will stage from 32 to 48 meets, starting in the U.S. and Canada this spring at the tail end of the amateur indoor circuit and moving to Europe this summer. As now scheduled, the first pro meets will be March 23 in Albuquerque and March 24 in Los Angeles. One of the last of the season in the U.S. will be at Madison Square Garden on June 6. At each one there will be about 50 athletes competing in 12 events—60-yard dash, 440, 880, mile, two mile, 60-yard hurdles, pole vault, shotput, high jump, long jump and two women's dashes—plus "special events," perhaps a shotputters' dash or a match race between Elke Sommer and Raquel Welch. ITA will pay all travel expenses for its contract competitors and guarantee minimum prize money for each event of $500 for first, $250 for second, $100 for third, $50 for fourth.
Does a pro-track circuit have a prayer for survival? Villanova Coach Jim Elliott wished it well but was pessimistic. "It has two chances, slim and none," he said. "They are adventurous people trying to do the impossible," said USCs Vern Wolfe, who later talked with O'Hara and became a member of his advisory board. "We have a difficult time making amateur track go with a relatively low cost factor, so how can professional track pay athletes, the expense of renting a facility, the equipment and the officials?" asked UCLA Coach Jim Bush. Other observers say the same guys will win all the time and bore even the stopwatch-clutching track nuts who eat statistics for breakfast; or that the fans will be tired of indoor track by the time the pros get out of the blocks in March; or that only the top dogs will make money.
O'Hara, who on the surface at least seems perfectly sane, has sunk more than $100,000 of his own money into ITA and insists he expects to get it back with interest, despite the frightening fact that the average break-even point for a pro meet will be $40,000.
"We want to make track and field the primary sport in the world; it was there once," he said. "We want to make money for ourselves and for the athletes and do something for the sport, and I'd bet heavily that we'll do that."
O'Hara has good reason to believe in himself and ignore scoffers. In the past six years he has become a specialist in packaging professional sports; not just teams or games or matches or tournaments, mind you, but whole leagues. In 1967 he was in on the founding of the American Basketball Association as an initial planner and co-owner of the Kentucky Colonels; he sold his share of the Colonels to become a co-owner and general manager of the Dallas Chaparrals, and finally he bowed out of the league profitably. The ABA is in its sixth season. O'Hara was also a founder of the World Hockey Association. He and a partner paid $25,000 for the San Francisco franchise, then six months later sold it to a Quebec group for $215,000.
"We have good momentum," says O'Hara. "This is our chance to benefit from our dues-paying in professional sports. We've had a single and a triple and we hope this one will be a home run." (They should also hope for a few dandy track-and-field analogies so they can stop publicizing baseball.)
O'Hara has been working on the pro-track project secretly for more than two years. He first discussed it with beach-volleyball crony Rink Babka, who sounds more like a Slavic dessert than what he is, a behemoth discus thrower, silver medalist at Rome in 1960 and the first man to skim the discus farther than 200 feet. They tossed ideas back and forth, then O'Hara started his research, which was interrupted by the WHA launching and piles of work at his management-consultant firm in West Los Angeles. On another detour, O'Hara tried to interest Jack Kramer in helping him run a pro-tennis tour a year before Lamar Hunt started World Championship of Tennis, but Kramer was too busy to be interested. All the while O'Hara was quietly poking around in track and field and asking almost everyone he came in touch with to sign a standard business nondisclosure form.