SI Vault
Dan Levin
March 05, 1973
To boost the sales of oil filters and Florida homesites, 10 real Superstars valiantly competed in a not-so-real decathlon. The results were more ridiculous than sublime
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March 05, 1973

You Got To Have A Gimmick

To boost the sales of oil filters and Florida homesites, 10 real Superstars valiantly competed in a not-so-real decathlon. The results were more ridiculous than sublime

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Before the athletes arrived there was heavy betting—about the competition, of course, and about Revson. Would he have a beautiful girl with him, or would he have two? Instead, Revson came alone, three days early, to work out. He said, "At 33 you don't learn to run overnight, and I don't feel like making an ass of myself on national TV. All I do in my sport is sit and coordinate my feet with my hands." Gilbert, a pretty good tennis player, found that Revson must do something besides drive a car; Revson beat him 6-1 in the tennis final. And a lot of people would like to know what Revson eats for breakfast. He was in second place after the first day, following up his win in tennis with one in swimming. "I have a pool at my apartment," Revson said. "I walk by it all the time."

The thing about Jean-Claude Killy and Laver was that no one knew what to expect. Athletically, they seemed to be all there. Killy's sport requires preternatural nerves and reflexes, and Laver, isn't he the Rocket? The day before competition began he had beaten Roy Emerson in straight sets in Toronto. In Rotonda, Laver smiled often, his little blue eyes seeming to take in everything at once, but he spoke little. Killy spoke less. He seemed always to be gazing at a distant point, possibly aghast at being stuck for two days in a place that was both warm and flat.

According to the rules, Laver was barred from the tennis event, Bench from batting, bowler Jim Stefanich from bowling and Seagren, not altogether reasonably, from the 100-yard dash. Yet Laver could play table tennis. He said he had not done so in 10 years, but nowhere in the competition was there a greater sense of watching a master at work. He beat Killy 11-0 in the final.

"Be careful," Gilbert said to spectators along the fairway at the nine-hole golf event. "The Kid is known to be waahld." The Kid wasn't kidding. He had arrived at 7:30 a.m. from New York, where the Rangers had defeated the Islanders the night before. At 9 a.m. he grabbed a tennis racket, and went out to beat Unitas. That afternoon he was part of a golfing threesome—Bench, Stefanich and The Waahld Kid. The gallery loved him. They called him Fifi, or Gilbert, as in filbert, and he got home on guts alone with a 52. Stefanich won with a 41; Bench was second with a 42.

Ironically, the golf drew the week's biggest crowds. The developers of Rotonda had not wanted to host "just another golf tournament," as Dick Button, the man who conceived of the Superstar decathlon way back in 1948, put it. That year Button won an Olympic gold medal in figure skating. He also won the Sullivan Award, given to the country's best amateur athlete, and, he recalls, "I was nonplussed. I was a terrible athlete." So Button had an idea: why not stage a competition to determine who the real athletes were? He got nowhere with it until a year ago when he had it presented to the makers of Fram Oil Filters, who agreed to underwrite half the sponsorship costs for the ABC-TV special, which was telecast last Sunday.

But no one, not even Button, claimed that the world's best athlete had been chosen at Rotonda. Publicity considerations precluded that. For one thing, the need for maximum TV appeal required that every major sport be represented, and basketball players, for example, or trackmen, are likely to be better athletes than bowlers. For another, big names were of paramount importance. And then there were the events, the implication that to be "great" an athlete must know how to bowl, swim and lift weights and play tennis, golf and Ping-Pong. The organizers wisely minimized this problem by requiring each entrant to compete in only seven of the 10 events, but still there were questions. Why table tennis and the 100-yard dash? Why not foul shooting and a round of archery or skeet?

A point system was used to keep track of standings and earnings—10 points for first, seven for second, etc., at $300 per. This did create interest and even a bit of suspense, but the entertainment value was largely confined to ogling the celebrities.

The swimming event was the most amusing. Before his 50-meter heat Frazier said, "I can swim fine, as long as they got a shallow end and ropes so I can grab on." At one point Frazier—oh, it was unbelievable—was dog-paddling! Revson, Killy and Seagren had finished by the time Joe made his turn.

"Trouble staying in my lane?" he replied to a questioner. "I had trouble staying in the water." Frazier's unofficial time was 1:42.05. Seagren did 34.6, but in the 100-meter final he lost to Revson, who was caught in 1:18.2.

The bowling competition was held the first evening, and Stefanich said Bench should be the favorite as he was the only one who brought his own ball. Indeed, Bench won with a 131. But Frazier got the biggest hand when he knocked down a total of three pins with his first two balls. Earlier he had said, "Sure I can bowl. I just can't keep score."

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