It is the bane of America's newest venture involving salaried athletes that when the International Track Association is discussed, survival rather than superstars dominates the conversation. "Will pro track make it?" has been a bigger question than what mark or how much money an ITA performer made. So it had to be a boon last weekend when ITA launched its second season with back-to-back meets that the fans went home singing the praises of a runner who would be called the new kid on the blocks, if he used them, rather than speculating on the gross gate. A Kenyan with a 5,000-watt smile and stamina that may be tested only by victory laps, he is 30-year-old Ben Jipcho. Among other things, he learns as fast as he runs.
In a 24-hour period Jipcho made his pro debut with a dazzling pair of distance doubles, which were even more remarkable when you consider that heretofore he had never run an indoor distance in his life. Friday night, at Long Island's Nassau Coliseum, in a two-mile that was supposed to be a training exercise in tight indoor turns and sharp indoor elbows, Jipcho won in a pro record 8:34, beating George Young by 40 yards. As testimony of Jipcho's show-biz moxie, he then ran 2� victory laps, flashing a smile at the crowd of 11,231 that would have lit up Carlsbad Caverns. Less than 50 minutes later, Jipcho twice held off the challenge of Jim Ryun to win the mile in 4:03.
Saturday night, before 4,758 in snowy Baltimore, he yielded 35 yards to Young but still won in 8:49.8, and then took the mile in 4:08. For the six miles he covered in the two meets, Jipcho won $2,100—$500 for each victory and $100 for the record—or a little less than $1 for every five yards. More important, he made both crowds forget that neither Bob Seagren nor Kip Keino had showed up for the meets and that many of the pros' performances were woefully short of amateur.
At Nassau, Ron Jourdan won the high jump at a lowly 6'10". In Baltimore, Chris Fisher took the 880 in 1:56.5. Willie Smith, a high-schooler from Uniondale, N.Y., posted a better time (31.4) for the 300 during Nassau's afternoon prep meet than did Jim Green (32.2) for the evening pro show. This was especially embarrassing, since ITA had furnished the track for the high school meet.
Judged on time alone, Jipcho's 8:34 was not that sensational, either. Steve Prefontaine's indoor best this season is 11.8 seconds faster, and John Hartnett of Villanova ran an 8:26.6 on the same Coliseum track a month earlier. But one observer who had seen both races pointed out that "the crowd that watched Hartnett's race sure didn't react the way they did here tonight." Indeed, it is doubtful that Jipcho, in his first run for the money, would have won more thunderous applause and frenzied cheering had he promised every fan a full tank of premium. ITA's survival may very well depend upon Jipcho, which happens to coincide with his own plans.
"Since I'm very new," he said last Thursday in the clipped British accent of his native land, "I haven't set a goal for myself, but probably it is to make the ITA meeting exciting and to make money for myself."
The latter motive, of course, was why he ran two races at Nassau. "I'd rather have him save it all for the mile," said ITA President Mike O'Hara before the meet, "but he wants to run them both, and when he said so he didn't seem to be ready to compromise. He's never run the boards before, but he thinks he can use the two-mile to get accustomed to the mile. I guess it's a learning curve or something."
If so, it is a sharp curve. "I've been doubling at home, you know," Jipcho said. "If I run the two and win, and then the mile and win, I'll have more money, and I thought that was to be the whole purpose of ITA." A logical consideration for the father of four daughters whose ages range from one month to seven years.
Overshadowed for a long time by his compatriot Keino, who signed with ITA last season and who was stuck in Nairobi with "domestic problems," Jipcho came into his own this past summer with a series of remarkable performances, including a world-record steeplechase (8:14) and a 3:52 mile, the third-fastest behind Ryun's world-record 3:51.1. The Track and Field News Athlete of the Year, Jipcho has also run the 1,500 in 3:33.2 and the 5,000 in 13:14.4, the second-fastest ever. Repeatedly frustrated by Kenya's Amateur Athletic Association, Jipcho decided to turn pro after he competed in the British Commonwealth Games in New Zealand, where he won gold medals in the steeple and in the 5,000 and finished third in Filbert Bayi's world-record 1,500 run.
"My association has been a nuisance to me," Jipcho says. "Last year, when they bothered me, I thought I'd resign my career. Previously, I was invited many times to run in the U.S. indoor meets but they turned down the invitations for vague reasons. Now I have given up running for my country in the 1976 Games, but I am happy with ITA."