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His green agate eyes those of a prophet, Mac Wilkins cast the problem: "Here is the first big meet of the season following the Olympics. I'm strong. I've done my training, but it's as if I'm still paying the emotional debt of that whole spectacular, tumultuous year." Wilkins, the Olympic champion and world-record holder in the discus, was about to commence a campaign of shotputting that quite possibly could lead to a second world record, making him the first man to hold world marks in both events. For all that, he seemed less than eager. "There is a season and a time for everything," he said, "and the Sunkist Indoor may not be a time for ultimate performances."
As it happened in Los Angeles last Saturday afternoon, Wilkins was right. The indoor season began amid treacherous technology and modest performances, with such lustrous names as Dwight Stones, Houston McTear and Frank Shorter suffering the sick, angry sensations of defeat. Wilkins won the shot with a 67'9" effort over a field that included two former outdoor world-record holders (Terry Albritton and Al Feuerbach) and the current outdoor record holder, Alexander Barishnikov of the Soviet Union. But the chatty manner in which the shotputters carried on said much about the current adrenaline-free state of weight throwing on the indoor circuit. There was a time—in the early 60s—when Dallas Long and Parry O'Brien were running this game. Then, a shot would be accidentally dropped at the moment a rival was gathering his concentration in the ring; a competitor would pace and turn from an opponent's throw with nerve-tightening disgust. The Olympics are still that way. So imagine Barishnikov's double take when Albritton passed the time between throws blazing away at everyone with a movie camera for a film class assignment. "I had no objections." said Barishnikov later, still puzzled and a bit disorganized. He also had doubts about it being the proper season. "I don't usually throw well in winter." he said, "but Los Angeles doesn't seem like winter." However, the calendar proved to be right, and he finished fourth at 63'5".
Barishnikov's spin technique, which was pioneered and perfected by Brian Oldfield, caused others some concern. "I hope he can control it and not drop a shot into a runner's lap," said Meet Director Al Franken. As it turned out, Wilkins was the only menace. His winning throw almost plopped into a pack of 600-yard runners. The shot struck an inch from the track and lodged beneath it. "They vacated that space just in time," said Wilkins, shaken. Olympic half-miler James Robinson, one of Wilkins' near victims, moved out so swiftly he was timed in 1:09.2, breaking George Kerr's 13-year-old Sports Arena record.
The meet was shoved from evening to afternoon at the demand of television, and as the day was the loveliest imaginable—70� and so clear that one wondered at the sense of having an indoor meet at all in such a clime. "Today they should just put the track outside," said Francie Larrieu Lutz, sitting in the shade of a palm tree.
She had won the mile at the CYO meet in College Park, Md. the night before, then set out on a sleepless odyssey to the sun with a dozen other athletes. "The plane couldn't get off for an hour and a half in the freezing rain, so we missed our connection in Dallas and finally got here at 10 this morning." she said. "This is the craziest thing I've ever tried, and I still don't have any answers about why I'm doing it."
But she did it, winning a hard 1,000 meters by two feet from fast-closing Cyndy Poor in 2:42.0, less than two seconds above her world record of 2:40.2 set last year. "It was a test," she said. "I guess I passed."
If Larrieu's ordeal was self-inflicted, others were not. The meet utilized a strange, new long-jump "pit"—a tight nylon fabric stretched over a foam pad, with an oversized pillow at the far end to keep jumpers from skidding onto the track. Distances were marked by chalk traces left from the competitors' shoes. The telltale chalk got on the shoes as jumpers ran through a dusty layer of the stuff in front of the takeoff board. It may have amused the crowd to see Olympic champions Viktor Saneyev of the U.S.S.R. (in the triple jump) and Arnie Robinson (long jump) bashing their heads into the padding after every try, but the athletes, with the exception of Montreal silver medalist James Butts, who bounded 54'6�" to win the triple, felt abused. "You're scared of that thing." said Robinson, who won at 25'9�". "You can't attack the board, you come down the runway all cautious and looking." Saneyev, who finished a distant sixth at 50'7", said one reason he couldn't attack the board was that he couldn't find it, buried as it was under a pile of chalk. His protest had the rhythm of timeless Russian laments: "I can't understand what for they do this to me."
The best early-season marks came in the mile. While Jim Ryun, Dave Wottle and Marty Liquori have all won this race, none ever did it in under four minutes. Paul Cummings, the gritty Brigham Young grad student running for the Tobias Striders of Los Angeles, went out with a 59.7 quarter and 2:01 half to string out the pack and thereby put some room between himself and Wilson Waigwa of UTEP and Kenya. Waigwa is a startlingly fast finisher who cannot bear to run any place but last until he begins his kick. Cummings suddenly accelerated at the three-quarter-mile point, and Waigwa was forced to go wide to circle the pack. The Kenyan had pulled to within 10 yards of Cummings as the bell rang for the last lap but he picked up only a few more yards over the final 160 and Cummings won in 3:59.2, with Waigwa second at 3:59.7. Fastest of all in the stretch was 20-year-old Steve Scott, a junior at California Irvine, who also was credited with a 3:59.7.
Congratulated on a tough, smart race, Cummings would only allow the tough part. "I was lucky," he said. "I didn't know what was going on back there." Waigwa appeared to believe in a sort of sporting predestination, saying, "I wouldn't do anything but as I did."
"Not even run closer to the pace?"