A few hours before the start of last Saturday's Lite Invitational Track & Field Meet in Durham, N.C., Steve Williams was asked what strategy he employs when facing a 100-meter field loaded with talent. Later that day Williams would be squaring off against the best collection of American sprinters assembled this year. In addition to Williams, the 1977 World Cup winner in the 100, the meet had attracted Harvey Glance, Steve Riddick, Clancy Edwards and Houston McTear. These were five of America's top six sprinters in 1978.
"Regardless of the field," Williams said with a tone of finality, "you have to run your normal race." He appeared ready for the next question, but then, as if he had suddenly had a premonition of the bizarre circumstances that would decide the 100-meter dash that afternoon, he added, "There's one difference. At the tape you really have to extend into a total lean. Against lesser fields your top competition is right next to you and you know where you stand. But with a field like this there are top runners everywhere, and you don't have total vision to the outside lanes. So you lean. And pray."
The No. 1 American absentee last Saturday was Texas A&M junior Curtis Dickey, third in the U.S. and seventh in the world last year. But since Dickey may also be missing from next year's Olympic Trials—a 205-pound halfback who gained 1,146 yards for the Aggies this past season, he has strong pro football aspirations—it's quite possible that the 100-meter field in Durham was a preview of that at the Trials.
Previewing the Olympic Trials, in fact, was the very purpose of the meet. Durham was a serious bidder for the Trials and had been sorely disappointed when it lost out to Eugene, Ore. by a single vote. Now some adroit politicking by Durham's biggest supporter, 1976 U.S. Olympic Coach Dr. Leroy Walker, has brought about the possibility of another vote. Thus, last weekend's meet was also a means of showcasing potential Olympic Trial facilities as well as fields. Meet promoters confidently predicted a crowd of 20,000 to 25,000, and as one local columnist put it, "It's time Durham either puts up or shuts up." Because of the weather, it pretty much had to shut up. With rain falling or threatening throughout the day, only 14,600 showed up at Wallace Wade Stadium on the Duke campus.
Actually, the stadium itself may be more of a drawback to Durham's cause than attendance figures. Charitably described as a relic, it is the site of the only Rose Bowl game ever played outside of Pasadena—which should be worth something. The game was moved to the 40,078-seat stadium in January of 1942 when Rose Bowl organizers reasoned that 100,000 people gathered together in Pasadena might prove too tempting a target for the Japanese, who a month earlier had bombed Pearl Harbor. But the 50-year-old stadium is now in such decrepit condition that it looks as if some exceedingly hostile force had visited it in the distant past. What makes it a potential site for the Trials is a brand-new $170,000 ProTurf track, so new that the curbs for it were not installed until the morning of last weekend's meet. That track promised to produce fast times, perhaps world-record times.
The track lived up to expectations. In the very first race ever run over it, the intermediate hurdles, Olympic champion Edwin Moses coasted to the finish line, yet missed his world record of 47.45 by only .24 of a second. His 47.69 was the fastest clocking of the year and the fourth fastest in history. Moses said later that if he had pushed himself he might have broken 47 seconds, but then shrugged off the thought by saying, "It's too early in the season for a record."
Following the 400 hurdles was the women's 5,000, in which Jan Merrill set an American record of 15:33.8, with Boston Marathon women's champion Joan Benoit second, 50 meters back. And immediately after the 5,000 was the 400, which Willie Smith won in 45.24, the fastest time in the world this year. Smith confirmed what had already been apparent. "It's a fast track," he said. "I expect that there'll be a lot of fast times here from now on." The track had been nicknamed "the Firecracker 400" because of its vivid red color and the stock-car race of the same name that is annually held on July 4th at Daytona International Speedway. Given the early performances, the 100-meter dash promised burning rubber.
The most souped-up racer of all was McTear. On the eve of the meet he confidently predicted victory. McTear runs for the Muhammad Ali Track Club and he seems to be developing some of his benefactor's braggadocio. "I'm going to take this race," he said. "Right now I'm the top contender for the U.S. in 1980. I'm the best sprinter. I know it. The other sprinters know it. Now it's time to show the world."
McTear has always had the best start in his event, which has made him almost unbeatable indoors. In longer races, however, he often has been unable to shift into higher gear and is frequently overtaken. This season, under the coaching of Hilton Nicholson, he has developed a strong finish, which has given him new confidence. He says, "I've got third gear." Earlier this month he demonstrated his speed-shifting when he beat Silvio Leonard of Cuba, the No. 1 sprinter in the world in 1978, by overhauling him in the final strides of the 100 in the UCLA-Pepsi Invitational.
Leonard nipped McTear in a rematch in Jamaica the following week but only by leaning so far at the tape that he fell across the finish line. In doing so the Cuban laid a perfect body block on Williams, who went flying. In Durham, Williams still had huge abrasions on his right shoulder and right elbow. " Leonard didn't have to fall sideways the way he did," Williams said last week. "When I got up I was ready to fight. D�tente was out the window."