The crowd at the Long Beach Sports Arena was still settling into its seats last Saturday night when the first world indoor record fell, and from that moment on a true fan was hard pressed to find time to duck out for a box of popcorn. Before the Muhammad Ali Invitational ended, with Dwight Stones' coming-out party in the high jump, there were two more world marks, two American bests and two additional heartwarming comebacks for Olympians.
Houston McTear, who is only 22 but has been a world-class sprinter for five years, got things rolling with a 6.53 in the second heat of the 60-meter dash. McTear shot out of the blocks as though catapulted, and his lead was clear by 20 meters. Even though he eased up through the last three meters, he still beat Steve Riddick by .06 and his own world indoor mark by .01.
Half an hour later Evelyn Ashford, the star sprinter of last year's Pan Am Games and World Cup, won the women's 60-meter dash by about as wide a margin as 60 meters allows—.29 of a second. With her time of 7.04 she broke the world indoor record set by Marlies Göhr of East Germany in 1978 by .08.
Then it was McTear's turn again, in the extraordinary final of the 60. After two false starts, neither of them his, McTear exploded off and into the lead again. This time Harvey Glance, who won the other heat, began to move on McTear after 30 meters. Though Glance could not catch him, he pressed McTear all the way to the tape. In doing so he pushed McTear to another world record—6.38 this time—and pulled everyone else in the eight-man field to times under 6.60. Astonishingly, six of the eight fastest indoor times in the history of the 60-meter dash had been run in this one race.
Hilton Nicholson, a native of Trinidad and former runner who now coaches McTear and the other members of the Muhammad Ali Amateur Track Club in Santa Monica, wasn't as jubilant as might have been expected. "I thought it was very good," said Nicholson. "But it's nothing to what Houston can do. I think he can go 5.9." Does McTear agree? "Yes, I do."
In 1977 McTear was ranked No. 2 in the world at 100 meters by Track & Field News, but he has a history of hamstring pulls in his right leg that have beset him during the outdoor seasons. Under Nicholson, however, he has been relatively hale. Last summer McTear, Nicholson and four other Ali Club athletes competed in Europe. Instead of working out between meets, McTear wore weights wherever he went. "He walked all over Europe with weights on his legs," says Nicholson. "That was his practice."
Although all athletes worry about sustaining injuries and "peaking" too early, few can afford to skip the indoor season in an Olympic year. However, Renaldo Nehemiah, the University of Maryland junior who has the four fastest 110-meter hurdle times in history and who set five world records during the 1979 indoor season, skipped the Ali meet as he has resolved to be more selective in his indoor schedule. In Nehemiah's absence the 60-meter hurdles were won by Kerry Bethel of Fairleigh Dickinson in 7.67, but not before 29-year-old Rod Milburn, the 1972 gold-medalist at Munich, now back from the competitive limbo into which the failure of the professional track circuit cast him, had given the crowd something to cheer about.
Milburn and about 75 other former International Track Association athletes are allowed to compete against amateurs, albeit only in domestic meets, because of a recent rule clarification by the International Amateur Athletic Federation. The Ali meet was the first public appearance for Milburn and for former 440-yard world-record holder John Smith, and they were welcomed back as heroes. When Milburn jumped the gun at the start, the crowd even applauded his over-eagerness. Milburn actually took the lead at the second hurdle, but his competitive edge was too dulled to hold it. "I was surprised and overjoyed to see my lead after three hurdles and I pressed too hard at the fifth," said Milburn.
Smith, also 29, was possibly the happiest man in Southern California following the 400. After three years of frustration, of "sitting in the stands watching guys winning the 400 in 46 flat, 45 flat outdoors," of talking into the deaf ears of the governing bodies of track and field, Smith was not only a runner again, but he was also a winner. His time was 47.20, which was just .01 off the Ali meet record—after only one month of high-quality work.
Smith was with a friend when he received word of his eligibility. "I couldn't cry," he says. "I'm too macho for that. So we laughed all night." Of the three wasted years since the ITA folded, Smith said, "No need being bitter. I'll save that to use when I'm doing the last 200 in a workout. Vengeance is not mine. It's the man's upstairs."