Back home I called the retired Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman. "Yeah, they had some unctuous types up here in the winter," he said. "Promised to keep their cameras off the field and then were overheard saying, 'We can agree to anything now and then run them on when the time comes.' We ran them off."
As well, University of Oregon Vice President Curtis Simic had said the script was so objectionable that permission to shoot at Oregon's Hayward Field would not be forthcoming. That was thought-provoking, when one considers that Animal House was filmed at the university in Eugene.
I called Towne with what I had learned. He said the advance man he had sent to secure the location had been none other than George Roy Hill, the director of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting. He was no longer with the film. "He didn't understand how crucial shooting at the Trials is," Towne said. "The film is going to succeed or fail on its sense of reality. You can't just go out to a high school track and fake the Olympic Trials."
"Things like that seem to have been tried in a lot of sports movies," I said.
"Tried, yeah," he said. "You're an athlete. Has it ever worked?"
I had been an Olympic marathoner in 1968 and '72, and I thought of the cold disdain I had felt while watching such films as Goldengirl and Running, the sense of lingering insult to real athletes. "No," I said. "No way."
Towne sent me a copy of the script, which indeed contained the corrosive language he is noted for, both in writing and in conversation. ("I'm such a Romantic," he would say when I got to know him, "that without the vulgarity I turn into a bottle of Log Cabin syrup.") But nothing in the script offended my knowledge of my sport. Its title was Personal Best, and it covered four years in the lives of two women pentathletes, Chris Cahill and Tory Skinner, beginning at the 1976 Trials and concluding at the 1980 Trials. Its threads were many, including a sexual relationship between the two women, but its core seemed part of every athlete's story: how to do your best, how to deal with the ferociousness of competition with people you respect and love.
Maybe Eugene had been a little hasty. Perhaps the officials might be persuaded to reconsider. "We will abide by any rules they set," swore Towne. "We have no choice."
I made the rounds. The university president hadn't personally decided on the issue, but consulted with his aide, Simic. And the Oregon T.C., which had charge of the Trials, didn't seem adamantly opposed to a film, but wouldn't think of bucking Bowerman, the club's founder and a man of powerful moral certitude. And Bowerman was set against any film company's disrupting the Trials.
Towne brought Mariel Hemingway and Scott Glenn, who were cast as Cahill and her caustic, hard-driving coach Terry Tingloff, to Eugene in April 1980. They held long meetings with all the decision-makers. Had Towne been a believer in omens he probably would have given up. No sooner had he seated himself in Simic's office for what loomed as a difficult conversation, than a despairing student threw himself to his death from the third floor of the building, passing within Towne's view as he fell. Towne and Simic stood at the window and stared at the scene of calling, running, shocked people below. Finally, his head inclined against the glass, Towne whispered, "I think we ought to put this off for a little while."