Both competition and public interest in track and field events seem to come in surging waves—each of which lifts a Charlie Paddock, a Sabin Carr, a Paavo Nurmi or a Roger Bannister to enduring fame and then washes away leaving those who break and rebreak their records in relative obscurity. Such a wave has mounted this spring, with half-milers, for the first time in decades, dominating U.S. cinder paths. Week by week it has lifted a slim and quiet Negro youth—the University of Pittsburgh's Arnold Milton Sowell—higher into the wild blue yonder of recognition and acclaim. Many a U.S. coach now believes that Pitt's new star, who is only 20 years old, is on the point of becoming one of the greatest runners who ever lived.
Half-Miler Arnie Sowell, who is the son of a Pittsburgh city-county building maintenance man and is a college junior, has not yet run 880 yards as fast as Olympic Champion Mal Whitfield (who holds the world record of 1:48.6), California's Lon Spurrier (who exceeded the record with a 1:47.5 race this spring) or Miler Wes Santee (who turned the trick at last week's Modesto Relays with 1:48.5). But Sowell's drifting, graceful running defeated both Spurrier and Whitfield in the Pan-American Games, just as it has beaten all the rest of 1955's fine 880 men whom he has met in actual races. Sowell, who stands 5 feet 11 inches and weighs only 130 pounds, consistently demonstrates that rarest of athletic gifts—the ability to run just a little faster than anyone else when pressed.
He has astounding virtuosity. He has run a quarter-mile relay lap (with a flying start) in 45.4—six-tenths of a second under the world record. He can hurdle. He can match many a sprinter in sheer speed of foot and he can run five miles in less than 25 minutes. His coach, Carl Olson, firmly believes that he will break four minutes in the mile if he ever seriously sets out to do so. Sowell is a modest fellow who seems almost oblivious of the headlines he has produced this spring. But he runs with awesome confidence and can remain unruffled under duress—as was dramatically demonstrated no later than last weekend at the Coliseum Relays in Los Angeles.
The Coliseum half mile was a race which Sowell badly wanted to win, for if he had done so he would have solidly proved himself against one of the greatest fields of 880-yard runners ever assembled anywhere. He was pitted against Whitfield, against Spurrier (whose record-breaking race was run after Sowell beat him in Mexico City), against Fordham's Tom Courtney (his first great rival and his paramount challenger in the East) and against highly rated Ron Delaney of Ireland and Villanova University. Sowell took the lead in the first 100 yards. He was still leading as the field fled into the last turn. Then, as 56,000 people roared and rumbled up in the vast stadium, the race became a lamentable free-for-all.
Fordham's Tom Courtney charged into the lead, cut sharply, collided with Sowell and knocked him off the track into the infield. Sowell scrambled back, trapped in fourth, only to become the victim of more jostling. This time both he and Whitfield were bumped off the track. Courtney went on to win in 1:50.3. Sowell finished seventh in a field of eight. For a half hour afterward officials, coaches and competitors milled about in bitter argument which ended with Courtney being disqualified. Delaney was named the winner with Spurrier second and the Armed Forces' Lang Stanley third.
This set off more acrimony. Courtney cried: "A terrible robbing!" Sowell and Whitfield, he charged, had influenced the officials. "Just because they're Pan-American heroes their word counts." Whitfield, too, was tense and angry. "Where do these guys think they are," he asked. "In the Garden? This is too big a track and too big a meet for elbowing, cutting in and throwing spikes. This is no crackerbox, but a track with plenty of running room for all. What's going on?" But Sowell listened almost placidly—as though he were already thinking of races to come. He was content to "chalk it up to experience." Watching, it was hard not to remember what Europe's best half-miler, Audun Boysen of Norway, said last winter after Sowell conquered him at 1,000 yards: "He runs so soft and he has such a big kick. Take care of him. He is your next Olympic champion."