Ever since the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics unveiled its new state-suckled track and field team in Europe last spring, armies of sport fans have assumed that the "Russian Juggernaut" is certain to compel a new pattern of athletic power at Melbourne in 1956. But it was impossible to watch the 67th National AAU track and field championships—a sort of pre-Olympics war dance held here last weekend before 20,000 applauding shirt-sleeved spectators—without coming to just the opposite conclusion; without wondering, in fact, just how the Russians will keep the Juggernaut from bogging down when it is finally entered in world competition.
The National AAU championships—traditionally the biggest of the big U.S. meets and the last one of the year—threw the cream of college, club, high school, Army, Navy and Marine Corps stars together outdoors for the first time in 1955. It took three of the University of Colorado's handsome, red-roofed, sandstone dormitories to hold them all, and the effect, even before a race had started, was overpowering. The Russians will have a horrible problem in the Olympics—they face murderous competition from the English, as well as the Hungarians and many of their other satellite states in the distance events where the U.S. is weak, so to end American domination in men's track and field they must seize points where the U.S. is strong.
In Boulder last week, athletes capable of Olympic victory at distances up to the mile and in most of the field events were stacked up four, six, eight and even 10 deep.
Nothing accented this wealth of talent as dramatically as the 880-yard run, the year's final and most astounding expression of American superiority in the half mile—and of the genius of Pitt's smooth-striding young Negro star-of-stars, Arnold Milton Sowell. When he came to Boulder, 20-year-old Arnie Sowell was not in a mood to enjoy the pleasant dry air, or the magnificent backdrop of towering, pine-forested crags behind the green Colorado campus. He had failed by "just going to sleep" in a preliminary heat to qualify for the intercollegiate championships at Los Angeles a week before and had been beaten by Wes Santee in 1:48.5 at Stockton, Calif, before that. And after these discouragements he was up against all his fastest foes.
He pulled on running clothes, walked to the empty Colorado Stadium, put on his spikes and ran a 660-yard trial almost as soon as he arrived in town. He was reassured—his time was a fast 1:16, and he felt loose and full of running when he finished. But in his preliminary heat on Friday (which he won in 1:51.8) he became conscious of a new problem: altitude. Boulder (5,350 feet) is more than a mile high. Even sprinters noticed that they recovered slowly after they finished and the effect of thin air, while not as devastating as at Mexico City's Pan-American Games, became painfully apparent in longer races. "Half milers usually stride, move their arms, and breathe almost in unison," said the N.Y. Athletic Club's Bruce Lockerbie. "But here, in the second lap, the sound of breathing got all mixed up. It was queer to hear Arnie panting like that. Personally I can't remember what I did or even who was near me after 600 yards although I ran my fastest race."
Sowell finished in better shape than Fordham's husky Tom Courtney—who badly needed oxygen after his heat—but his legs felt alarmingly dead and unresponsive in the stretch. He went back to his dormitory room, pulled the Venetian blinds and lay in bed with the covers up around his chin, staring nervously into the room. He decided to gamble in the final—to take the lead and keep it "if it killed me," to strike for world record claimant Lon Spurrier's 1:47.5 and take the awful consequences if he ran out of steam. His resolution deepened as the field lined up for the start. Spurrier drew the pole. Sowell ended up far out in lane seven.
He drove like a sprinter at the bang of the gun, angled across the face of the jostling pack, outran Spurrier for the lead, and was in lane one and in front as the field swept into the first turn. That, in effect, was the race. Sowell never faltered, was never challenged in all the two laps as Fordham's Courtney, Billy Tidwell of Emporia, Kansas, State Teachers, the Army's Lang Stanley and Spurrier fought for position in his wake. He sped through the tape with a three-yard lead in 1:47.6 just a tenth of a second off his goal. Courtney (1:48.0) and Tidwell (1:48.1) also beat Mai Whitfield's accepted world record. Stanley (1:48.6) tied it. Spurrier (1:48.7) was only a tenth of a second off. No non-American had ever run as fast as the first three men, and only one ( Denmark's Gunnar Neilson) as fast as the fourth.
To indicate that the meet as a whole was conducted on this high note of triumph, however, would be inaccurate in the extreme. There were all sorts of mishaps and disappointments—but many of them had the effect of emphasizing! how well the U.S. might be able to weather similar mishaps later on.
SOME NEW TALENT EMERGES
Jesse Mashburn of Oklahoma A & M, who won the NCAA quarter mile in a steaming 46.6, did not even show up for the AAU meet. But the quarter was duly won by Villanova's Charley Jenkins in faster time than any quarter has been run outside the U.S. all year.