The youngest member of the 1956 U.S. Olympic track and field team lay sprawled on the infield grass deep inside the vast bowl of the Los Angeles Coliseum and wiped the perspiration back through his curly brown hair and grinned. And then, with all the inscrutable and profound insight that only 18 can bring, Eddie Southern explained quite simply not only why that Friday night he himself had been able to run so fast—much faster than he had ever run before—but also why the final U.S. Olympic trials were to become the most fabulous track and field meet the nation had ever seen.
"I was just a scared Texan," he said. "I was afraid I wouldn't make the team."
Eddie Southern had no intention of speaking for his half a hundred teammates selected in the white heat of competition from the 250 who got to Los Angeles the hard way. He was thinking only of the race he had just run, an amazing flight of 400-meter hurdles, more than half a second under the world record but still not quite good enough to bring him in first that night in Los Angeles. But he spoke for others, too. For a 21-year-old farmboy named Glenn Davis, who was not a scared Texan but a scared Ohioan and in his own private anxiety to make the team, had just beaten Southern and set a world record. He spoke for Charlie Dumas, the graceful young man with the green kangaroo-skin track shoes and the kangaroolike reflexes who, minutes later, was to conquer the high jumper's Everest of seven feet; Charlie Dumas, a 19-year-old iceberg from Compton Junior College who never appears rattled or disturbed in competition but, until he clinched his own place on the Olympic team, admitted he was getting a little scared, too. And Southern spoke for Bobby Morrow, the lean, brown 20-year-old with the beautiful sprinter's stride who had completely dominated the dashes all through these frantic preliminary weekends and did the same at the Coliseum, too, but was never sure, until he hit the tape, that even he might not be the victim of some fantastic and unkind—but irrevocably final—trick of fate that would send him back home to Texas, instead of to Australia in November.
The tremendous pressure even affected the old pros (which is only a manner of speaking, Mr. Dan Ferris). Parry O'Brien and Cy Young and Bob Richards and Fortune Gordien were hardly scared, but the excitement was heavy on them, too, and—just like the youngsters—they responded.
At Melbourne, the words of Baron de Coubertin will undoubtedly ring true: "The important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part." At the Coliseum, however, they rang slightly hollow. If you did not win—or at least finish third—there was going to be little satisfaction next fall in sitting at home and remembering you had been part of the show.
Whatever the reaction on the individual—fear, determination or pride—the trials themselves developed into something even more than had been expected. A meet record was set in the first event. A world record was tied in the third, and when they finally got around to totting up the final score, the whirling split-second hands on the stop watches and the shimmering steel tape measures told a story of two rather startling days in the history of track and field: three world records broken, another tied, two American records broken and a dozen assorted American-citizen, meet and stadium marks completely obliterated.
Probably the most dramatic of all was the high jump, although for Charlie Dumas the day didn't begin auspiciously at all: he could neither find his competitor's pass nor talk his way past a stout guardian of the stadium gate, and had to shell out $3 for a ticket to get inside. There Charlie had fun, and as the bar mounted higher and higher he began to forget even the $3; all year this trim college freshman had been consistently the best high jumper in the land and the rarefied atmosphere approaching seven feet is his normal habitat.
Finally it was down to five jumpers and then, after making 6 feet 8� inches, Ernie Shelton and Bernie Allard both missed. Little Phil Reavis and tall Vern Wilson made 6 feet 9� and then they missed, too. And there was Dumas all alone.
"Move it up to seven," he asked.