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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
It was a cool California night and a soft breeze rippled the red, white and blue pennants hanging on the floor of the Los Angeles Coliseum. The stadium clock read 8:20 and the temperature 60� as the huge banks of lights picked out the nine athletes in track suits and silhouetted them at their places on the starting line. "Ladies and gentlemen!" cried Announcer Dick Nash. "One of the greatest mile fields ever assembled anywhere is on the track before us! Four men who have run under four minutes!"
There was a great roar from the huge crowd of 43,995, who had come primarily to see this event, 11th on the program of the 17th annual Coliseum Relays last Friday night. The super-runners were then introduced individually: England's Brian Hewson (best time: 3:59.8) and Derek Ibbotson (3:59.4), who had come to town brashly predicting a 3:56 for himself; the Hungarian expatriate Laszlo Tabori (3:59.0), grinning broadly as if pleased to be again in such a lustrous international set; and Australia's dark-haired, serious Mervyn Lincoln (3:58.9). "They look small, don't they?" complained a female spectator, audible in the hush. "They're gonna run, not wrestle," testily reminded her companion. And run they did, like deer.
There were five other runners, all Americans, in the race—but not for long. As soon as the gun sounded, the British Empire runners and Tabori, as if impatient to get the plumbers out of the game, took off at a sprint. "They must think it's the four-forty!" marveled an official, looking at his watch.
The first lap was a bristling 60.2, with Ibbotson going out on the pole. Earlier in the week when he had been told that the home-town miler, Jerome Walters, had posted a 4:01 relay-leg mile last week, Ibbotson expressed the hope Walters could be therefore "useful" in this race. But it was Ibbotson who had to be "useful." Walters was back in the pack. Hewson, Tabori and the U.S.'s Ted Wheeler, looking like a man hanging onto the tail of a tiger, whirled by. In seventh place and seeming to be satisfied there was Merv Lincoln. Ibbotson paced the field past the half-mile mark in 2:02.1. The three-quarter time was 3:04, and Walters decided to bolt for it. He was forthwith astonished when the flying Lincoln went past him. The Aussie, who regularly jogs 250 miles a month in his homeland, had judged the pace smartly and, after laying an uninspired five seconds off the lead for three quarters, he put Walters away with ease, stormed the last lap in 56.5, flying past his competition to win by three yards. His time was a new meet record but no headline maker: 4:01. Hewson was second with 4:01.4; Tabori, third, 4:01.6; Ibbotson, paying the price for his pace-setting, fourth in 4:02.1. Wheeler had hung onto the tiger's tail to finish fifth.
Lincoln's coach, debonair Austrian-turned-Australian, Franz Stampfl, looking—and sounding—very much like a Viennese Rex Harrison in tan suede shoes, notched lapels and a cap with a belt in the back, was content with the race and his athlete. "He's a slow runner but he's got that spurt, hasn't he?" he murmured. Predicted Stampfl: "We'll all be breaking four minutes regularly by the time we get to your American championships at Dayton in June."
The mile was the glamour event of the evening, but it was the steel-legged, bespectacled Army private, Tom Courtney, running as if late to chow line, who made the evening a realistic memory in the record books. Olympic Champion Courtney burst off the starting line in the 880 and ran to the point of exhaustion to defeat his perpetual rival, Arnie Sowell, by a thumping 1.5 seconds and hang up a new world record of 1:46.8. Courtney, who had misplaced his glasses (he runs without them), had to be led to the winners' podium. He stood uncertainly through the presentation for a moment, blinking into the lights and trying to smile, but suddenly, as the photographers focused on him, he blurted: "I gotta upchuck!" He turned and fled for the dressing room.
Later, sheepishly, lounging in a phone booth trying to put through a collect call to his parents' home in Livingston, N. J., he explained: "I took some honey before the race and it came up in my throat." He was not surprised at the record, he said. "I ran 1:47.8 in the rain at Houston last week. I knew I was sharp. I really don't ordinarily take out as fast as I did tonight. But I saw I could get the record after the first quarter. Atterberry [the early leader] ran his quarter in 51.8 and I was about 52.2, so I thought I felt good enough to take out after the record."
There were three other world records broken: in the two-mile relay, tiny (1,400 enrollment) Occidental's team outsped lordly UCLA and USC to break a U.S. Olympic quartet's pending world record for the event by a fraction of a second with 7:22.7. Clocking 1:23.9, the University of Texas team broke the listed 880-yard relay (though 1.2 seconds slower than their pending record set eight weeks ago). The Texans also took the 440 relay, again better than the listed mark but again a tenth of a second slower than the 39.9 pending record they share with Bobby Morrow and the other boys of Abilene Christian.
The pole vault featured an outstanding field of six men who have cleared 15 feet. It matched the new world-record holder, Occidental's Bob Gutowski, against the longtime Olympic champion and world's master vaulter, Bob Richards, for the first time since Gutowski set his record (15 feet, 8� inches). Also in the field was the Arizona schoolboy, Jim Brewer. Young Brewer, who had never seen so many people in one place before, hung up 14-6. Richards topped 15 feet for the 120th time in his career but dropped out at 15-3, soaring underneath the crossbar on one attempt. Gutowski, in one glittering jump, cleared 15-6 by what appeared to be several inches and the bar was set at 15-9 for the assault on his own world record. The whole stadium tensed for the event, and Bob Richards at this sober moment when he was being supplanted as king of the vault was having his customary gay time overloading his rival with last-minute advice.
Richards paced around the pit as Gutowski made ready for his three jumps. "Gee, does he look good," moaned the reverend. "He must be holding that pole at 13-9. He has a real chance." Out on the runway, Gutowski came padding down, pole at the ready, in the peculiar sitting-down stride that vaulters effect while on the dead run. The pole was planted—but without authority—and Gutowski slammed into the crossbar. Richards shot over to offer advice. "You can't hit it dead," he scolded. "Drive that pole in. Don't plant it lazy. If you plant it lazy, you're dead. If you drive it in, you've got it made."