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"The work ethic soaked in," John says. "From 13 to 18 I washed trucks after school and summers, along with doing summer school and track." At Fremont High he ran 48.5 for the 440 and long-jumped 24'5½". And still he worked. "I did a summer in the Bethlehem Steel mill. We had to take red-hot, smoking brick out of the furnaces. I came home so crusted with oil and grit that my mama would hose me down out in the yard, but it taught me the discipline to finish the job. When I got to UCLA and only had to run and study, it was deliverance."
When Smith arrived in Westwood in 1968, it was Bruin track coach Jim Bush who taught him the almost metaphysical secret of the longest sprint: the relaxation of every muscle except those of one's roaring engine.
Smith, too, was part of a cluster. A year ahead of him at UCLA was a 400-meter prodigy named Wayne Collett. They both raced on the U.S. team in Europe during the summer of 1970, and the following year Smith won the 440 at the national AAU meet in a world-record 44.5. In 1972 Collett won the Olympic trials 400 meters in 44.1, with Smith second. They seemed certain to go one-two, one way or the other, in the Olympic 400 in Munich.
But that was before Arab terrorists from the Black September organization broke into the Israeli quarters in the Olympic Village, killed an athlete and a coach, and took nine hostages. Smith and Collett watched from the terrace of their rooms as police and ambulances took cover near the occupied building 150 meters away. Tanks were drawn up outside the fences. Soldiers in sweat suits carried machine guns across the rooftops.
"They have no right," Collett kept saying of the attackers. "This is the one place in the world that's ours. The meaning of this place is that we can compete for the ultimate prize and not murder each other. Have you ever had your house robbed? That feeling of violation? This is a sanctuary, and they have defiled it."
That night helicopters flew hostages and terrorists to secluded Fürstenfeldbruck air base, where West German authorities had prepared an ambush. But there weren't enough snipers, and the light was bad. At the first sniper shots the terrorists began to shoot hostages. One terrorist threw a grenade into a helicopter. The ineradicable image of the grief of Munich is a burned-out helicopter, its bubble melted away by the heat of the fire that consumed the Israeli Olympians.
Sport was now unimportant. Yet Smith and Collett felt they had to run, and run well, to reaffirm the Games' meaning. Both Smith and Collett made the final. About 80 meters into that race Smith's right hamstring tore, and he went down. "Coming off the first turn, I saw he wasn't there," says Collett, "and the thought came to me, This means I win. And that was enough, probably, to take the edge off, and I didn't win."
Their U.S. teammate Vince Matthews won in 44.66 to Collett's 44.80. It took Collett a few grim seconds to absorb the loss, and then he ran to where Smith was lying, surrounded by medical attendants, on the backstretch.
"You all right?" said Collett.
"No," Smith said as he began to sob.