Analysis. History. Perspective.

Sports Then and Now



Discus Legend Mac Wilkins: 3 Throws, 3 World Records on May 1, 1976 1

Posted on April 13, 2013 by Rojo Grande
(photo: sporting-heroes.net)

(photo: sporting-heroes.net)

 

I once rubbed elbows with Hercules.

It was at the 1976 Olympic Track and Field Trials at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore. My wife and I were crossing a grass practice field during a break in the action. From a distance, our attention was drawn to a tall, dominant figure striding in our direction.

With each approaching step, the figure took on the glowing countenance of someone special—almost beyond human. Tanned, handsome and muscular, he was clothed only in the thin garments of competition—obviously an elite athlete in peak condition.

As an athlete myself, I had been around a few hard bodies, but I had never seen such a physical specimen as this. He whisked right by us, his long hair and mustache accentuating the aura of a Greek god. We were speechless, mouths agape.

When we caught our breath, the dawning of reality hit us both at once: That was Mac Wilkins!

That simple brush with greatness gave us a focal point for the summer. Wilkins became our hero (and my wife’s not-so-secret crush). Via television and newspapers, we followed his exploits right through his Olympic record and gold medal in the discus at the ’76 Montreal Games.

And though that Olympic masterpiece will no doubt be considered the high point of Wilkins’ incredible 23-year career, it may have been eclipsed (in terms of sheer accomplishment) at a relatively insignificant track meet in the Bay Area of California in early May of that year. Read the rest of this entry →

When Rafer Johnson Broke the Decathlon World Record—After Only 9 Events 1

Posted on October 12, 2012 by Rojo Grande

Many who witnessed Ashton Eaton’s incredibly moving decathlon world record at the 2012 Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Oregon swear they will never see another sporting performance so inspiring.

I would never attempt to minimize such sentiments, as it truly was one of the signature moments in all of track and field.

Yet 52 years earlier, decathlete Rafer Johnson drew upon the same Hayward Field magic to lay down an earlier version of one of the sport’s most grueling accomplishments.

Let’s take a look back at another episode in the amazing legacy of Hayward Field.

The U.S./USSR Cold War rivalry of the mid-20th century was typified by the decathlon’s back-and-forth world-record duel between the American, Rafer Johnson, and then-current record-holder (8,357 points) Vasili Kuznetsov of the Soviet Union.

The record, in fact, had alternated between the two athletes four times since 1955.

And so it was, at the 1960 Amateur Athletic Union’s decathlon championships in Eugene, Johnson’s patriotic intent was as much to break Kuznetsov’s record as it was to secure a berth on the 1960 Rome Olympics team. 

In an uncanny subplot, Johnson’s UCLA teammate and good friend, C.K. Yang of Formosa (Taiwan), stood as a potential roadblock to the American’s quest. He was, after all, the defending collegiate national champion and a legitimate contender for the record in his own right. 

Johnson, UCLA coach Drake, and Yang

Rafer was a powerfully built hybrid of speed and strength, evidenced by his expertise in the sprints and throwing events. The three-time AAU champion was the silver medalist at the 1956 Melbourne Games but was on the comeback trail after an automobile accident had derailed his entire 1959 season.

Yang was a chiseled, wiry athlete who excelled in the hurdles, jumps and mid-distance races. As a foreign citizen, he was not eligible for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, but was competing as a UCLA representative and of course, was himself cognizant of Kuznetsov’s record. Read the rest of this entry →

Mary Decker’s 1982 “Spur-of-the-Moment” World Record 190

Posted on March 17, 2012 by Rojo Grande

Over the years, Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon has hosted some of the most prestigious track meets in the world.

Multiple US Olympic Trials, USA National Championships, NCAA  conference and national outdoor championships, and the notorious Prefontaine Classic have all contributed to the incredible legacy of Hayward’s hallowed grounds.

Champions might give partial credit to that legacy, or to the sophisticated and supportive Hayward fans, or the mild Willamette climate in evaluating their exploits there.

But at Hayward, there is another mysterious force embedded within the very soil. Some call it the Hayward Magic.

Such is the power of that force that even in a casual and insignificant all-comer’s meet—with about 500 fans ringing the track—the unlikely can occur…like a world record.

On July 16, 1982 Mary Decker (Tabb), running on a whim, officially expanded the limits of human performance in the women’s 10,000-meter run under the lights at Hayward.

Modern runners, accustomed to a detailed regimen of energy intake, precise training protocol, and mandatory pre-race recovery might be surprised at the unconventional circumstances which precipitated Decker’s record run.

Let’s take a look back. Read the rest of this entry →

Track and Field Rewind: Michael Johnson, 1993 2

Posted on June 21, 2011 by Rojo Grande

Even the great Michael Johnson had to work his way up the ladder.

The world’s greatest quarter-miler has enjoyed over two decades of respect and admiration. As is true of most iconic sports figures, Michael Johnson has seemingly always been the face of his primary event – the men’s 400 meter run.

But there was a time when Johnson was shunned from the exclusive club of tried-and-true world-class 400m runners.

Fittingly, it was in the magical confines of Eugene’s Hayward Field – and the 1993 USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships – where Johnson paid his dues and entered the club.

Or at least got his foot in the door.

Johnson’s credentials to that point certainly merited attention. He was undefeated lifetime in all his 400m finals races. He was the only human to have broken both the 20-second barrier in the 200m (19.79) and 44-second barrier in the 400m (43.98).

Yet his elite 400m detractors questioned his durability and conditioning. Johnson was regarded as a 200m man who only ran the 400 in single races – without having to endure the grueling qualifying rounds of say, the World Championships or Olympics.

In addition, Johnson’s relatively short physical stature and running style – leaning backward, with short choppy strides – defied the accepted convention for a true 400m runner.

And so, as if to make a statement in Eugene as to his conditioning, Johnson arrogantly burst into a huge lead in his preliminary heat, then casually ambled – almost walked – to the finish line in 45.62.

World record holder Butch Reynolds (43.29), seeing the gauntlet thrown down, kept his powder dry in his quarterfinal heat but then blistered the track in the semis (44.81).

Quincy Watts, the 1992 Barcelona Olympic champion (43.50) also saw Johnson’s display and was determined to overcome an injury-plagued season (only five races) and put the young upstart in his proper place. Read the rest of this entry →

Prefontaine Classic Flashback: 20 Runners Demolish Four-Minute Mile 4

Posted on April 11, 2011 by Rojo Grande

(Zimbio) Not many pleasures in life surpass a good distance race at Eugene's Hayward Field.

You’ve got to be fast.

Opportunities to sneak past the giant and steal his goods are rare…and brief.

So when this giant—normally a vigilant guardian of his treasury—carelessly nodded off for 40 winks, 40 feet scampered past him to loot his vaults of their sacred bounty.

And fast those 40 feet were.

It happened just last year—July 3, 2010 at the Prefontaine Classic (Diamond League) international track meet in Eugene, Oregon. Such an elite field of middle distance runners had been assembled that two separate runnings of the one-mile race had to be staged.

The mile run has remained an iconic race through the decades (in spite of the metric measuring system) simply by virtue of its famous four-minute barrier. Though hundreds of runners have dipped beneath that barrier since Roger Bannister’s epic christening in 1954, to accomplish a sub-4:00 mile is still considered a lofty goal and a worthy feat.

In that sense, the four-minute mile continues to loom as a stingy, hulking giant.

Oh, it’s not all that unusual these days for two, maybe three raiders to pilfer from the giant a few token gold coins. But an entire platoon—in one day, at one location—ransacking his storehouse?

Yes, in two waves they came: Gregson, Acosta, van Deventer.

Torrence, Kithii, van der Westhuizen.

Pifer, Brown, Mansoor Ali and Rupp,  early in the meet in the International Mile.

And then, in the meet’s finale, the Bowerman Mile: Kiprop, Laalou, Gebremedhin.

Komen, Wheating, Kiptanui Kemboi.

Lamong, Moustaoui, Lagat and Keiteny. Read the rest of this entry →

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