Maree and Aragon: After the Fall : For Both 1,500-Meter Runners, Pain and Controversy Linger From Olympic Trials

Times Staff Writer

To many people, one of the nice things about sports is that they offer clear-cut relief from life's gray areas. In sports, decisions usually are definitive.

But not always.

Last July, three weeks after Sydney Maree had edged Chuck Aragon for the third spot on the U.S. Olympic team in the 1,500-meter run, Maree felt a twinge of pain in his left hamstring.

It was a small irritation at the time, but it foreshadowed months of pain, both in the flesh and in the spirit, for both Maree and Aragon. An it left both feeling a little worse for the experience.

With 35 meters to go in the final of the 1,500 at the U.S. Olympic trials at the Coliseum, four men were in a position to earn a berth on the Olympic team. Only three would make the team.

Jim Spivey and Steve Scott were racing for first in a furious sprint to the finish. Maree's peripheral vision picked up a hard-charging Aragon coming close to overtaking him. In one of the most memorable finishes of the trials, Aragon lunged at the tape and fell. He was five-hundredths of a second behind Maree--and five-hundredths from making the Olympic team. He lay limp on the track as runners leaped to avoid spiking him.

"I prayed three times harder," Maree, the former world record-holder, said after the race, explaining how he had held off Aragon.

That race at the trails was Maree's first and last of the 1984 outdoor season. The twinge developed into an injury severe enough to keep him from competing in the Olympics.

The situation was enough to start an avalanche of speculation. Was it Maree's responsibility to declare that he couldn't run in the Games and thus give the spot to the healthy Aragon? Or was it the job of the Olympic coaching staff to determine who was prepared to run in the Games?

Further complicating the matter were the financial ramifications of abdicating a spot on the Olympic team involved were potential endorsements and shoe company bonuses worth thousands of dollars. In addition, Maree was reportedly renegotiating his contract with a shoe company, and presumably had more bargaining leverage as a member of the U.S. Olympic team.

The International Olympic Committee requires that competing nations declare their entrants well in advance of the Games. By July 18 all nations had to decide which track and field athletes would represent them.

After that deadline, according to the IOC, no substitutions would be allowed. Even in case of injury.

Maree was scheduled to run in the Jumbo Elliott Invitational July 14 but pulled out, citing a tight hamstring. That should have sent up red flags among the Olympic coaches. If Maree wasn't going to be fit to run in the Games, Aragon, as the alternate, would replace him on the team.

The policy is that U.S. athletes must show fitness between the trials and the Games. In some cases, athletes are called to a training site to run time trials.

Maree, however, was not subjected to the fitness test.

"I had to go with the information we received from Sydney's coach (Jack Pyrah)," said Larry Ellis, the men's track coach at Princeton University, who coached the men's Olympic track team. "On the basis of what (the) medical input was, we made the decision. They were telling us the injury shouldn't keep him out of the Games.

"Hindsight is a very interesting thing. We didn't ask for a fitness test because we thought he would be back in two weeks."

Chuck Aragon was in Oslo on July 21 to run in the celebrated Miracle Mile. He ad reassembled himself emotionally after the disappointment of the trials and had decided, with his coach, to compete in Europe and make the most of the rest of the season.

His heartbreak was fresh in his mind, and also in the public's, thanks to countless televised replays of the race.

I was walking through an airport in Chicago on my way to Europe, when this lady came up to me," Aragon said.

"She said, 'I saw you on television and my heart went out to you. I feel for your loss.' It was amazing to me that in the midst of all my anger and disgust and disappointment, there were so many people supporting me."

Maree also was scheduled to run in Oslo. He was the star attraction and was reportedly being paid $12,000 in appearance fees.

It was a cool night. Maree warmed up for 15 minutes, then told meet organizers he would be unable to run. That was the first time he began to think he might be not able to run in the Olympics, Maree said.

That was also three days after the IOC deadline.

Maree once observed that his life has been filled with irony. As a black South African, he was prohibited by apartheid policies from competing in his country. Yet, under the policies governing international sport, he was also prevented from competing outside South Africa.

His odyssey form his impoverished beginnings led to suburban Philadelphia and Villanova University. In May of last year, he became an American citizen. No longer, declared Maree, would he be disenfranchised in sport.

Aragon, from Los Lunas, N.M., often felt disenfranchised as a Latino in the town of 10,000. Through his running, though, he found a way out of the duty desert.

Aragon is right and full of dreams. He went off to college at Notre Dame, then, after graduation, returned to his community. He enrolled in medical school at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque to be closer to his people. He took off all of 1984 to train for the Games.

"It was only after I didn't make the team that I realized how much I wanted," Aragon said quietly during a recent early morning phone interview. It was 1 a.m. and he had just finished studying for a test.

"Sometimes we pursue goals without really knowing why. I guess I was surprised that I would feel such pain--to really hurt form something. I feel I deserved a place on the Olympic team. For myself and for all those people who have supported me. But Sydney deserved it, too. He has strived, both politically and athletically, to be in the Olympic Games.

"I had heard that he was negotiating with his shoe company. As far as my comment, I guess it makes me feel uncomfortable to think about it. We try to be a little more altruistic. I don't know. As far as his injury was concerned, Sydney did what he felt was right. He didn't want to give up that spot.

"I hold the places on the Olympic team to be precious. The rule is a problem. There is no reason I can see that we need to declare that much in advance. I still don't understand it."

For his part, Maree is attempting to exorcise the past. His indoor season was his best ever. He improved his indoor best in the mile to 3 minutes 52.40 seconds. He is already looking forward to a fruitful outdoor season, beginning in April. But the past still lingers.

"There was no question of my giving up my position," Maree said. "There would have been no way I would have withdrawn with just that tightness I felt. No way. By the time I even thought of withdrawing, it was too late. There was nothing to do but try to get well.

"The injury was freakish thing. I could barely walk for seven weeks. You wake up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and you are constantly reminded of the injury. It was a very difficult time for me.

"I don't understand the rule. I think it's too much time before the Games to declare entries. But it was not my decision."

Ellis said the United States has submitted a recommendation to the IOC to have the declaration period moved closer to the Games.

"It wasn't improper judgment on Sydney's part," Ellis said. "It is really difficult for us to make that final decision so far in advance. It is just difficult."

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