What would you say, if pressed to pick one, was the greatest asset an athlete can bring to his sport, whatever it is?
Speed? Surely important, often essential. Stamina? Nice. Strength? Not to be discounted.
How about a complete lack of imagination?
Look, have you ever wondered, as I have, how an outfielder can stand in center field with two out in the bottom of the ninth inning of the seventh game of the World Series and his team one run ahead but the bases are loaded, and the batter hits a high lazy fly to him. If he catches that ball, the World Series is over and his team wins. If he muffs it, he goes down in history as a synonym for failure, catastrophic ineptitude. He becomes the modern Roy Riegels, Fred Merkle.
If he has any imagination, there’s no way he catches that ball. But you know what the modern athlete will do? He’ll one-hand it on the way to the dugout.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I would begin to hyperventilate long before that ball got to me. I’d start to whimper, “Why me, Lord?” and I’d have no more chance of catching that ball than I would a meteor. There’d be blood all over center field.
An athlete’s lack of nerves never ceases to amaze me. I am not astonished when a player misses a three-foot putt to win the Masters, I am surprised he could bring the blade back in the first place. Without fainting.
I have seen professional fighters--Floyd Patterson was one-- sleeping on a rubbing table 25 minutes before they are to get in the ring with some pug whose nickname is the Animal or the Mauler or the Bomber. I watched Floyd nodding off one night in the Olympic Auditorium dressing room just before he got in the ring with a tough banger named Jimmy Slade. He had to be awakened to get in the ring.
I wouldn’t have been able to sleep the night before, never mind 25 minutes before.
So, in a way, I was intrigued the other day to hear one of America’s great athletes, the mile runner Steve Scott, admit that the enormity of an event--the 1984 Olympic Games--had seeped into his consciousness enough to impel him to abandon the techniques of a lifetime on the eve of the event.
“I couldn’t relax before the Olympic Games,” he admits. “I couldn’t get in sync. I couldn’t seem to calm down to do my best work and get ready.”
Steve Scott was then, and had been for most of the decade, America’s best miler and one of the best ever. He had run the second-fastest time ever, 3:47.69 (it is still the fourth-fastest mile ever run) in 1982. He had set eight American records outdoors, seven indoors. He was on his way to running the second-most sub-four-minute miles in history, more than 100. His forte was the tactical race.
He might not have won the gold medal. Probably, no one was going to beat Sebastian Coe that year of our Lord 1984. But Scott probably could have medaled except he stepped on the track with such a departure from his typical style even Coe couldn’t believe his good luck. It was a disastrous change in stratagem. Scott had bowed to the media and peer criticism that he ran too cautiously, and he set out in the Olympic final like a guy chasing a bus, as if the metric mile were a wind sprint. The field went past him in the stretch like a freight passing a water tank. He had tried to steal the race, ended up robbing himself, finishing an embarrassed 10th. Even Coe was mystified. “I’ve raced against Steve many, many times,” he said after the race, “and not once did he take the track and the lead like that.” The strategy was suicidal.
Steve Scott, who will run the mile against a crack field in the Sunkist meet at the Sports Arena on Jan. 18, reproaches himself for over-magnifying the effort called for, letting the fact it was the Olympics overwhelm him.
I’m not so sure that was it. You see, the Olympic 1,500 meters has had it in for American runners for almost a century. We haven’t won the thing since 1908. Steve Scott is just another in a long line of Yanks to get snake bit on the way to the victory stand. In 1932, Gene Venzke had just set the world indoor mile record--4:10--and would have been a favorite for the Olympics in Los Angeles--except he never even made them. He tripped in the trials.
In 1936, America’s Glenn Cunningham held the world record for the mile--4:06.8--and Princeton’s Bill Bonthron held the world 1,500 record--3:38.8. Gene Venzke and Archie San Romani were also in the red-white-and-blue that year at the Berlin Games.
The race was won by a New Zealand medical student named John Lovelock. The great Cunningham, who had managed only a fourth in Los Angeles in ’32, finished second. Bonthron, Venzke and San Romani finished nowhere.
Wes Santee was our best post-World War II miler, who was to put up a U.S. record of 4:00.5 and ached to become the world’s first sub-four-minute miler. He was banned for life for taking illegal payments, never got under four minutes or in an Olympics.
But the cruelest blow of the malevolent fates was reserved for another Kansan, Jim Ryun.
Jim was a wonder runner in the mid-1960s. He set the world mile record--3:51.1 in 1966. He set the world 1,500 record--3:31.1.
But that was at sea level. And that was the year they ran the Olympics at 8,000 feet in Mexico City. Ryun finished a gasping 18 yards behind the Kenyan, Kipchoge Keino, who spent his life at 8,000 feet.
The furies were not through with Ryun. Four years later, at sea level in Munich, he unaccountably found a way to take himself out of the event altogether. He found it prudent in a heat to be back in the pack of struggling young runners he should have been 10 yards ahead of. He collided with one of them. Exit Ryun. Exit another American hope in the Olympic metric mile.
So, you can see Steve Scott probably only thinks it was his fault. He had no chance--even if he, so to speak, slept on the rubbing table or yawned his way to the starting line. He was another in a long line of hoodooed Yank milers.
It’s our fate. Lousing up the Olympic metric mile is as American as apple pie.