ORANGE COUNTY HALL OF FAME INDUCTEES : Quantum Leap : Olympic Failure, Daughter’s Illness Brought Dwight Stones Down to Earth
Six days before the opening ceremony of the Games of the XXIst Olympiad, Dwight Stones stood on the field at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, looked up at the steel girders of the unfinished roof jutting into the gray sky and watched the rain slant down.
It was, for Stones, a terrible sight, but it wasn’t as ugly as the scene at his feet. When he looked at the apron of the high jump pit--where he was supposed to leave his footprints into history a few days later--he saw a pool of water.
“I thought, ‘All I need is rain, and I’m screwed,’ ” Stones said.
On the day of the high jump finals, it rained. Stones won a bronze medal. And it was the worst day of his life.
“I had spent the four years since the ’72 Olympics, when I was the surprise bronze medalist at 18, serving notice to every legitimate contender for the gold medal in Montreal that they had no chance to win that meet,” he said. “I went to their hometowns, to the place where they had their steps virtually carved into the apron, and I kicked their butts.
“I competed 55 times in 1973, 51 times in 1974 and 48 times in 1975. I met and beat everybody, under all conditions, so no one, with any legitimacy at all, could come in to Montreal thinking gold medal. And I had done my job very effectively.
“There was only one thing that could deter my purpose. Only one. Because I was the fastest high jumper in the world on the ground. I had the tightest turn, the most aggressive approach in the last four steps and the only thing that stood between me and setting a world record that day--forget winning the gold medal, that was a slam dunk--was rain.
“And I knew it. I had no fall-back position. I had to go with what got me there, speed and aggression.”
Speed and aggression. Those two words just about sum up the Stones Style. The entire Montreal experience had been a whirlwind of controversy. He had weathered the first storm, when a local paper liberally translated his complaints about the facilities into, “I hate French Canadians.”
Stones swears he never said that. What he did say, however, was ammunition enough. He poked fun at Montreal’s $1 billion blunder of a stadium and ripped the condition of the grass and the lack of training area. He left the Olympic Village because “it looked so unfriendly, and there’s no sex life,” and “the food stinks, and I’ll eat anything.”
More than 40,000 people showed up for the the high jump qualifying rounds, all, it seemed, to boo Stones. He blew kisses to the crowd and blew away the competition.
“I thrived on that stuff, but I didn’t want the event to become a circus, a booing contest,” Stones said. “So I went on ABC and explained that I had never said it. And I got the ‘I Love French Canadians’ T-shirt with the maple leaf on it.”
The final was no circus. It was a three-ring disaster for Stones.
“I was water-skiing,” he says. He tried longer spikes, but it didn’t help. Poland’s Jacek Wszola won the gold with a jump of 7 feet 4 1/2 inches. Greg Joy of Canada was second at 7-3 3/4. Stones cleared 7-3.
He isn’t sure what part of that day was the hardest. The disappointment of finishing third? Facing the press that was happy to repeat his own pre-Olympic boasts? The call home to his mother?
They all were painful, and yet something positive was born from the hurt.
“I think things happen for a reason,” Stones said. “I’m a huge believer in that. Over the next four days, I tried to get out of my body and figure out why it happened. I think I learned a lot about myself.”
Four days after finishing third in the Olympics, Stones set the world record with a jump of 7-7.
Fifteen years later, sitting in his real estate office in Tustin, Stones fully understands what he learned from the soul searching that followed the disappointment of Montreal: “I was a jerk.”
At Glendale High School, he was an insecure, too-tall teen-ager whose mother wouldn’t let him wear jeans to school.
“I was an introverted geek,” he says. “Everything but the pocket protector and the glasses. Thank God I had great eyesight. That was about the only thing going for me.”
Then he discovered the high jump, and his life changed almost overnight. He wasn’t yet 18, and all of a sudden, people actually listened when he talked. It was hard to believe and even harder to handle.
“I went from being a total turkey in high school to being the best in the world at something,” he said. “I was drunk with power. Everything I said was all of a sudden a pearl.
“Going from a complete nobody to a god is hard to deal with, and I hadn’t dealt with it. I thought I walked on water. As much as I knew that jumping over a piece of fiberglass didn’t have a lot of significance, people wanted to pay me a lot of money and listen to whatever I had to say for hours on end. You can’t possibly understand what that’s like.”
Winning the bronze medal in Munich as an 18-year-old UCLA freshman didn’t do anything to take the edge off his ego, and Stones began to use his outrageousness as a tool to promote himself and his sport.
“I was the Freddy Blassie of track and field,” he said, referring to the flamboyant professional wrestler. “People would show up to see me lose, which was fine. I just wanted them to show up. I said outrageous things because outrageous things got in the newspapers.
“From ’73-'76, I had no peer in the event. I had to create pressure. So I predicted I would set world records. I predicted I would beat the No. 2 guy in the world by three inches. I was just P.T. Barnum.”
The transformation that began in Montreal continued slowly over the next few years. “I had learned enough of a lesson,” Stones said, “but it took me awhile to implement all the things I had thought about, because so much of it was an ingrained part of my personality.”
Stones was no longer just talking to see his words in print, but he wasn’t exactly avoiding the limelight. And his controversial suspension in July, 1978 put him back on Page 1.
The first amateur to participate in the Superstars television competition, Stones donated his winnings to the charity of his choice--his track club.
That sparked a debate within the International Amateur Athletic Federation that ended in his suspension. Stones sued, and in 1978, the Amateur Sports Act was passed, stipulating that one federation could not control more than two sports. The Athletics Congress then took control of track and field.
Five Eastern European women who had been suspended for positive steroid tests were reinstated by the IAAF the same day as Stones, March 11, 1980. They had their 18-month suspensions cut in half.
“What I did was worse than taking drugs,” Stones said. “I took money for being in Superstars and gave it to my own track club. I was told that I could go to the competition and not compete in the running events by John Holt, secretary general of the IAAF. And he said, ‘You can designate the money to a charity of your choice, which can include your track club.’
“When it came time to get John Holt on paper with that, he wouldn’t go on the dotted line. But let’s say I’m a malice-of-forethought SOB who planned this all out. OK, why not break all the rules? If I run the 100 or the 800, I’m Superstars champion, and I make at least $15,000 more.”
Stones returned to the arena in 1980, and the boos weren’t so pronounced. Some still believed he was loudmouth whose idea of a cause was wearing a Mickey Mouse shirt because he felt the AAU was a Mickey Mouse organization. Others now saw a man who had sacrificed almost two years of his career in a battle against what he perceived to be injustice.
“After my suspension, I think people started to say, ‘Maybe he was always a little ahead of his time. I didn’t always like the way he said it, but he was right.’
“I saw something that was wrong and I did something to try and make a change. I always rode the crest of the wave of change. I spoke out.”
And he’s still talking. Stones, a part-time broadcaster who will cover the Olympic field events for NBC in Barcelona next summer, hasn’t forgotten what gets in the newspaper.
Here’s an abbreviated Q&A; with Stones. And, as you might have guessed, with Stones, you don’t need much Q to get a whole lot of A:
Q. How much damage did the Ben Johnson scandal inflict on track and field’s image?
A. The damage was huge, huge, almost irreparably huge. I have to tell you, if he had come back clean and run reasonably well, I’m talking just in the 10.20s, fast enough to qualify for World Championships and maybe make it to the semis, run a few races in Europe and been quasi-competitive, it wouldn’t have been so bad.
But the fact that he’s gotten his doors blown off, all it does is say, ‘With drugs, the guy’s the greatest. Without drugs, he’s an also-ran. He can’t beat guys from Southeast Asia without drugs.’
The East Germans proved it. How can a country of 18 million people that can’t even make toilet paper that’s worthy of being used dominate sport across the board? Now we know what we always suspected. They had the world’s most sophisticated drug program.
Ah, but things have changed over there. There’s no money for steroids, no money for biomechanics studies or identifying potential in 9-year-olds. There’s no money for coaching. These people are now out there on the street, getting their own sponsorship, finding their own apartment, standing in line for three hours to buy food.
What system is that? It’s our system. We’ve been doing this system for 100 years. Nobody knows that system like we do. Nothing changes for us. What have our athletes been doing? Holding down jobs, trying to raise a family, finishing their education and finding their own sponsors, paying their own rent.
And we’ve still been great. We’ll be great in Barcelona and, by Atlanta, it’s going to be a total joke. When the Olympics are in our country, the money starts to appear, and to the guy in Louisiana with a 15-month-old kid and a part-time job, an extra $200 a month can make a huge difference in his ability to train.
I predict, by the end of this decade, they’ll be so sick of Americans sweeping things, they’ll do what they did in swimming and only allow two of us in each event.
Q. Is drug testing keeping up with drug taking?
A. Were there suppressed drug positives at the World Championships? You can speculate all you want. Is there a way to get around drug tests? Sure, if you have enough money. It’s human growth hormone now. It can’t be tested for, but it’s incredibly expensive, and nobody knows what the side effects are down the line.
The ones who can afford it are the ones who are making a lot of money as a result of being able to afford it. It’s a truly vicious circle. I’m not pointing any fingers at anyone, I just know the stuff is exorbitantly expensive.
Look, you take 10 shotputters, and they all agree to stay clean and they’re all 6-2 to 6-4, 240 to 260, by nature, just big corn-fed boys and they all have pretty good technique, so they’re all throwing around 65, 66, 67 feet. They take turns beating each other at any given event. They’re all making the same amount of money, which isn’t very much, and it’s very tough to determine who’s first in the world.
Then one guy says, ‘Hey, if I’m No. 1 in the world, I’ll get a shoe deal, a club deal, I may even get a vitamin commercial.’ If he decides to take the doses that have been taken in that event over the last 10 years, he’s going to get it. He’s going to be visibly bigger and stronger, and he’s going to kick the crap out of the other nine guys, every single meet, by three and four feet.
So what are the other shotputters going to do? Are they going to say, ‘He can do whatever he wants, but I’m going to do the right thing?’ Bull. That’s not the way we’re put together. It’s more like, ‘That cheating SOB is doing it, and I can’t stop him, so I’m going to do it.’ That’s the classic justification for taking drugs.
In a couple of years, they’ll find a way to detect (human growth hormone), but there will already be something else because cheating and competition go hand in hand. It’s been that way, unfortunately, since the beginning of time. There’s always going to be chemists, doctors, coaches, managers and athletes out there who are willing to spend the money, sacrifice a couple people as guinea pigs and find out a way to stay one step ahead of the testing police.
When Stones returned to competition after his suspension, most experts figured he would need a magical drug--such as, maybe, a youth potion--to continue having an impact on the world-class high jump scene. After all, no high jumper over 25 had ever been ranked in the top 10.
Stones struggled for more than a year and was on the verge of retiring when he suddenly realized that a step back can actually be a step in the right direction.
“I was strong and fast, but I couldn’t find my run-up,” Stones said. “I’d approach the bar, and it just didn’t look right. I’d land and say, ‘Why am I landing here?’ It was very frustrating. And the answer was so simple it’s embarrassing.
“I’m very analytical about my jumping, but one day I got emotional. I finally snapped. I was down to my third attempt at 7-3, and I said, ‘That’s it, I’m changing my takeoff spot. I’m moving back to, uh, here.’ I just picked a spot and boom , I jumped 7-4 1/4. Then boom , the first time at 7-5 1/2. I jumped 7-7 that night because I finally woke up and moved the damn thing back a foot and a half.
“I was ready to quit and then went to No. 3 in world in a couple of weeks.”
From that point on, he focused on making up for a slippery day in Montreal. He spent countless hours alone with that bar suspended in midair, honing his technique, visualizing his flight, seeing himself reap the rewards of his diligence.
And in 1984, he took his quantum leap. At the age of 30, Stones set an American record and won the U.S. Olympic Trials with a jump of 7-8. It was the best jump of his life and “the highlight of my career.”
He tried to carry the momentum for another six weeks, but couldn’t continue reeling in the years. Stones was edged out of the medal field in the 1984 Olympics by younger jumpers. He finished fourth.
But this time, he had entered and left to cheers.
The next year, perspective slammed home on the Stones family. He had taken his 2-year-old son, Jason, to the hospital to pick up his wife, Lynda, and their newborn daughter, Jessica.
“It was a perfect scenario,” he said. “Son first. Two years and three months later, a daughter. Perfect pregnancy. Perfect delivery. Everything’s wonderful. Then I show up at the hospital and my daughter’s in ICU, and I don’t know why.”
Jessica, now 6, was born with a congenital heart defect. She was five days old when doctors in Boston performed a procedure that would prepare her for open-heart surgery four years later. In 1989, she underwent successful surgery and now, Stones says smiling, “she’s a normal kid.”
“I didn’t think it took that great of an emotional toll on me at the time, but it did,” he said. “And I’ll never be the same because of it.”
Being the most hated or best loved track and field athlete in the world had lost its allure for Stones. He continued to compete through the 1988 Olympic Trials but then retired. (“Not officially,” he protests.)
He’s hesitant to write the final chapter because he’s not satisfied with the story line. Because of an untimely squall one summer day in Montreal, it just didn’t all work out as he had planned.
Stones can live with that legacy, but that’s not to say there are no regrets.
“My career as an athlete is incomplete because of my inability to win the big one,” he said. “I was in one World Championships and got sixth. I was in three Olympics and got third twice and fourth once. I set seven world records indoors and three outdoors, but I will not be treated historically as well as a person who came and went in three years and won the gold medal.
“Will I be in the U.S. Track Hall of Fame? Sure. I’ll finally be nominated, and after the third or fourth time, people will say, ‘You know, this is kind of stupid that we’re not electing this guy because we hated his guts.’ ”
Hall of Fame Banquet Facts
WHAT: 11th Orange County Hall of Fame Banquet.
WHEN: Tuesday, Oct. 29.
WHERE: Disneyland Hotel, Anaheim.
HIGHLIGHTS: Tickets, $100 each or $1,000 for a table of 10, can be secured by calling (714) 935-0199. The affair (cocktails at 6 p.m, dinner at 7) will include the induction of Homer Beatty, Bill Cook, Bobby Knoop, Pat McInally, Alex Omalev, Bruce Penhall, Dwight Stones, Bertha Ragan Tickey and Shirley Topley .