Rod Milburn, Olympic gold medalist, former world-record holder and member of the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame, was found dead Tuesday night in the bottom of a railroad car half-filled with liquid sodium chlorate at a temperature of 180 degrees.
Only if the reference is to the course of Milburn's life after his triumph in the 110-meter high hurdles at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games.
Twenty-five years after winning that gold medal, Milburn, 47, was earning a living as a utility crewman at the Georgia-Pacific Corp. paper and pulp mill in Port Hudson, La.
Milburn needed the work, having taken the job in 1988 after being dismissed as the track coach at his alma mater, Southern University, in 1987.
Among his assignments at the mill: unloading rail cars carrying liquid sodium chlorate, a chemical used to bleach paper.
According to sheriff's detectives investigating the death, Milburn was midway through the task Tuesday night when he apparently was overcome by fumes and fell into the solution.
Investigators are classifying his death an accident.
"If he had come along maybe 10 years later, it might have been a different story," says Pete Cava
of USA Track and Field. "If he'd have been born in 1960, instead of 1950, he'd have been right there with Greg Foster and Roger Kingdom, who were able to make a substantial living as [professional] hurdlers."
Says Johnny Thomas, current track coach at Southern, "He would've been a millionaire.
"See, what happened to Rod is that he came along at a bad time in track and field. When Rod won the Olympics in '72, he didn't get a big fanfare. Because he was from a small school like Southern University, nobody made a big deal about it. And because he was such a quiet, inward person, he didn't sell himself, like Willie Davenport did."
Milburn, in Thomas' words, was so quiet "he could always be around and you wouldn't know he was around."
Thus, Milburn was doubly cursed--he wasn't a self-promoter, and he made his mark at a time when Olympic champions were prohibited from cashing in professionally if they ever wanted to compete in the Olympics again.
When Milburn, then 22, won his gold medal--in a world-record time of 13.24 seconds--professionals weren't allowed to compete in the Olympics. Then, in 1973, Milburn relinquished his eligibility by turning pro while helping found the International Track Assn., a professional circuit that died shortly after the 1976 Montreal Games.
As an ITA professional, Milburn was banned from those Games. Then, in 1980, after former ITA athletes had their amateur status reinstated by The Athletics Congress, Milburn was shut out again--this time by the U.S.-led boycott of the Moscow Games.
By 1984, the Olympics were open to track professionals, but Milburn, then 34, was too old to capitalize.
Instead, he was hired that year--at an annual salary of $27,000--as track coach at Southern by his old college coach, Dick Hill, then Southern's athletic director. Hill left Southern for a similar position at MIT in 1987, and his replacement, Marino Casem, chose not to renew Milburn's contract--sending Milburn on a job hunt that eventually led him to Georgia-Pacific.
Thomas believes Milburn deserved much better.
"He was one of the originators of the pro tour, but the problem was, all the people he brought along with him were losers," Thomas says. "Not losers as people, but none of them were Rod Milburn. The tour didn't have enough of him. So it died out.
"It died out, yet Carl Lewis and all those guys who followed benefited from what he started. They're all millionaires today. . . .
"Somebody of Rod Milburn's magnitude--a gold medalist, an outstanding person--should have reaped more benefits than he did."
UP THE DOWNHILL ESCALATOR
Give them 60 meters and they still want 60 more. That was this week's lesson for the organizers of the Nagano Winter Olympics in their ongoing dispute with the International Ski Federation (FIS) over the starting line for next February's men's downhill competition.
With FIS demanding that the starting point be raised from its current position--1,680 meters above sea level--to 1,800 meters, Nagano Organizing Committee director Makato Kobayashi offered to split the difference and move the starting gate up to 1,740 meters.
Kobayashi, opposed to a start at 1,800 meters because it would encroach on a national park, said he agreed to a start at 1,740, provided the gate remained outside the park.
FIS Secretary-General Gian Franco Kasper rejected the compromise, saying, "There is no way, unfortunately, you can ski outside [the park]. . . . I have heard 1,740, which as everyone knows is not acceptable because it is a very steep part [of the mountain]."
Thus, the stalemate continues. A vote on the matter by the NAOC executive board, originally scheduled for Nov. 20, has been put on hold. Instead, the executive board is expected to appoint a "consultative committee" to mediate the dispute.
Good news: A settlement is required by Feb. 8, 1998, the date of the men's downhill.
At least there's a finishing point.
BOYCOTTING THE BOYCOTT
Runner Cathy Freeman's status as the first Australian aboriginal athlete to win a world championship in track and field has become of point of political contention four years before Sydney hosts the 2000 Summer Olympics.
In an open letter this week from the Nyungah Circle of Elders from Western Australia, Freeman, the reigning women's 400-meter world champion, was asked to boycott the 2000 Games as a show of support for aborigines in their bitter fight with the Australian government over land rights.
By competing in the Olympics, the letter stated, Freeman and other aboriginal athletes "will be reopening up the massacre killings by the people against us, the aboriginal people. Run not, participate not in any sport.
"Cathy Freeman, we ask you not to run. Stand and mourn with us."
Through her manager, Nick Bideau, Freeman indicated she intends to run in the 2000 Olympics.
"These people have tried to use her fame for their own good," Bideau said.
Carl Lewis entered the fray Wednesday, telling reporters in Australia that he would advise Freeman to compete--recalling his disappointment in not being allowed to compete in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, boycotted by the United States in protest of the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.
"In the U.S., we watched the Olympics in 1980," Lewis said. "People went and competed, won their medals and went home.
"Had we been there, we could have spoken out against [the invasion]. Just being there makes a difference, being seen."
Aboriginal support of a boycott is far from a united front in Australia. Aboriginal spokesman Terry O'Shane expressed dismay over the Freeman debate, saying, "We love her, we want her to run. She's Australia's golden girl. We totally reject the suggestion of a boycott of the Olympics."
GOLD MEDAL, DEEP BLUE?
First ballroom dancing, then golf, then polo and now chess. Yes, chess is pushing for medal status in the Olympics.
President Kirsan Illumzhinov of the International Chess Federation has been lobbying for chess to be part of the 2004 Games in Athens. He said last week that chess is on the agenda for the next International Olympic Committee executive board meeting.
Handicapping the field for 2004, the U.S. would figure as the early favorite--assuming enough IBM technicians could be flown into Greece to push Deep Blue, the world-champion computer, around the track during opening ceremonies.