For the week of May 19, 1999  thru May 25, 1999  

Back on track


While spring may bring thoughts of tulips and crocuses to many, I am visited by thoughts of track and field. You see, I grew up in the California’s San Fernando Valley, where the sport was as big as basketball is to Iowans or ice hockey to Canadians.

I was lucky enough to attend Burroughs High School in Burbank, Calif., and see the world high school pole vault record broken at what was then an astounding 13 feet 11-1/8 inches. Lest you laugh at that, remember we are talking about a bamboo pole and the ‘50s. Ronnie Morris, the holder of that record, went on to place second in the Rome Olympics. He eventually adjusted to an aluminum pole and had a long career as a track coach and track equipment businessman.

Nothing, however, seems to match in my mind the beauty of that early gravity-defying leap into the air.

I attended Occidental College for two years before transferring to UCLA. At that time the great track coach Payton Jordan led Oxy’s teams. The school regularly developed Olympic champions and won NCAA titles. I can think of fewer times more enjoyable than sitting at track meets where I knew most of the participants, stopwatch and score sheet in hand.

When I transferred to UCLA, I was privileged to know the great Rafer Johnson, winner of the dual USA-USSR Decathalon meet. He had been set to go on our speaking tour of India but he had to cancel because of the pending meet, but before he left I spent many hours studying about India with him.

I remember him as a modest, extremely bright and remarkable human being who thrived in a time when many doors were still closed to black men of talent and vision. One of my sorority sisters made the "mistake" of dating him and was called before the alumns and "depledged" because of her "shameful act." Interracial dating was a definite taboo then.

Rafer won the meet, of course: He was a gentleman and a joy to watch. He also was student body president of UCLA. His grace has not diminished, and seeing him carry the torch at opening ceremonies of the Los Angeles Olympics was a great pleasure.

Many of my friends married track competitors, so I knew the world of that sport fairly well, and I have kept up with the sport for years. Some of my greatest sports-viewing memories are of two runners, Max Truex, who’s small form churned up the track on long distance events in a beautiful rhythm, and Steve Prefontaine, who lit up the world of running with his grace.

Recently I saw one of the three movies made about Steve, the one with Donald Sutherland, and I thought it captured his essence quite well. His early death was a tragedy for the sport.

Last year at this time, I started to think about writing a column on track and field and put it aside. Then the great sprinter FloJo died, and I got to read some tributes to her and the sport I love. I felt a sense of loss for the family and friends of the vibrant athlete, but I also felt a personal sense of diminishment. She dared to be beautiful, individualistic, focused and strong: I will miss her.

The last time I attended a really big track and field event was about five years ago in Southern California, and several things struck me. One was that the competitors are more beautiful than ever to watch; body sculpting and weight training have made muscles glisten as they move. In my early track-watching days, those techniques were not available, nor were the uses of steroids. Just as the bathing beauties of my era had soft curves instead of hard bodies, so the athletes then were not as defined and tough in appearance. Watching athletes perform in track and field events in today’s stadiums is a mixture of admiration for the feats they perform and also an exercise in the aesthetic joy of looking at their handsome bodies.

The other thing that struck me at my last big stadium event was that this sport seems truly democratic. The price of a ticket is less than it is for most sporting events, certainly much less than for basketball and even less than the cost of a ticket to see a major league team play baseball. Track stands are filled with families, athletes themselves, and people of many colors and financial levels. There don’t seem to be any elite sections reserved for movie stars or club owners. Seats are taken according to arrival times.

Because people can talk loudly, there is a festive atmosphere, like grand-scale picnics. No delicate applause as one sees in the tennis arenas or at golf matches: yelling and rooting is not only allowed but also encouraged.

The next time I visit California I’m going to try to fit in a track meet. I don’t know the players the way I used to, but there will always be moments of "glad grace" and individual achievement seen among a crowd of convivial viewers. I can’t think of many things more fun than that.


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