Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sat, 24 May 2008 05:51:07 -0400

Visit to a Shrine


[Rerun from May 1998 RW. Photo of Billy Mills winning the Tokyo Olympic 10,000.]

Olympic tracks are the shrines of our sport. Unfortunately we must leave North America to visit any of them.

The sad fact is that all four tracks used for the Olympics on this continent weren't considered important enough to preserve. The St. Louis stadium, site of the 1904 events, only hints now at how it looked then. Track couldn't fill the other three North American stadiums, so baseball or football moved in soon after the last Olympic medal was awarded.

Montreal ripped up its track to reconfigure the field for the Expos (who now reside in Washington, DC). Los Angeles renovated for the Raiders (who later moved back to Oakland). Atlanta cut its stadium in half to become home of the Braves.

To see an Olympic track, I had to travel to Tokyo. This wasn't the reason for visiting Japan but was the highlight of that trip. I recommend going there -- or to another surviving shrine -- to runners with enough years on them to have a sense of history.

Some personal history: 1964 was the high point for my track-watching fanaticism (also my best year of track racing). The Olympics came to Tokyo that year, to what the Japanese now call "National Stadium."

That October I stayed up much of the night to catch as many events as possible on television. But the best one slipped past me.

My dad woke me with the stunning news of Billy Mills, who went in as third-fastest on the three-member U.S. team, winning the 10,000. Americans Bob Schul and Bill Dellinger later went 1-3 in the 5000.

Peter Snell won his second Olympic 800, plus the 1500. Abebe Bikila won his second marathon.

I later got to know Mills. I've corresponded with Schul and heard him speak, and I live in the same town as Dellinger.

I've met Snell since he became a U.S. resident and Ph.D. in exercise physiology. I saw Bikila in a wheelchair at the Munich Games shortly before he died.

But until 1997 I'd never visited the place where they all ran at their best. And I almost missed the chance.

Tokyo's traffic spooked the small-town boy in me. But my Los Angeles-born wife Barbara insisted that we go to the stadium by taxi. "You might never get this chance again," she said.

Once there we found the stadium seemingly locked tightly. "Let's just walk around the outside to get a feel of the place," I said.

Barbara then spied a tiny doorway and went over to peek inside. I held back.

"We can sneak in here," she shouted. I swallowed my fears of a trespassing arrest and followed her inside.

Here I walked a lap. The stadium appeared empty except for the two of us.

But in this shrine I could sense the ghosts of Mills and Schul and Dellinger, Snell and Bikila when they were young, these seats were filled, and this air was supercharged with sound and emotion. My Japanese trip peaked in the 10 minutes here, when memories from long ago and far away came together briefly with here and now.


If this brief visit meant this much to me, think how Billy Mills must have felt when he returned to Tokyo more than 20 years after his greatest day. He spoke of it in an article I wrote, which went unpublished at the time and was long forgotten until it resurfaced during research for my memoir, Starting Lines.

"I have fulfilled my last track goal," said Mills in 1986. "I was in Tokyo not long ago. Our guide asked me if there was anyplace I wanted to visit, and naturally the first place that came to mind was National Stadium.

"My one regret was that I never got to take a victory lap that day [in 1964]. We'd lapped some runners twice, and by the time they finished I had been hustled away for interviews."

He finally ran that bonus lap, alone and ever so slowly to savor these long-delayed moments. Only his wife Pat was watching, from the same seat she had occupied before.

"As I ran," Billy recalled, "I could hear 75,000 people cheering. I saw the spot where Ron Clarke accidentally bumped me into the third lane, where I made my move, where I thought, 'I can win!', where I realized, 'I WON!'

"Then I finished and heard just one person clapping. It was Pat. I burst into tears and walked away so she wouldn't see me."

She surely shared his tears, as she had his triumph and where it had taken them ever since.
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