Hayes Jones was about to run the race of his life. His wife, Odeene Jones, was seated next to Jesse Owens in the National Olympic Stadium, saying to the 4-time gold medalist that Hayes hadn’t been executing on this strategy going into the finals. Owens told her not to be concerned.
And yet, there was Jones, anxiously prepping for the start of the 110-meter hurdles final, placing his starting blocks into the red cinder track. “I was setting up my blocks, and this Japanese official tapped me on my shoulder. I was annoyed. He tapped me again and pointed down. I look at the starting blocks and I see I had placed them backwards. That would have been a disaster. I was nervous.”
And then off went the gun. “I don’t know what happened. I don’t remember one thing about the race. I had run it so many times, I ran this one as rote. I do remember lunging for the tape, but that’s all I remember. I was that focused.”
But when Jones hit the tape, his US teammate, Blaine Lindgren, was there as well, on his left. And Anatoly Mikhailov from the USSR was running through at the same time on his right. “My goodness! Who won?” wondered Jones. “You can look at someone’s eyes and usually know, but we all had that stare – ‘Who won?’ They corralled us underneath the stadium. The Russian coach ran over to his guy. I thought he won. I didn’t see my coach close by – he was against the wall smoking a cigarette. I’ll be damned. I must not have won.”
As was true with almost every single other athlete in Tokyo, Jones trained hard to get to this moment. He and his wife sacrificed financially to be able to train for the Olympics, to make sure he was in top condition and form so that he could be the best in the world. And at that moment of truth, he had to wait and wait. And then the scoreboard lit up. “‘Ladies and gentlemen, the results of the men’s 110-meter hurdles…’ And I watched as the name in the number one slot was being typed J-O-N-E-S U-S-A 13.6 seconds.”
“That’s when I knew I won and my dreams had come true.”
The president of the International Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, was the one to place the gold medal around Jones’ neck, which Jones found ironic. In 1961, after his return from the Rome Olympics, Jones thought he would use his secondary education degree to become a track coach. According to Jones, Brundage directed Dan Ferris of the USOC to advise Jones that if he accepted a stipend for coaching track in a high school, he would not be eligible for the Olympics. “So I left teaching and began to sell real estate and insurance. The guy who put the medal around my neck was the guy who denied me from pursuing my career dream. But the only thing I could think of was back as a young boy in Pontiac, Michigan, wanting to participate in track and field, and people around me encouraging me to keep trying.”
Jones and his wife went out to town to celebrate the day after his golden victory.
“We were eating steak, probably Kobe steak. All of the sacrifices we made. I couldn’t pursue my educational career in teaching. I had to go out and sell real estate and insurance, not certain how much money I was going to make. My wife was a teacher. I had a little boy on the way. It was challenging trying to make a life for yourself and still have this personal goal. So we were sitting there and we looked at each other, and we burst out laughing.”
“We did it!”