As a child, summer was hell for Bob Schul. Working on the farm, with the air hanging hot and heavy with dust, Schul did his best to do his chores on the farm, but there was no clear remedy for his asthma. As Schul wrote in his autobiography, In The Long Run, he resorted to wearing his grandfather’s WWI gas mask, but nothing could stop the wheezing. One of his brothers admitted to Schul that his ragged breathing was so bad at night that he feared he might not last the night.
Years later, Schul had battled through asthma with his running regimen, but he had not conquered it. And so, in October 1964, Schul was grateful. The “Summer” Olympics in Japan were actually held in the Fall to avoid the monsoon season. And when Schul stood at the starting line for the finals of the 5,000 meter run, the constant rain had cleared the air. “I knew this was the only chance I had for immortality in the athletic world, for it hit me one last time that Tokyo was the only place I could have run in the Olympics. My allergies would never have remained dormant anywhere else with the pollen and air pollution that was prevalent in big cities of the world.”
But it was wet and cold in the stadium, with the temperature at 21°C (51℉). This was particularly uncomfortable because, as Schul told me, the Japanese officials were so conscious of time, they wanted to make sure all runners were gathered so that they could start the event on time. All they could do was sit and wait in the cool air. Twenty minutes prior to the start of the race, Schul could feel the tension.
“No one in the room was talking, not even the Japanese officials. Everyone was deep in his own thoughts. You could feel the tension as we sat, side by side. I was leaning forward and glanced to my right, Jazy was looking my way and our eyes made a brief contact then he immediately turned his head. Still no sound. The tension was unreal.”
Schul was referring to Michel Jazy of France, who had broken the world record in the 5,000 in New York just before coming to Japan. And there were other strong competitors in the finals: his teammate, Bill Dellinger, Harald Norpoth of Germany, and the Australian, Ron Clarke, who only a few days earlier took bronze in the 10,000 meters. But Schul believed Jazy was his biggest threat.
As you can see in the video of the last three laps of the 5,000 meter finals, Jazy was in the lead with three laps to go, heading a tight pack of nine. Schul stayed back in seventh, and was under threat of being boxed in. Schul wasn’t in the best position considering he was the favorite to become the first American to win the 5,000 race at the Olympics.
With one lap to go, Jazy was still leading a pack of six, but the Russian Nikolay Dutov was on his right shoulder, Dellinger was third and Norpoth was just behind Dellinger. Schul was fifth…but that would change dramatically. Norpoth shot ahead of Dellinger and Dutov. But at the same time, Schul was running wide and passed Dellinger and Dutov as well. And as they made the final turn, Schul passed Norporth and was bearing down hard on Jazy.
You can see Jazy swing his head furiously, looking back to see Schul getting closer and closer. And then suddenly, Schul blew past the Frenchman in a burst that sent the crowd and the broadcaster into a frenzy. “Schul is coming in! Schul is going to win it! Schul is winning the 5,000 and he’s the first American ever to win the 5,000!”
It wasn’t just that Jazy was slowing down. After nearly 5,000 meters, Schul was speeding up. He told me that he ran his last lap in 54 seconds, and in fact his last 300 meters was in 38.7 seconds, which would translate to a 50-second pace for a full lap. A few days later Peter Snell of New Zealand would win the 1,500 meters with a final 300-meter sprint of 38.7 seconds too…on a dry track.
You can see it in the video….the cinder track was a muddy mess. And you can see it in the picture, mud was flying everywhere. But Schul didn’t care. “I felt as if somehow out-of-body, as if I was sitting on my own shoulder, observing how my body performed,” he said. On that muddy and chilly Autumn day in Tokyo, Schul was above it all. He was an Olympic champion.