They were teammates. But they were not friends.
For well over a decade Mac Wilkins of Eugene Oregon and John Powell of San Francisco, California competed on the field trying to out-throw the other in the discus, and competed off the field with cutting quips.
Sports writer John Schulian wrote a great opening paragraph for his June 29, 1984 column in the Morning Advocate, a Baton Rouge newspaper, describing their rivalry. (Yes, you need to be up on your 20th century American pop culture.)
If John Powell said, “Less filling,” Mac Wilkins would reply, “Tastes great,” for they are the Bickersons of the discus, and agreeing on anything would likely ruin their reputations forever. They will argue about how much a quarter-pounder weights, or when the swallows come back to Capistrano, and the fact that they are Olympic teammates once again will do nothing to harness their tongues. Why should it? They are halfway to the new American dream – a beer commercial.
In a June 24, 1984 article in The Boston Herald, Charles Pierce described an exchange between Powell and Wilkins after Powell had won the discus throw finals in the Olympic trials a few weeks before the start of the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984.
- Powell (referring to then 33-year-old Wilkins): “Some old guys choke, and some don’t, I guess,” opined 37-year-old winner John Powell (220.3 ft)
- Wilkins: “That’s right, John,” chimed in Mac Wilkins, the 1976 gold medalist who threw himself into second place with a final toss of 217 feet. “It wasn’t exactly a top flight performance out there. I personally think that my performance was one of my worst.”
- Powell: “I appreciate that.”
A few weeks previously, they had this exchange:
- Wilkins: “Powell has a new diet. I understand it’s helping him avoid those mood swings. Now he’s unhappy all the time.”
- Powell: “Poor Mac, he’s delirious. It must be the sun.”
When did this enmity/comedy routine begin? Some say it began in earnest with the discus throw finals at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. In the discus throw finals there are six rounds to make your best throw. Wilkins tossed the discuss 67.5 meters or 221 feet in the second round. In the third round, Powell tossed the discus 65.7 meters or 215 feet, which was good enough for silver, until the sixth round. That’s when East German Wolfgang Schmidt unleashed a throw of 66.22 meters or 217 feet.
When it was clear that Wilkins had won the gold medal, Powell, who had slipped to bronze went up to Wilkins to congratulate him. The story goes that Wilkins ignored his American teammate and went up to the East German, Schmidt, and gave him a big hug.
As Wilkins explained in the book, Tales of Gold, those who reported on this scene didn’t understand.
Everybody around there thought I had insulted Powell, my fellow countryman. John Powell was not my friend, but Wolfgang was. I wasn’t looking at what country Schmidt was from; I was just looking at the terrific performance he had made, coming through on his last throw like that to take a silver medal. He was great, but a lot of stuffed shirts were upset with me then, and ever more so a bit later.
Wilkins would win the silver medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, with Powell taking bronze.