Still a freshman at Santa Ana College, high jumper Ed Caruthers was headed to the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. Caruthers had always been a football player, and as a pretty good wide receiver/defensive back, he hoped one day to get drafted by an NFL team. Out of football season, Caruthers dabbled in track and field. Strangely, with little effort, Caruthers would win most high jump competitions. In 1964, he told me, he “went to the AAU championships, and lo and behold, I jumped 7 ft 1 inch, and beat John Thomas, which then qualified me for the Olympic trials.”
Even more strangely, Caruthers wasn’t even aware that the Olympics were that year – 1964. He was simply more interested in preparing for the football season that Fall. But when he won the finals in the high jump at the Olympic trials in September, he realized that he wasn’t going to play football for Santa Ana in the coming months, and so did not register for school. As he told me, his track coach was “happy as a lark,” while his football coach had a hole in his team.
So Caruthers the football player, who was an accidental Olympian, took off for Japan in early October, about a week in advance of the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremonies. Caruthers was in good shape when he arrived, but with so much time before his competition, he needed to train. Unfortunately, it was hit or miss if a particular US team had dedicated coaches or not. The high jumpers, according to Caruthers, did not. And for a kid like Caruthers, who a month before wasn’t even aware the Olympics were taking place, a naïve kid who wondered why his teammates would not train with him, was suddenly thrust wide-eyed into the world of super mega-sports spectacle, complete with all the food you can eat.
The high jump competition was in the last two or three days so I was in Tokyo three weeks without competition. I didn’t have any coaching, and I didn’t go up to any coach and ask them either. I’m jumping by myself so I didn’t have that extra thing to push me higher. If John Rambo or John Thomas were out there training with me, I might have had the adrenaline going, wanting to show them. But (even though we were teammates) I was a competitor to them, so we didn’t.
Caruthers was not born of wealth, and was barely eating a bowl of cereal a day when he was a student in junior college. But when he came to Tokyo, and was privy to the bounty of the Olympic Village, he ended up eating eggs, waffles, bacon, cookies, ice cream, and lots of it. “I weighed 190 pounds when I arrived. After two weeks, I weighed 198 pounds. I thought maybe when you go to the other side of the world you gain weight, but no.” He just ate too much.
So prior to the high jump competition, Caruthers stopped eating. For three days, all he consumed was cornflakes, milk and salad. So, no, Caruthers was not feeling as strong as he wanted to at the start of the competition, nor feeling right or ready. As a consequence, Caruthers did not perform as well as he had expected, as he explained to me in detail:
I was getting up really good but I couldn’t tell what I wasn’t doing wrong. People in the stands who saw me jump said “we can’t believe you missed that… all you had to do is step one foot back”. I was about 3 – 4 inches over the bar. My plant wasn’t in the right place but I couldn’t tell. I’m 19 years old. The first jump was easy. But you have to make adjustments in your 2nd or 3rd jumps. At 7 feet everything has to be really refined and precise – there’s less room for error. I needed to make adjustments. After my second attempt I really needed someone to tell me but all I’m doing is I’m trying to run faster because I think I need more effort. I ended up jumping only 6-10 and a quarter.
Caruthers finished in eighth place. He sat on the bench and watched the others compete to the finish. Valeriy Brumel of the Soviet Union and John Thomas both jumped 2.16 meters, but could not go beyond that. Brumel took gold on fewer misses, Thomas silver and Rambo bronze. Caruthers thought, “damn, there are two guys on the medal stand I’ve beaten this year. There’s no reason I shouldn’t be on that stand.” He thought about the opening ceremonies, being together with thousands of athletes, all the flags of the world flapping around him, and “I’m right there in the middle of it. I am with the best athletes in the world.” He realized at his darkest moment that finishing eighth was not good enough, that his attitude and focus were inadequate, and that he wanted, needed to redeem himself in Mexico City four years later.
When Caruthers returned home to California, he was determined to focus more on track than on football. He was offered scholarships to play at USC or UCLA, but he picked the University of Arizona because it was 500 miles away from home, and from all the distractions of his friends and neighborhood. And he also wanted to make sure that he got his degree, and sought help from the university to ensure that he did well with his grades and graduated.
That’s what Tokyo did for me. Prior to that I only cared about two weeks from now. After Tokyo, my attitude was the difference between night and day. Training. Confidence. Everything. I knew what I was in school for. I had a schedule. I built up my strength. I refined my technique. I worked it so that I knew exactly what I should be doing to jump my best height.
In 1967, there was no better high jumper in the world than Ed Caruthers. He was primed for gold in Mexico City. He was determined. Nothing was to get in the way of his goal – to erase the memory of his poor performance in Tokyo. Nothing.
Nothing….except the Flop.