Olympic Sprinter Rich Stebbins Part 1: Riding the Bob Hayes Express to Gold in 1964

Gerald Ashworth, Richard Stebbins, Paul Drayton, and Bob Hayes_The Spectacle of Tokyo Olympics
Gerald Ashworth, Richard Stebbins, Paul Drayton, and Bob Hayes, from the picture book, The Spectacle of Tokyo Olympics (Baseball Magazine)

The American men’s 4×100 relay team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics broke the world record, and won the gold medal. A more apt description is that Bob Hayes won the team the gold medal. His historic anchor leg took the American team from 5th to 1st in arguably the fastest 100-meter leg in 4×100 relay history.

As Rich Stebbins said, “The good lord gave Bob Hayes something most people don’t have. Pure unadulterated speed.”

And yet, it is a team event. Four sprinters have to circle the track and transfer the baton successfully three times in stride in order to have a chance. Stebbins knew this. He was a member of Grambling State University’s dominant 4×100 championship team, which had a 18-match stretch where they were one or two tenths off the world record. “The secret was we had exquisite exchanges. We would walk around campus handing the baton off.”

The American relay team was in a bit of a pickle. Mel Pender and Trent Jackson were speedsters who got injured during the individual 100-meter sprint competition, so were unavailable for the relay. Paul Drayton was available but had to run with a pulled muscle in his leg. So when the coaches and sprinters gathered to discuss the make up of the team, Stebbins said Hayes looked at him explaining that Stebbins was the best relay runner in the country, and said, “He third, I’m anchor, and I don’t care who else.”

Stebbins was very confident in his hand-offs and could do so with either his left or right hand, and so when Hayes told him he wanted the baton in his right hand, Stebbins made the exchange with his left. Hayes is so fast that he almost outran Stebbin’s hand-off. But the baton landed firmly in Hayes’ right palm, and off he went, racing into history.

Fifty two years later, at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Stebbins saw on his television a team that reminded him of the importance of great baton passing. “The Japanese team that won silver – their passing was exquisite.”

Rich Stebbins_high sc hool
Stebbins, crossing the finish line in the anchor leg of the 4 x 100 relay for Fremont High School leading them to the 1962 Los Angeles City Championship. (Photo Courtesy of Richard V. Stebbins)