Ed Caruthers at Santa Ana
Ed Caruthers at Santa Ana College

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.

Ed Caruthers Dick Fosbury and Valentin Garilov
Ed Caruthers Dick Fosbury and Valentin Gavrilov

In 1967, Ed Caruthers was the number one high jumper in the world. As a senior at the University of Arizona that year, Caruthers won the high jump competition at the NCAA indoor championship and tied for first at the NCAA outdoor championships in Provo, Utah. Adding gold in the high jump at the Pan American Games in Montreal, Caruthers lived up to his nickname – “All World.”

On September 16, 1968, a few weeks before the Summer Olympics, Caruthers cleared 7′ 3″ (2.20 m) on his first attempt to win the US track and field trials and get his ticket punched for Mexico City. A 17-year-old named Reynaldo Brown surprised the field by also clearing 7′ 3″ on his first try to make the Olympic squad.

But the most watched athlete in the trials, Dick Fosbury, made 7′ 3″ on his final attempt. As Caruthers explained to me, if Fosbury had not cleared 7-3, then the third high jump spot would have gone to John Hartfield, who cleared 7ft 2 inches in fewer attempts than Fosbury.

So Caruthers, was going to his second Olympics, after faring poorly in Tokyo in ’64. As AP put it in a September 30, 1968 article, “on the basis of his past record and his timely readiness, Caruthers must be the favorite.”

Unfortunately, being a favorite is not a guarantee or even a promise. The line between first and fifth are slim centimeters. And the high jump competition can be a painfully long process. Here’s how Caruthers recalled the competition to me:

2.22 meters is 7-3 1/4. At that height, I had it down to a science. I wanted to jump 7′ 3″ or 7′ 4″ by my sixth time. Initial jumps are 6-6 (which I could skip). A lot of the others missed, so it took a long time to just get to a height I wanted to jump, at 6 11. I had already warmed up, but I had to sit for about 90 minutes because those guys were missing so much. So my plan didn’t work out.

I ended up missing twice both at 7′ 0¼”(2.14 m) and 7′ 1¾” (2.18 m), probably because I wasn’t warmed up. So I was getting scared. I didn’t warm up like I was supposed to, or get my speed going like I needed to. I wasn’t hitting my plant well. It was a long day for the rest of the guys, but it didn’t affect Fosbury at all. He had no misses. He was right on.

As many sports fans know, Fosbury introduced a revolutionary style of jumping. It may not seem so revolutionary today, because everybody leaps over the bar head first, one’s back arching over the bar with one’s legs whipping upwards and over, hopefully landing on the mat on one’s back staring at the bar in its place. But in 1968, everyone else straddled the bar, their foot being the first thing over the bar, and Fosbury’s Flop was thought to be so unusual and awkward, people were amazed it worked.

After three hours, only three men had cleared 7′ 2½” (2.20 m): Fosbury, Caruthers, and the Soviet, Valentin Gavrilov. Fosbury and Gavrilov may have had the mental edge, as they both had not missed a jump, while Caruthers had missed as many as 4 times up to that point.

However, when the bar was raised to 7′ 3¼” (2.22 m), Gavrilov crashed out, missing on all three attempts. Caruthers missed once, but then cleared the height. Fosbury, still on a roll, made the height on his first attempt. Thus it was down to Fosbury and Caruthers for gold.

The bar was raised to 7′ 4¼” (2.24 m). Caruthers told me he was tired, having jumped 10 times over a long dragged-out period. They both missed their first two attempts, but Fosbury made it over on his third.

And so now I’m trying to figure what do I do. Even if I clear it, I’m fighting myself. Do I not jump and wait to the next height around 7′ 5″ or do I go ahead and jump here, pass and get three more jumps? I can’t lose the silver medal. If I clear it I get three more tries.

But I’m getting tired. If I pass, it gives me another 6 minutes to sit there and get relaxed and put everything into one more jump. What did I want to do? I was really close on most of my attempts. Maybe I just get this height and sit down and relax. Fosbury started to have issues too.

I chose to go ahead and try to jump it. I’m over the bar but hit it coming down. My trailing leg, my left leg, hits the bar, scraping it as I’m coming down. If I had been an inch further out, I would have cleared the bar. That was the competition right there.

Caruthers and Fosbury pushed each other, setting the Olympic record three times in the course of the battle. Fosbury would emerge as one of the stars on arguably the best US team in Summer Olympic history. Not only that, Fosbury’s success in Mexico City changed the thinking of track coaches and high jumpers around the world, immediately impacting how high jumpers jumped. Four years later in Munich, more than half of the high jumpers employed Fosbury’s technique. And from 1972 to 2000, 34 of 35 Olympic high jump medalists “flopped.”

As Caruthers reflected, Fosbury’s way of jumping “was a novelty. But when he won gold, all the kids wanted to copy him.” And when Caruthers thought back to that September day at the US Olympic trials, when Fosbury made his fateful last leap to clear 7′ 3″, his body brushing the bar, he today understands that moment may have changed history.

If Fosbury had not cleared 7-3, John Hartfield would have made the team and Fosbury would have stayed home. If Fosbury had not been on the team, Caruthers may have stood on the top podium with a gold medal, and perhaps even more significantly, the Fosbury revolution would not have happened.

“That one jump in the trials in Lake Tahoe – if he didn’t make that last jump, it would have taken another two or three Olympic Games before anyone tried it. But because he won the gold medal, high jumping changed forever.”

American Rudy Scholz closes down France_s Henri Galau during the infamous 1924 Olympic Rugby final
Rudy Scholz closes down France’s Henri Galau during the infamous 1924 final

Which national team has been the most successful in Olympic rugby history?

The United States.

Not known for its rugby prowess today, a team from America has taken gold twice in the Olympics. Of course, rugby union was an Olympic event only four times – 1900, 1908, 1920 and 1924. After that, rugby did not make an Olympic appearance until the 2016 Rio Olympics. America took gold at rugby’s last Olympic appearance in the 20th century – the 1924 Paris Olympics.

Why rugby no longer made the Olympic list of eligible sports after 1924 is unclear to me. Maybe it was a challenge to amass large teams for overseas competition at the time, as only three teams participated in the Paris Games: host France, Romania, and the United States. The American team was, I believe, primarily a squad of 22 from Stanford University, which had to raise $20,000 to pay for their travel to Europe, their training in England and their time in France.

Another reason may have been that unseemly gamesmanship left a sour taste in the mouths of the IOC.

According to Wikipedia, the Americans apparently were initially refused entry into the country, but still forced their way off their ship. The Americans claim that seasickness and the long trip made them very eager to disembark, while the French immigration officials viewed the Americans as “streetfighers and saloon brawlers.” Indeed there was apparently a fight at the docks between Americans and Frenchmen, getting the rugby rivalry off to a roaring start.

What followed, according to reports, was the following:

  • Games between local French clubs and the visiting American squad were suddenly cancelled.
  • The American team was told to hold their workouts on open lots near their hotel instead of proper fields of play.
  • The Americans were denied permissions to film their first match against Romania under the pretext that a French company had sole rights to film all rugby matches (although they were eventually given permission to do so)
  • And just to sprinkle salt on the wounds, the Americans returned to their rooms to find about $4000 worth of cash and possessions stolen despite a guard being on duty, according to this site.

Apparently, captain Norman “Cleaveland and his teammates were not very happy, and because of their treatment in the press, the American side was now being cursed and spat upon on in the streets of Paris. The American expatriate community in Paris was even staying well clear of them.”

Since there were only three teams, there were only three rugby matches actually played at the 1924 Olympics: France vs Romania, US vs Romania, and France vs the US. Both France and American handled Romania handily. So the press quite happily had their dream grudge match, a finals between the US and France. Here’s how this article describes the setting:

May 18th started as another hot day in an unseasonably warm string of spring days in Paris. A crowd of between 35,000 and 40,000 people gathered for the rugby final and the awarding of the first medal of the 1924 Olympic Games. As the team entered the stadium from a tunnel, they noted that the Olympic officials had elected to install a tall wire fence around the stadium to restrain the crowd. The American side wore white uniforms, blue belts, and white stockings hooped with red and blue. An American shield was sewed to the front of their jumpers. Wearing white shorts and blue stockings, the French took the field in their famous blue jumper badged with a cock.

All in all, a fairly normal start….except perhaps for the tall wire fence. Very quickly in the match, one of the speedy French players, Adolphe Jauguery, was flattened by an American winger named “Left” Rogers. Jauguery was taken off the field, unconscious and bleeding, and the crowd quickly turned on the Americans.

In the end, Team USA won the gold medal in a hard-fought match 17-3. The American press in Paris, were of course sympathetic and supportive of their American boys.

The headline for this Associated Press report from May 18, 1924, was “Americans Win Double Victory.”

The American Olympic Rugby football team won two great victories today at the Colombes stadium. The first was their defeat of France in the Olympic Rugby match, 17 to 3. The second was a victory over themselves in not losing their tempers under great provocation from what was termed by spectators as unfair and unjust a crowd as ever attended a sporting event. The American players were booed and hissed throughout the game, at the raising of the American flag on the Olympic flagpole was the occasion for a demonstration of booing and catcalling and the strains of the American national anthem were almost drowned out by the din raised by the seemingly infuriated spectators.

And just in case Americans weren’t outraged enough, here is the kicker. Not only was the unsportsmanlike conduct by the French in the battle on the pitch, the American claimed the same was true in the stands.

A fist fight then broke out in the stands and degenerated into a battle royal in which gold headed canes were freely used. The Americans were outnumbered and furthermore, they carried no canes with which to retaliate. When the police managed to disentangle the combatants, B. F. Larse of Provo, Utah and Gideon William Nelson of DeKalb Ill, two American students in Paris, were found to have been knocked out. Both men had to be carried out of the stand. Nelson was unconscious for an hour. When he recovered, it is said, he began looking for a bewhiskered man who carried a heavy cane.

Fake news, perhaps, but kinda fun.

Mac Wilkins and John Powell
Mac Wilkins and John Powell

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.

Wolfgang Schmidt, Mac Wilkins John Powell
Wolfgang Schmidt, Mac Wilkins John Powell on medal podium at 1976 Montreal Olympics

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.

Mac Wilkins
Mac Wilkins, Photo/Foto: George Herringshaw, 04 September 1977

In many ways I was the bad guy, the black sheep of the ’76 Olympic Games. First, I was big and strong and had long hair and a beard, and that probably intimidated some people.

Whatever it was, Mac Wilkins had a way of ticking people off. Wilkins had just won the gold medal in the discus throw at the Montreal Olympics, and was asked by the press whether he won the gold for his country or himself. Wilkins replied that it was “for myself. I worked for it. The United States can share in it if they wish, but they had no part in winning it.”

The president of the United States Olympic Committee at the time, Phillip Krumm, called Wilkins, gold medalist in the discus throw at the Montreal Olympics, a “grandstander and a popoff,” and that his response was akin to “hating your parents.”

Wilkins was a maverick, often at odds with officials. In prepping for the Montreal Games, Wilkins said in the oral history of American Olympic gold medalist, Tales of Gold, that he had informed the USOC that he and his shot putter friend, Al Feuerbach, intended not to enter the Olympic Village at the same time as the rest of team so that they could continue to train independently.

“Al and I decided we didn’t want to check into the Village that far ahead of our event. I knew what it would be like; it would be mass chaos and constant stimulation, and when you get too much of that your mind goes blank, and you don’t know what you’re going, so you can’t concentrate.”

According to Wilkins, they never got approval, but still decided to hang back where they were training in Plattsburg, New York until the day before the opening ceremonies. Despite an intention to go to Montreal a few days later, they were ordered to Montreal for drug tests. Believing that the USOC would not kick a potential medalist off the team, he insisted that they send a car to pick them up and conduct the tests outside the Village. In the end, Wilkins got his way, and was able to stay out of the Village and prepare himself the way he wanted to.

We got back to the Village on the following Wednesday and checked in. it was perfect timing for me because once you check in you get a real adrenaline rush, and you can hold that for only so long. If you get it too soon, you’re going to be flat for your competition. But it came at just the right time for me. I did a little workout on Thursday, and I had a great workout on Friday. I hit 230 feet with a left-hand wind, which was a handicap. It was one of those times when, after the workout, you sit down to write in your diary, and you realize what you’ve done and what you’re capable of doing. It’s kind of overwhelming, and it brings tears to your eyes. This happens rarely, and I think it does because at those moment you are facing the fear of success and you’re accepting it and realizing that you can overcome it and reach your potential, which is usually beyond what you ever imagined.

The first day of the Olympics was the first day of competition for the discus throw. Wilkins watched his American competition, John Powell and Jay Silvester, make initial throws under the qualifying distance of 200 feet. Wilkins went up and tossed the discus 224 feet, 5 inches, an Olympic record.

The next day was the finals of the discus throw. Wilkins admitted he didn’t feel as sharp as the previous day, and ended up throwing the discuss 221 feet (67.5 meters) in the second round of the finals. It was not as far as the previous day’s record, but it was good enough to hold up as the greatest distance through the next four rounds. Wilkins believed that he knew exactly what he needed to do to get himself ready for winning. And when he executed on his plan, he was simply happy.

On the victory stand I was laughing and chuckling to myself and thinking, so this is what it’s all about. This is what you see on TV, and it comes down to this. This is easy and no big deal. Of course, the performance itself was relatively easy. The hard part was preparing physically and mentally to get to the level needed to make that performance.

Cowboys Cardinals Football
Dallas Cowboys players coaches and owner protesting on September 24

After building for over a year, the National Football League in America is being swept up in a wave of peaceful protests, as players, coaches, and in some cases, owners, are finding ways to silently protest what they believe to be an insensitivity to the issues of race, sparked by comments made in September by the President of the United States.

Referring to an athlete who gets on one knee during the playing of the American national anthem, the President said that such an athlete “disrespects our flag,” and is a “a son of a bitch” who should be fired.

When asked on September 25 at a press conference if the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) would support similar protests in at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, USOC CEO, Scott Blackmun, answered in a way that symbolizes the challenge of protesting at the Olympics.

I think the athletes that you see protesting are protesting because they love their country, not because they don’t. We fully support the right of our athletes and everybody else to express themselves. The Olympic Games themselves, there is a prohibition on all forms of demonstrations, political or otherwise. And that applies no matter what side of the issue you’re taking, no matter where you’re from. … But we certainly recognize the importance of athletes being able to express themselves.

Scott Blackmun

Blackmun’s words are sympathetic regarding an athlete’s right to express views that are deeply personal and important to them. But he does say that the Olympics prohibits “all forms of demonstrations, political or otherwise.” In other words, we respect your right to protest peacefully. But you need to respect the IOC or a National Olympic committee’s right to kick you out if you do so.

In 1968, Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who famously stood with gloved hands raised in fists on the medal podium after their gold and bronze medal victories in the 200 meter finals, were consequently forced to leave the Olympic venue.

In 1972, Americans Vincent Matthews and Wayne Collett, protested in their own way by standing nonchalantly on the medal stand while the American anthem was playing. Their perceived disrespect resulted in their suspension from further participation at the Munich Olympics, and subsequently in the US team failing to field a 4×400 relay team, an event they were favored in.

Collett explained in 1992 his actions in 1972 in a way that likely reflects the feelings of many athletes who are linking arms, removing themselves from the field or kneeling during the playing of the American national anthem:

I love America. I just don’t think it’s lived up to its promise. I’m not anti-American at all. To suggest otherwise is to not understand the struggles of blacks in America at the time.

Indianapolis Colts protesting
Indianapolis Colts protesting on September 24
Roy with Fiji 7 dollar bill
Me with a Fijian 7-dollar bill

Just got this in the mail from a friend – a 7-dollar note!

When the rugby team from Fiji won their nation’s first gold medal in the Olympics’ first rugby seven’s final at the 2016 Rio Olympics last August, it seemed as if all 900 thousand citizens jumped up and rejoiced.

Eight months later, the Fiji government commemorated the Olympian accomplishment not just with a 50-cent coin, but also a 7-dollar bill! A million of these bills, with the very uncommon denomination of 7, were printed, and of course, they are legal tender. (Seven Fiji dollars is about USD3.40.)

Fiji Seven Dollar Bill_Front

The front of the bill is a striking vertical layout, featuring the team captain Osea Kolinisau with the ball, and the team coach, Ben Ryan, looking contemplative. The back of the bill shows the entire team. A watermark shows team member Svenaca Rawaca running with the ball as well.

Thanks Victor Warren!

(Victor was a member of the Canadian field hockey team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.)

Fiji Seven Dollar Bill_Back