Galen Rupp
Galen Rupp wins the 2017 Chicago Marathon

When Galen Rupp won the Chicago Marathon on October 8, 2017, he ran a personal best of 2:09:20, edging out the 2016 champion, Abel Kirui, by 28 seconds.

Congratulations Galen Rupp! A three-time Olympian, Rupp won silver in the 10K at the London Olympics, and bronze in the marathon at the Rio Olympics.

But after the Chicago Marathon, the popular runner’s publication, Let’s Run, gave Rupp a new distinction in the article celebrating his victory – “1st American-Born Winner in 35 Years.” Let’s Run’s Facebook followers picked up on the politically nuanced headline and reacted not only to the inaccuracies, but the racial and gender overtones:

  • MDW: Khalid Khannouchi may not have been born in the US, but he was, when he won, and is still American. He won in 2000 and 2002. Don’t discredit his wins as an American
  • JP: Well said. The title sounds like a trump supporter.
  • MDW: No, just a typical Letsrun or FloTrack headline. Misleading.
  • SL: Not just misleading but incorrect. First American born MALE to win in 35 years.
  • MDW: Even better!
  • JP: “First American Born God Fearing White Male Winner of Chicago Marathon Crushes Darker Skinned Heathens from Other Side of Wall!” There. I fixed it.
  • MDW: Not funny.
  • JP: Lighten up. It’s the internet.

Lets Run Galen Rupp Headline

The last American to win the Chicago Marathon, as pointed out by MDW in the Facebook post, is Khalid Khannouchi, who in fact, has won the Chicago Marathon four times, twice in 1997 and 1999 as a Moroccan, and twice in 2000 and 2002 as an American. Khannouchi became a naturalized citizen of the United States on May 2, 2000.

Like my grandfather who became a naturalized citizen in the 1950s and my mother who became a naturalized citizen in the 1960s, Khannouchi is an American citizen. The Let’sRun.com headline for Rupp’s victory could have been “1st Male American Winner in 35 Years,” but the editors made a conscious decision to politicize their headline. In the article they provide further explanation of why they think this accomplishment is significant:

While Khalid Khannouchi and Meb Keflezighi have delivered plenty of incredible performances for the U.S., a win of this magnitude by a non-African-born American has been a long time coming, and it’s never happened during the current era of Kenyan/Ethiopian dominance. Rupp’s win wasn’t just big for the U.S.; it was big for the rest of the world, as well. It had been almost nine years since a man born outside of Africa had won a World Marathon Major (Marilson Gomes dos Santos in New York in 2008). Rupp’s win today was a breakthrough, but it remains to be seen whether he is a generational talent or if his win can open the doors for other non-Africans to contend on the sport’s biggest stages. If we had to choose right now, we’d lean toward the “generational talent” explanation.

Martin Fritz Huber, who writes on running in OusideonLine.com, wrote this counter-point article entitled “We Shouldn’t Care Where a Runner is Born.”

On the one hand, this can be read as an innocuous acknowledgement of (East) African dominance in distance running; for a stark example of the latter, check out this comprehensive list of the fastest marathons ever run. More problematically, one could argue that creating an African-born vs. non-African-born binary imposes racial categories, and, needless to say, the historical precedents here are not good. To put matters in these terms also addresses distance running’s perpetual elephant in the room: whether or not, and to what degree, race and/or ethnicity signifies a “natural” competitive advantage.

Khalid Khannouchi

To me, this controversy smacks of the birther debate during Barak Obama’s tenure as president, when loud voices continued (continue) to claim that Obama was not born in the United States. The whole point about sports is that the best person wins, and the whole point about the American Dream, is that “all men are created equal” with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” through hard work and lack of barriers.

My grandfather emigrated from Japan to the United States in 1903, and helped build a strong community in Japan Town in San Francisco through his work as an elder in the Japanese Church of Christ and executive director of the Japanese YMCA. While he had to wait until the 1950s to become a naturalized American citizen, he helped countless others become solid American citizens. He was as American as they come, and I would hate to see an asterisk indicating that his contributions were less so because he was not born in the United States.

He, as much as Khannouchi, has made America great.

1964 Paralympics_wheelchair dash.jpg

On Sunday, November 8, 1964, 53 years ago today, commenced the 1964 Summer Paralympics in Tokyo. Held over a five-day period, the competition was dominated by the team from the United States, with 123 medals, including 50 gold. The team from Great Britain was a distant second with 61 medals, including 18 gold.

Ron Stein of O’Fallon, Illinois won 8 gold medals. Rosalie Hixson of Crystal Spring, Pennsylvania won six gold medals and a silver. And Tim Harris of Rockford, Illinois took home 11 medals, including 3 gold medals. The total of those three Americans alone would have placed them in sixth place if they were their own country.

Harris contracted polio when he was only 18 months old, but learned how to get around on a wheelchair and crutches so competently that he was competing in wheelchair athletics by the time he entered the University of Illinois. Competing in football, basketball, track and field, swimming, ping pong and archery, clearly Harris was a natural athlete.

Tim Harris_1964 Tokyo Paralympics.JPGBut at the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, Harris was repeatedly in the shadow of his University of Illinois teammate, Stein. Harris finished second to Stein in the men’s wheelchair dash, the shot put, the discus throw, the pentathlon, and third to Stein in the javelin and club throw. “Ron earned eight gold medals,” said Harris in a Morning Star article from November 20, 1964. “This was his meet. I certainly never expected to earn 11 medals. I would have been real happy to win just one.”

Harris competed internationally for eight years since his first at the Stoke Mandeville Games in in London in 1963, collecting over 30 gold medals and setting seven world records in his career. He would go on to marry Judy Webb, who won two medals at the third Paralympics held in 1968 in Israel.

The 1960s saw the blossoming of the international competition for disabled athletes. The success of the Tokyo Paralympics helped the general public and organizers alike understand that the disabled were not a helpless class to hide away. “Someone told me before I left (the United States for Japan) that the Japanese left handicapped people out in the cold, but that sure wasn’t the case this year,” said Harris in the Morning Star article. “They went all out for you. The hospitality was simply overwhelming.”

Of Hixson’s accomplishments in Tokyo, Governor Scranton said in this AP article of December 13, 1964, “she is a shining example of the fact that in our state today a handicapped person is not a person without opportunity. Her accomplishment in the Paralympics is a marvelous tribute to her stamina and determination, and it gives me great pride to take this opportunity to salute her as well as her teammates and classmates from the Johnstown Rehabilitation Center on behalf of all my fellow Pennsylvanians.”

Madeline de Jesus
Madeline de Jesus

At the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the American woman’s team won the gold medal in the 4×400 relay finals, easily breaking the Olympic record by nearly a second and trouncing silver medalists Canada by nearly 3 seconds, an eternity in sprint.

The 4×400 meters event, by definition, is a race run by four people. But due to the rules of track at the time, teams were allowed to list up to six people eligible for the relays, and if there were athletes who competed in heats, but who did not run in the finals, they could still be awarded a medal for helping their team to the medal podium.

Thus, at the LA Games, six women received gold medals, including Diane Dixon and Denean Howard, who helped Team USA to an easy victory in the preliminary 4×400 competition. They not only assisted in getting their team to the finals, they rested two of the team’s stars, Valerie Brisco-Hooks and Chandra Cheeseborough, so they would be fresh for the finals.

Team Puerto Rico, on the other hand, did not have that luxury it seems.

Madeline de Jesus was representing Puerto Rico as a long jumper and sprinter at the ’84 Games. During the long jump competition on August 5, she pulled her hamstring, and she knew she would not be able to suit up for the 4×400 relay six days later.

Only six days….but enough time to plan a caper.

According to this article, Madeline consulted with her sister Margaret who was a spectator at the Olympics. And they wondered if they could get away with it. No one knew that Madeline’s injury would keep her out of the relays, so if her sister could take her place in the relays, the Puerto Rican team would have a chance. After all, Margaret was a sprinter as well. She didn’t qualify for the Olympic team, but she had a particular quality that could make this work – Margaret was the identical twin of Madeline.

Madeline and Margaret de Jesus
Madeline and Margaret de Jesus

So Madeline suited Margaret up, presumably passing her sister all her credentials that gave her access to the village, the training facilities and the stadium. And on August 11, it was Margaret de Jesus lining up for the second leg of the 4×400 heat. Since there were ten teams competing for eight spots in the finals, Team Puerto Rico’s finishing time of 3:37.39 was enough to grab the eighth spot and qualify for the finals.

Margaret had fooled the world.

For a little less than a day.

Unfortunately for the de Jesus sisters, there was a journalist present for a Puerto Rican newspaper called

La Nación, This journalist had covered the sisters’ athletic accomplishments, and was actually able to tell the difference between Madeline and Margaret – a “beauty mark one had on her cheek.”

When the head of the Puerto Rican Olympic team heard of the deception, he immediately pulled his 4×400 team from the finals. After an investigation held by the Puerto Rican Olympic Committee, Madeline and Margaret were banned from future competition. The investigation also revealed that the relay team’s coach, Francisco Colon Alers, knew of the plan and allowed it, resulting in his lifetime ban from international competition. Sadly, the three other members of the track squad were also complicit, and they received a one-year suspension from competition.

Antigua and Barbuda finished almost two seconds behind Puerto Rico in the heats. Getting to the finals and racing one more time on the big stage would have been sweet…if not for those twins.

Long Jump in meters

Whenever I write a story on an American high jumper, long jumper or a discus thrower, I have to go through the painful back-and-forth conversion between feet and meters, inches and centimeters.

It used to be the holy grail in the United States and Britain to run a mile in fewer than four minutes, until Roger Bannister broke it, which broke the mental barrier and allowed others to blast through the four minute wall. Today, however, no one really cares about the mile, as the standard racing distance is the 1,500 meters, which is a little less than a mile.

Now, track and field in the US has generally gone metric. For example, the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships hold the same distance running events that other countries do: 100 meters, 800 meters, 5,000 meters, 110 meter hurdles etc. In fact, the organization, USA Track and Field, adopted distances using the metric system in 1974.

They were ahead of their time apparently, because in 1975, the US Congress passed an act that states preference for the metric system of weights and measures, which was followed by an executive order from President Gerald Ford. Essentially, the entire world had already adopted the metric system. Politicians and businessmen alike wanted the US to get with the international game plan. However, for some reason, probably related to a tremendous resistance to change, the act and the order watered down by stating adoption was voluntary.

What was this resistance? Listen to this fantastic podcast on design, 99 Percent Invisible, and their story on America’s implementation of the metric system, titled Half Measures. History professor, Stephen Mihm is quoted as saying in the podcast that interestingly, uncommon bedfellows united to resist: astronomers, theologians and industrial engineers:

But abandoning the U.S. customary system did not sit well with a lot of people, including and influential group of “astronomers, theologians, and cranks,” Mihm explains. “And keep in mind that those categories which we consider separate and distinct today were not at this time.” This group spun together scientific arguments with other wild and nonsensical ideas, and developed a theory that to abandon the inch was to go against God’s will. Converting to metric, they argued, would be tantamount to sacrilege.

But the real core resistance to metrication came from a different group entirely: some of the most innovative industrialists of their day. Engineers who worked in the vast machine tool industry had built up enormous factories that included everything from lathes to devices for cutting screw threads — and all of these machines were designed around the inch. The manufacturers argued that retooling their machines for a new measurement system would be prohibitively expensive. They also argued there was an “intuitiveness” to the customary system that made it ideal for shop work.

Imperial Metric Conversion for cooking
Imperial – Metric Conversion for Cooking

This reluctance for to fully shift to the metric system can result in engineering miscalculations, sometimes with tragic or costly consequences:

  • In 1983, an Air Canada Flight ran out of fuel mid-flight because the ground crew and the flight crew all calculated fuel requirements in pounds instead of liters, granted this mistake happened just after the Canadian government required conversion to the metric system. Fortunately, the pilots managed an incredible “dead-stick” landing, gliding safely to a nearby airstrip.
  • In 1999, NASA lost a $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter spacecraft because engineers in Lockheed Martin calculated thruster data in pounds to NASA while NASA engineers were making their calculations in metric units called “newtons.”
  • In 2003, a car on the Space Mountain roller coaster ride at Tokyo Disneyland derailed due to a broken axle, resulting in the injury of 12. Apparently, new axle parts ordered in 2002 were measured in inches as opposed to millimeters, making the new axles off spec.

In the end, there are bigger issues than the momentary confusion of trying to know how far 5,000 meters is in feet or miles. And to be fair, American institutions have gradually adopted the metric system due to its partnerships and obligations internationally.

And yet, the fact that America still clings officially to inches, quarts and Fahrenheit can be a pain. Don’t we know that we are shooting ourselves in the foot?

Predictions part 2_with checkmarks

I always avoid prophesying beforehand because it is much better to prophesy after the event has already taken place. – Winston Churchill

A good forecaster is not smarter than everyone else, he merely has his ignorance better organised. – Anonymous

In Sports Illustrated’s October 5, 1964 preview of the Tokyo Olympics, the editors stuck their necks out and picked the medalists.

As stated in Part 1, guessing US or USSR in track and field, particularly for the men, was probably not a bad bet. But here’s a few examples of why “you play the game,” as they say.

 

Al Oerter_Life_17July1964
Al Oerter, Life Magazine, July 1964

 

Discus thrower Al Oerter had already won gold at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and 1969 Rome Olympics. There was no way he could keep that going, or so SI thought. Oerter, despite ripping his rib cage in Tokyo, he still sent his discus soaring the furthest for gold.

The sprinting heir-apparent to Wilma Rudolph in 1960, was Edith McGuire, a member of the famed Tennessee State University Tigerbelles. Clearly, SI hadn’t heard about Wyomia Tyus, who won the 100-meters championships and the crown of fastest woman in the world, but didn’t merit a listing in SI’s top three in that event.

Elvīra_Ozoliņa_1964
Elvīra_Ozoliņa 1964

SI didn’t have to stretch too much to pick Elvira Ozolina for gold in the women’s javelin. After all, the Lativan representing the USSR was the Rome Olympic champion as well as world record holder in 1964. But she did not win, and in fact finished an embarrassing (for her) fifth. However, she still got the press coverage for famously shaving her head bald after the competition.

And finally, SI can be forgiven for getting it wrong for the decathlon. After C. K. Yang’s heartbreaking loss to gold medalist, Rafer Johnson, at the 1960 Rome Olympics, the Ironman from Taiwan was expected to win gold in Tokyo and be crowned the greatest athlete in the world. But, as the great baseball manager, Casey Stengel, once said, “Never make predictions, especially about the future.”

Willi Holdorf and C. K. Yang in 1964
Willi Holdorf and C. K. Yang in 1964

 

SI_5Oct1964 edited

Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future. – Nils Bohr, Nobel laureate in Physics

 

A good forecaster is not smarter than everyone else, he merely has his ignorance better organised.  – Anonymous

In Sports Illustrated’s preview of the Tokyo Olympics, the editors offered their very specific predictions for gold, silver and bronze medalists for each of the Olympic events. Not only did they provide the names and orders of victors, they offered a bit of analysis for practically each event.

If we consider that this is 1964, when the only practical way to share information real time was the telephone, and shorter term by telegram, telex and snail mail. Using their considerable global connections at the time, they put together a pretty impressive set of predictions.

Let’s take a look at the 17 track and field events shown at the top of this post. Of that 17, SI identified the actual gold medalist 11 times, as you can see the green check mark I applied to an accurate prediction. In four events (indicated by a gray check mark), they didn’t identify the eventual gold medalist, although the one they picked made it to the medal podium.

Predictions part 1_with checkmarks

In fact, on this particular page, SI got only the marathon and steeplechase gold medalist wrong. They picked Ron Clarke for gold in the 10,000 meters, who eventually took bronze. No one knew that a kid from Kansas named Billy Mills would come out of nowhere to take gold and become one of the darlings of the ’64 Games.

True, men’s athletics were dominated by the US and USSR, and the American press were very aware of the USSR stars, so maybe these selections weren’t huge gambles.

Still, I’d be happy with this success rate.

Ed Caruthers with picture of silve jump

Tommie Smith was in Tokyo for the 1967 World University Games. A Japanese reporter came up to him and asked him, “Were Negroes now equal to the whites in the way they were treated?”

According to Richard Hoffer and his brilliant book about the 1968 Mexico City Games, Something in the Air, Smith said that they were not. Then Smith was asked if a boycott of the Mexico City Games was a possibility. Smith replied “you cannot rule out the possibility.” Since there was absolutely no talk of boycotts up to that point, Smith’s comment to the Japanese press spread to the international press, and by the time the 200-meter sprinter returned to American and to San Jose State College, otherwise known as “Speed City” for those on the sprint team, he was deluged with requests for interviews.

John Carlos and Tommie Smith
John Carlos and Tommie Smith

By the end of 1967, a sociology professor at San Jose State named Harry Edwards began building a consensus among university administrators and athlete, finding his voice on the issues of black inequality in America. He had formed an organization called the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR). On Thanksgiving Day that year, the OPHR via Edwards called for a boycott of the 1968 Olympics. This was soon followed by a list of demands, including

a boycott of all New York Athletic Club events (a logical move since the club maintained indefensible admission policies), It was also demanding the exclusion of South Africa and Southern Rhodesia from the Olympics, integration of the U.S. Olympic Committee, and, as a bonus, the return of Muhammad Ali’s championship crown. Edwards let it be known that they wouldn’t mind if Avery Brundage, “a devout anti-Semitic and anti-Negro personality,” be replaced as head of the IOC.”

In 1967, Ed Caruthers was the best high jumper in the world. After having tasted a bit of what competition with the best in the world was like at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Caruthers was determined to return to Mexico City and win the gold medal. He told me that his track and field teammates in Tokyo, like Mel Pender and Willie Davenport, were committed and working hard to return to the Olympics and redeem themselves of the disappointment they faced in Tokyo. So when confronted with the possibility of a boycott, the initial reaction of these Black American athletes was different from others like Tommie Smith and John Carlos – they did not believe that a boycott was the right play.

“When Dr Martin Luther King was killed on April 4, 1968, there were a lot of things going on in my mind,” Caruthers told me. “What was I going to do? What is this country going to be like? There were a lot of issues that weighed on me. In the end, I was not in favor of the boycott, and I told those guys. I told them we had to run our asses off and win, which could give us more of a voice, more of an ability to throw light on these issues. You don’t get the best audience if you boycott.”

Ed Caruthers and Dick Fosbury

In the end, the desire to compete and to take advantage of the massive audience tuning into the Olympics won over those who considered a boycott. As Smith teammate, John Carlos said in this Orange County Register interview, “I strongly thought boycotting. For many of us, it as a childhood dream to compete in the Olympics. For Ed (Caruthers), it was a double-whammy because he’d been before, gotten a taste and he wanted to go and shine.

As the world saw, Smith and Carlos saw a non-violent way to protest the state of Blacks in America, by famously donning a black glove and raising their fists in the air while bowing their heads as they stood on the winners’ podium and listened to the American national anthem. They had won the gold and bronze medals respectively in the 200-meter sprint, but they were suspended from the rest of the Games for their actions.

As written in that Orange County Register article, Caruthers is still close to Smith and Carlos. A statue dedicated to the two sprinters was placed at their alma mater, San Jose State, remembering that time when they silently but powerfully spoke out for equal rights.

“If they’d boycotted the Games, nobody would remember them,” Caruthers said. “But now, here we are 40 years later, and people are still talking about it.”