It was the first week of August, 1985. I was in Greece. And it was hot.
On a tour of Europe with some 50 American students ranging in age from 15 to 50, I was tired after half a day in a boat and buses. We had left Corfu, where we got about the beautiful resort island on Vespas, caressed by cool breezes and enchanting vistas. When we arrived in Delphi, close to midnight, the camping grounds were not ready to receive us, so we slept on a gravel lot.
Delphi was home to the Oracle, a priestess of Pythia who consulted to the rich and famous from the 7th century BC to the 4th century BC. But we didn’t visit the Oracle. Perhaps, hot and tired, I didn’t care. We did visit an ancient sports stadium, where the professor leading this band of students arranged foot races for us.
In ancient Greece, the most common foot race was a stade, which is about 200 yards (180 meters), and which was the length of a stadium. Our professor had us race the length of the stadium…and back…essentially the length of four soccer pitches…in the hot August mid-day sun. Two of our number passed out. I don’t recall my race. Maybe I passed out too.
But if I had known then what I knew now, I would have been ecstatic to be there! This was Greece – the birthplace of the Olympics. And Delphi was home to one of four athletic competitions, collectively regarded as the Panhellenic Games:
The Pythian Games: based in Delphi, the Pythian Games were held in honor of Apollo every four years – this was the location where Apollo was said to slay a monstrous python.
The Nemean Games: based in the northeastern part of the Peloponnese, Nemea is where the Nemean Lion lurked, slayed by Heracles; the Nemean Games were held biannually in honor of Zeus.
The Isthmian Games: named after the Isthmus of Corinth, a narrow strip of land which connects Peloponnese with the rest of Greece, the Isthmian Games were like the Nemean Games, were held the same two years as the Pythian Games; these games were held in honor of Poseidon.
The Olympian Games: located in an area called Olympia, near the town of Elis on the Peloponnese peninsula, this was the first of the four quadrennial Games, starting in the 8th century BC. Of the four Games, this was the biggest and most prestigious. While the Olympian Games are dedicated to Zeus, it is at the Temple of Hera where the custom of igniting the Olympic flame takes place.
The order of these Games were as follows:
Over time, the word “olympiad” became a unit of time, a four-year period, a historical point of reference no doubt noted by the founder of the modern Olympic Games, Baron de Coubertin.
I cannot explain why I came in sixth place in the 1968 Olympics when the 100 meters was my best event. I could have won that race, and thought I should have. My start was great! I was out in front, but it was like I lost all my momentum and fell way behind.
So wrote Mel Pender in regards to his 100-meter finals at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, as described in his autobiography, Expression of Hope – The Mel Pender Story. In fact, 1968 was in one respect a repeat of 1964 – a sixth place finish in the 100-meter finals. As Pender is painfully aware, there is no acclaim for the Sixth Fastest Man in the World.
But one significant difference between 1968 and 1964 was that at the Tokyo Olympics, Pender was running with a torn muscle in his ribcage, and was hospitalized after the individual 100 meters. In 1968, Pender had one more chance for a medal, as a member of the 4×100 meter relay team. And yet, while he was officially penciled in as the runner of the second leg, there was talk not only of replacing the injured lead-off man, Charlie Greene, but also Pender because of his age and his sixth-place finish in the individual finals.
And then there was the tension of race on Team USA. On October 16, Tommie Smith and John Carlos took first and third place in the 200-meter finals, and more famously, bowed their heads and lifted their fists in protest on the medal stand as the American anthem played. Their silent plea for equality and justice for Blacks in America created in an uproar in Mexico City and around the world. The IOC president, Avery Brundage, banned Smith and Carlos from the Olympic Village, and thus the Games.
As Pender recalled in his autobiography, Brundage “referred to black male athletes as boys. ‘If those boys act up, I’m going to send them home…’ was what he said publicly and privately. When the black athletes heard about this, it was more than we could stand. Remember, in April of 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Tennessee.”
Members of the US track team, particularly black athletes, with the support of their head coach, Stan Wright, protested Brundage’s decision. But Pender, and other members of the US military had an extra burden, told in no uncertain terms that they “could not be part of the demonstrations based on the oath of service we took.”
So, for Pender, Mexico City was not just a sports event, and the 4×100 meter relay was not just a race. It was to Pender, perhaps, an expression of hope, an opportunity to shine a spotlight of achievement for black Americans, and a shot at redemption for the five-foot-five man from Lynnwood Park. The 4×100 relay, an event of immense speed that requires split-second precision in the baton hand offs, was America’s to win or lose.
I took my position on the oval track, awaiting the baton from leadoff man Charlie Greene. Charley ran the first leg, and when he handed the baton to me, we were trailing a bit. Passing the baton was clean. I was in a good Lane; I think was the third lane. It was without those curves that you made you feel like you’re running sideways. I ran the second leg, which proved to be the fastest of the four, and gave our team the lead. When I pass the baton to Ronnie Ray, he did his job, and we maintained the lead. When Ronnie Ray handed off the baton, Jim Hines brought it home.
Greene, Pender, Ray and Hines set a new world record of 38.24 seconds.
American sprinter, Trent Jackson, easily won his 100-meter heat at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Mel Pender qualified with ease. Jackson won his quarter0final heat as well, while Pender tied for first in his, and thus they both made the top 16, and joined favorite, Bob Hayes, in the semi-final heats.
For some reason, Jackson had his worst time, and did not come close to making the final 8. Pender finished fourth in his semi-final heat, barely qualifying for the finals. And he looked ugly in the process, tumbling to the cinder track in pain. Bob Hayes noted in his autobiography, Run, Bullet, Run, that Pender was carted off on a stretcher.
As Pender reveals in his autobiography, Expression of Hope – The Mel Pender Story, he had torn muscles around his rib cage, which created intense pain when he ran. How did he get the injury? It’s one of those inexplicable things you hear every so often – meaningless horseplay. Pender told me that he and his friend, Trent Jackson, were “messing around…when he punched me in the stomach. We were just messing around, but it caused some internal bleeding. This was right after the first race and before the semi finals.”
He said that a doctor had given him injections to kill the pain, and advised Pender not to run. On the verge of the 100-meter finals to declare the fastest man in the world, there was no way Pender was going to disqualify himself just because he was in pain around the chest. In fact, when Hayes said to Pender, “Hey shorty, you’re just going to watch my behind,” Pender put on a brave face, and replied, “better watch mine.”
According to Hayes, he went up to Pender in lane 8 just before the start of the finals and said, “‘Mel, I ain’t saying good luck to nobody to beat me, but I hope I finish first and you finish second. ‘Mel turned to me and said, ‘I’m finishing first and you finish second.’ Mel and I both knew he didn’t have a chance because of the his injury, and he showed fantastic courage just by running with the pain he had.”
So Pender ran. Stationed in the outside lane, Pender shot out of the blocks. But all attention quickly shifted to the innermost lanes where Bob Hayes and Enrique Figuerola were pulling away. Of course, as you can see in this video, Hayes continues to pull away to win the gold, tying the world and Olympic records of 10 seconds flat.
Pender finished in sixth. According to a October 20, 1964 article in the US Military newspaper, Stars and Stripes, the Army sergeant was devastated.
I promised my wife and daughter I’d bring them home a gold medal. If there would have been more time between the semi-finals and the finals of the 100, I think I could have won it. In the last run I just couldn’t get that little kick. I was in front of Jerome (Harry Jerome of Canada) and Figuerola (Enrique Figuerola, Cuba) at about 70 meters mark when the pain got so bad that I lost stride and didn’t know if I could make it to the finish line.
Pender was quoted as saying that he hoped his coach would allow him to run in the 4×100 meter relay, which I believe would have been unlikely the condition he was in. “I’d run from here (the hospital in Tachikawa) to the Olympic Village if they’ll just give me the opportunity to compete.”
It wasn’t quite as slow as watching water boil. But it was certainly more exciting!
Orville Rogers faced off against Dixon Hemphill in the 60-meter dash at the USATF Masters Indoor Track & Field Championships in Albuquerque, New Mexico on February 18, 2017. Rogers trailed Hemphill for most of the race, but Rogers caught Hemphill in the last 10 meters to win by 0.05 seconds in an amazing finish.
The world record in the 60-meter sprint is 6.39 seconds, held by American Maurice Greene. Roger’s winning time was 18 seconds flat. That’s right 18. But there is a good reason for this slow race. Hemphill is 99 years old. And he beat a relative whipper snapper in Hemphill, who is only 92.
Here’s how SB Nation described the above video: “What makes this video so great is the fact it’s so much slower than what we’re used to seeing. You might blink three times when Usain Bolt tears down the track, but watching a sprint unfold over 18 seconds is compelling.”
Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong had to overcome the challenge of being Black in America, and discovered in their trips to Europe that their talent was far more significant than their color. Over 100,000 African Americans were sent to Europe to fight during World War I. After the war, a large number stayed, feeding the fascination for jazz music that began to fill the most popular clubs in Paris. In Europe, blacks were viewed not as inferiors, but as individuals. And jazz artists were revered.
Two-time Olympian, Mel Pender, is African American, has been subject to subtle and overt discrimination throughout his life in Georgia and in the US military. His autobiography, Expression of Hope – The Mel Pender Story, is peppered with such anecdotes. He joined the US military which had just begun de-segregation, in advance of the Supreme Court ruling for schools to end de-segregation between whites and blacks. So Pender had expected an even higher respect for meritocracy and equality in the Army. And yet, he remembers his first trip on the bus en route to basic training. The bus stopped for lunch. The whites went in the restaurant through the front door, and the blacks through a side door. Pender silently fumed.
I would not get off the bus to use the bathroom, I guess in protest, so needless to say I suffered the remainder of my ride to Fort Jackson. Naively perhaps, I thought that when I joined the army, despite the color of my skin, I would be treated the same as any other soldier. Again, I would ask the question why? I thought I could do the same as whites and be given respect as a soldier, ready and willing to fight and die for this country.
Pender recalled another time in America , just before shipping out to Okinawa, when he was a part of an integrated, racially mixed troop of soldiers who were taking leave for different parts of the country. He and his colleagues, all of whom were white, decided it would be faster to hitchhike to Atlanta than wait for a bus. When they got to the highway, they suddenly waved good bye to Pender saying “we’ll see you later!”
The soldiers walked off down the road, leaving me behind. I guess they felt that they would not get picked up being with a black person. Well, I wasn’t sure what to do next. It was pitch dark out, raining, and frankly I was scared.
When Pender arrived in Okinawa, Japan, in 1960, he had no reason to expect any different treatment from the Japanese. But as it turned out, Pender had, quite unexpectedly, a “Black American in Paris” experience. He couldn’t believe how wonderful the people were.
It was a completely different world to any previous experience I had gone through. The people were hard-working, intelligent, and very polite. This was the first time a group of people had shown me so much respect. It was new to me, and I loved it. For the first time I felt free as I interacted with them. The shackles of stereotypes and expectations of prejudice melted away, and I felt really good about myself. I quickly realized that the absence of racial barriers with these people was the reason for my feeling of well-being, acceptance, and almost happy self-abandonment.
As mentioned in Part 1, Pender discovered that he had a talent for sprinting. When he emerged victorious in a track meet between US military athletes and Japanese athletes training for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, he was asked to compete in the inner-service competitions, where he was crowned champion in 100- and 200-yards. His commanding officer rewarded Pender with seven days of “R and R” (rest and relaxation) in Yokohama – the so-called mainland!
That’s where Pender found his muse. He was enjoying his time in Yokohama immensely where “the people on the mainland were even nicer.” And on his last day, he and his friends went to the NCO Club where he met a Japanese lady named Monako Yamamoto. Pender was bewitched, telling me “I was in love. She was beautiful.” He said that Yamamoto said the Olympics would be in Tokyo in 1964, so Pender promised that he would then make the team and be back to see her for the Olympics. In fact, as he wrote in his book, Pender knew very little of the Olympics at that time.
She smiled and said, we will see. Well I did not know much about the Olympics or the track team, and I had no idea how to even go out about getting onto the team. I just knew that I wanted to come back to Japan, one way or the other. Overseas was great because we were not black or white, just Americans.
Japan gave Pender a vision of what a life of equality and mutual respect would feel like. But Pender also knew that the potential was always there in America. Back to Pender’s story, about being abandoned by his fellow white soldiers at the highway, in the dark, in the rain. Eventually, a black driver picked Pender up and drove him to a nearby gas station where he hoped to catch a bus. Still alone, he sat there wondering how he was going to get home, when a car pulled up.
Well, I sat down to wait, and to my surprise, a car pulled up full of white guys: “You need a ride?” the driver yelled out?
“I’m going to Atlanta,” I told him.
“Hop in!” he said, and they took me all the way to Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta. Now these guys also were in the military, and they did not know me, yet they were kind enough to look out for me. But the same guys I had spent every day with, that I would have to fight side by side with, face life-and-death situations with, deserted me as soon as civilian streets beckoned.
What happened was ironic, but at the same time, the end result of the incident was inspiring. There is always reason to hope, to believe that change for the better is possible. You see, I believe that as long as there are some good people in this world, then good decent principles will win out over the bad ones, even if it takes time. Patience is a virtue, and hope for progress in human relations is a necessary first ingredient for anyone who dreams of a better future in a better society.
When Mel Pender passed the baton to Ronnie Ray Smith, Pender had done his job. He was a captain in the US Army, and a reliable leader. And that’s what he did. He put his team in the lead, and his teammates did the rest. Pender, with Charlie Greene, Ray and Jim Hines, won the gold medal in the 4×100 meter relay at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. With a time of 38.24 seconds, the Americans set a world record.
Pender’s close friend, Greene, was 23 years old. Ray was the kid at 19. Hines was 22. But Pender was nearly 31 when he finally won his gold medal, an old man by sprinter’s standards. While many athletes in the United States who approach world-class speeds got their start in track in high school or earlier, Pender never got those opportunities, growing up economically disadvantaged in Lynnwood Park, a community in Decatur, Georgia.
The first time Pender ever ran competitively was at the age of 25, in Okinawa of all places. It was 1960, and Pender had been sent to the American army base in the western-most islands of the Japanese archipelago. When officers noticed the speedy halfback on the Army Ranger football team, one of them ordered Pender to participate in a friendly competition between the American military and Japanese athletes training for the Olympics.
As Pender explained in his recently released autobiography, Expression of Hope – The Mel Pender Story, he hadn’t a clue. “Coach, what are you talking about? Run track? I asked. I never ran track in my life! I wouldn’t know the first thing to do? I continued.” Pender writes that when he first saw track shoes for the first time, with the long spikes and the flapping tongue, he thought they were “ugly, ugly, ugly.”
But that was the beginning of a new life for then Sgt Pender, who would go on to compete at both the 1964 and 1968 Olympic Games.
According to Mexico City teammate and 200-meter bronze medalist John Carlos, what Pender accomplished was “phenomenal”.
For him to do what he did at his age was exceptional! Mel was twenty-seven years old in 1964 and thirty-one in 1968. The competition we faced then was beyond world class, and everything he received is very much deserving. I was twenty, I think. We ran against each other in meets, and with each other in meets, all over the world. I don’t know of many, or anyone, who accomplished what he did in that day and time in history.
There is little doubt the politics of fear – fear of different, fear of crime, fear of Muslims – have infected the tinier crannies of our lives these days.
At times, it appears that fear trumps common sense.
Being the son of perhaps the most famous sports icon in the world does not inoculate one from the human conditions triggered by this fear. Muhammad Ali Jr., son of the eponymous boxer whose name very few adults would not know, was detained on March 10 before boarding a flight from Reagan National Airport in Washington D. C. to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Ali was asked for his date of birth, his social security number, and where he was born despite handing a JetBlue agent his Illinois identity card. The agent then called Homeland Security. When Ali presented his passport, he was allowed onto the flight.
This was the second time in a month that Ali was detained at an airport, and only a day after Ali had testified at a forum in D. C. regarding President Donald Trump’s immigration policies.
Of course, African Americans have been subject to this fear for centuries. And while race relations have improved visibly and measurably over the decades, one could argue there is still room for improvement. Ali’s story reminded me of the fastest man in the world in 1964, Bob Hayes, who won two gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics. He then came home and signed with the Dallas Cowboys to become a Hall of Fame wide receiver, and one of only two NFL Super Bowl champions who also brought home the gold in an Olympics.
Only a few weeks after Bob Hayes won gold in the 100-meter dash and won national bragging rights to one of the biggest events of the biggest global sports competition, Hayes signed a contract with the Dallas Cowboys on December 8, 1964. This included a six-thousand -dollar Buick Rivera as part of Hayes’ signing bonus. Unfortunately, in the South in the Sixties, a black man driving an expensive car drew the suspicion of the police, regularly. In this account in his autobiography, Run, Bullet, Run, is how Hayes, arguably one of the most famous athletes in America at the time, was treated like a “boy” by local authorities.
That car caused me a little trouble when I got back to school. You see, there weren’t many black kids my age (I turned twenty two less than two weeks after I signed with the Cowboys) driving cars like that in good old Tallahassee. About once a week or so, some of Tallahassee’s finest would stop me and ask, “Boy, whose car is that?” I would tell them it was my car, and they would give me a ticket for anything they felt like – speeding, running a stop sign, driving on white folks’ streets – you name it.
I finally got smart. I went downtown and bought a chauffeur’s black cap and put it in the back seat. Every time the police pulled me over after that asked me whose car I was driving, I would say, “It’s my boss man’s car,” and they would let me go. This was the era when, while driving from Dallas back to Florida, I would pass restaurants all over Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama with signs that read, “No colored” or “Colored around back.” I was good enough to represent their country in the Olympics, but not good enough to eat with them.