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.

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John Cooper Robbie Brightwell Adrian Metcalfe Tim Graham, from the book Robbie Brightwell and His Golden Girl

He could sense the ghosts of Rome with him. Robbie Brightwell, just 17, crashed out of the 400 meters in the semi-finals at the 1960 Summer Olympics. He ran so hard in the first 200 meters that he didn’t have the strength to fight effortlessly through an expected crosswind around the bend.

Brightwell, returning to the 400 meters at the 1964 Tokyo Games as the captain of Great Britain’s athletics squad, was determined to do better. And this time, he made it to the final eight. But the ghosts of Rome stuck to Brightwell like the thick humidity of the Tokyo air. The ghosts whispered doubts into Brightwell’s ears, and the 21-year-old from Shropshire could not help by listen. Here’s how he describes his moment of truth in his autobiography, Robbie Brightwell and His Golden Girl:

Something wasn’t right in my head. The burning flame to win was waning. Instead, a terrible foreboding gripped me, akin to the terror of being buried alive. I was suffering the onset of ‘choking’. It was like acid eating away at my resolve. It’d started during our tunnel walk. One moment I was okay, the next swamped by fear.

Brightwell was actually in third, behind eventual gold medalist Mike Larrabee and silver medalist Wendell Mottley, going into the home stretch. But when he saw Larabee blast into a five-meter lead, something broke within Brightwell. “A wave of hopelessness swept over me. My oxygen and glucose banks were empty, and I was running on despair.”

And despite being in third, he meekly allowed the Polish sprinter, Andrzej Badeński, to pass him for the bronze medal.

I felt disconsolate. What hurt most wasn’t the fact that I’d been beaten, but rather that I’d failed myself. At the critical moment, the demons in my head had taken over. That was an unforgivable sin. I hated myself. After years of training and seismic setbacks, I’d fallen into the fathomless Pit of Doubt. Idiot!

And yet, it is not how we lose or fail, it is how we react to loss or failure that shows what we are truly made of. Redemption, in the 4×400 meter relay, was only two days away for Brightwell.

While the Americans were favored to win this competition, as they featured the 400-meter gold medalist Mike Larrabee and the 200-meter gold medalist Henry Carr, Team GB was a strong medal candidate. Tim Graham, Adrian Metcalfe, 400-meter hurdler silver medalist John Cooper and Brightwell as the anchor had already run the fastest team time in the heats.

But the finals brought the best in the world together for winner take all.

Great Britain was in the outside lane, which meant that in this staggered start, leadoff runner, Graham, could not see anyone in front of him. And yet he ran well and passed the baton to Metcalfe, who was going so fast in the first 100 meters that Brightwell worried if he could last. In fact, Metcalfe drew first blood, grabbing the inside lane and the lead.

Metcalfe was up against the 400-meter champion Larabee, who powered ahead, as did Kent Barnard of Trinidad and Tobago. Metcalfe handed the baton to Cooper, who strained to keep up with American Ulis Williams and Trinidadian Edwin Roberts. Cooper’s head wagged as he dashed towards Brightwell, but was passed by the Jamaican Mal Spence.

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From the book Robbie Brightwell and His Golden Girl

Just when Cooper was about to hand the baton to Brightwell, Williams of the USA slapped the baton into Carr’s hand, and then went sprawling to the cinder track. Brightwell grabbed the baton and found himself in fourth with 400 meters to go.

As he writes in his autobiography, Robbie Brightwell and His Golden Girl, this time, he did not allow the moment to swallow him.

Carr, Mottley, and (George) Kerr were travelling at vertiginous speed, and I was falling further behind. I knew they were engaged in a headlong fight to reach the last turn first. That way they could dominate the inside lane, and avoid running extra distance around the turn. Fixing Kerr’s bobbing head in front, I eased fractionally. I mustn’t repeat my Perth mistake. Let him duel with Mottley.

As we scorched the final turn, Carr put in a ferocious kick, pulling away from Mottley who, in responding to his burst of speed, opened a gap between himself and Kerr. Still fourth, I kept close behind the Jamaican, awaiting any sign of weakness. Suddenly, his head began to waggle. The punishing pace was taking its toll. Determination took hold. I attacked, inching alongside him. We were so close our elbows clashed. He drifted behind.

The last 60 meters loomed. Two runners remained in front: Mottley and Carr. Instinctively, I relaxed and fixed the Trinidadian in my sights. My legs, although heavy, continued driving. Then, almost as though watching a slow motion film, Wendell wavered, chopping his stride, and tensing his neck. That was enough to give me encouragement. I slowly inched up to his shoulder. Holding me steadfast was the thought that this would be the last time I’d compete. In the last few meters, I flung myself at the finishing line.

Brightwell did it. He came from way behind to not only secure a medal, but a silver medal. Brightwell had brought his team back from the dead, exorcising ghosts of his own on the way.

Watch the video below from the 1 minute, 30-second mark to see part of this race.

US Men's 4x400 relay team_2
Ulis WIlliams, Henry Carr, Mike Larrabee and Ollan Cassell

The first heat went well. The American 4X400 relay team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics won handily against the Soviet Union and France, finishing a full 2 seconds ahead of the Soviets. Henry Carr led off, followed by Ollan Cassell, Mike Larrabee and Ulis Williams.

Thus, America was favored to take gold. After all, Carr was the gold medalist in the 200 meter finals. Mike Larrabee was the gold medalist in the 400 meter finals. Williams was a finalist and placed fifth in the 400-meter finals, while Cassell nearly qualified for the 400-meter finals.

And yet, Williams was worried. He wasn’t feeling right. He told me that he had run in the LA Times Indoor Track Meet in January of 1964, and had injured himself. “The track was slanted, so I ran in that leaning way you do in indoor tracks and pulled a muscle, right off the bone,” Williams told me. “I really never got back into top shape. I still ran some of my better times, but because I placed fifth in the 400-meter finals the day before, psychologically, I wasn’t sure. I had doubts.”

Williams ran the anchor leg on the team, and in fact had always run the anchor leg in his career. Even at Arizona State University, where he and Carr were teammates on the track team, he had always run anchor. But he was concerned enough to ask the US track coach, Bob Giegengack, to hold a team meeting before the 4X400 relay finals.

“I told the team I was not feeling how I would like to feel, and didn’t feel I was running my best, that I wanted to make sure that we had the best chance to win the gold medal.” In other words, he implied that he might not be the best choice as anchor for the finals and that he would run in any place the coach wanted him to run.

After Williams made that statement, Giegengack asked the others if they had any comments. Williams said that Carr stepped up and said “I don’t care where I run. I am just going to take care of business.” According to Williams, Carr made that statement with such confidence that everyone in the room thought, “With that attitude, you anchor.”

Henry Carr takes 4x400 team to gold_Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha
Henry Carr takes 4×400 team to gold, from the book, Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha

So with the decision to replace Carr with Williams as the anchor, 400-meter champion Larrabee spoke up and said he wanted to run second. According to Williams, it is a common tactic to place your fastest runner second, and so Larrabee thought that he could give a significant lift by building a lead in the first half of the race. With those two decisions, Williams slotted into the third leg, and Cassell took the opening leg.

And the rest is history. Although there was a slight hiccup in one of the exchanges, the Americans won gold in the world record time of 3:00.7 seconds, with Henry Carr blazing to the tape, the team finishing essentially a second faster than the teams from Great Britain and Trinidad and Tobago.

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Ollan Cassell signing the 1964 Tokyo Olympics poster in Rio; from the collection of Ollan Cassell

The doomsayers had their say – the Rio Olympics, under the crushing weight of the poor economy, scandals, environmental and health scares, worries of security, would fail.

Ollan Cassell has seen it all. As a member of the 4X400 US men’s track relay team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, as well as in his role as the executive director of the Amateur Athletic Union, the American governing body for 17 sports in his time, Cassell has been to every Olympics since 1964, excepting the Athens Olympics in 2004.

So when he arrived in Rio, he read all the stories about the problems. He certainly noticed the empty stands. And he put up with the traffic snarls that paralyzed the city during the Games. But Cassell knew that once the Games started, the problems would fade to the background.

The org committee was broke, the country is in a mess. They threw their president out. They didn’t have the finances to get things done. But like all the other Olympics, for the athletes with medals on the line, they‘re ready to compete. Regardless of what the situation is, once the Olympics roll around the athletes are ready. The athletes are focused on competing and wining regardless of what’s going on. When the lights go on, and the gun goes off, the press writes about how great the games are.

And what was the most amazing event Cassell witnessed? “The most spectacular event I saw in Brazil was that 400 meter world record (set by Wayde van Niekerk). I couldn’t imagine anyone could go 43.3 seconds. It’s like going 21.5 for two 200s!”

There were of course fears of security. Cassell was in Mexico City when hundreds were killed as government troops thwarted an anti-government protest prior to the start of the 1968 Olympics. Cassell was in Munich when Palestinian terrorists murdered 11 Israeli Olympians and coaches in 1972. But Cassell felt safe in Rio de Janeiro. Accompanied by his daughter, Cassell played tourist and was comforted by the presence of security.

 

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Ollan Cassell at Christ the Redeemer; from the collection of Ollan Cassell

 

As was true with the world cup in Brazil, there were about 75000 to 80000 soldiers. I felt safe. No one in my group had been robbed or held up. The military was patrolling all the time. When you went out into the streets, sightseeing, you would see the military trucks with open beds and machines guns driving through the area. It was like an armed camp, but you felt safe. They had barriers in the sightseeing areas, big steel barriers the kind police use when they want to direct car and foot traffic into certain area. They were imposing. But that’s been true at all the Games. In London, they had barriers to make sure you went where they wanted you to go.

As for the environmental or health issues, to Cassell, it wasn’t an issue. “I didn’t hear of anyone getting sick because of the water. And I saw only one mosquito, which my granddaughter killed.”

But perhaps, one of the most satisfying parts of an Olympian’s life is to re-connect with the Olympian fraternity.

It’s a special feeling – being an Olympian. There are so few of us compared to the population of the world. In Olympic Villages there are about 10,000 Olympians, which is a select group. In the United States, there are about 5,000 living Olympians, with quite a few in their 90s. So it’s wonderful to see old friends and Olympians at these events.

To read about Ollan Cassell and the history of international sports from the 1960s to the 1990s, read his absorbing book, Inside the Five Ring Circus: Changing Global Sports and the Modern Olympics.

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Hayes Boston Carr in Tokyo _ Getty
Members of the Japanese press interview three US track stars (left to right): Bob Hayes, Ralph Boston and Henry Carr, shortly after the first contingent of the US Olympic team arrived here September 29th; Getty Images

I am enjoying the book, Inside the Five-Ring Circus, by 1964 Olympian, Ollan Cassell, and I recently read this delicious tidbit about double-gold medalist Olympic legend, Bob Hayes.

In 1964, the fastest man in the world in 200 meters was Henry Carr. As Cassell explained, Carr won the US trials for the 200 meters in New York in the Spring. But the US Olympic track and field authorities held a second trial in Los Angeles in the summer, and Carr was unfortunately out of condition, finishing fourth in the trials. Since the top three qualified for the Olympic squad, Carr was unexpectedly off the team.

In stepped Hayes, who happened to finish third in the 200 meters, and had already qualified for Tokyo in the 100 meters. Hayes ceded his spot to Carr on the 200-meter team, and Carr got his motor running, training twice a day to get ready for Tokyo. As Cassell wrote, “everyone on the team was indeed grateful to Bob.”

Inside Five Ring Circus CoverHayes of course went on to take gold in the 100 meters and 4×100 relay in spectacular fashion. But his gracious act continued to pay dividends. Rejuvenated, Carr was looking strong prior to his races, in shape, and ready to win. Not only did Carr set an Olympic record in the 200 meters, he anchored the US men’s 4×400 relay team, blazing to a world record finish.

Perhaps thanks to that fateful decision by Bob Hayes, fellow track mates Mike Larrabee and Henry Carr won their second gold medals of the Tokyo Olympics, while Cassell and teammate Ulis Williams took home gold as well. Wrote Cassell in his book, “standing on the victory podium, receiving a gold medal and watching the USA flag rise on the highest pole made me feel it was all worth it.”

Thanks Bob!

NOTE: In Hayes’ autobiography, “Run, Bullet, Run,” Hayes writes that he indeed did finish third in the trials cited above, but that since Carr had won in the initial trials at Randall’s Island, “(Carr) retained his place on the team, and I was bumped out of a spot in the 200-meter race.” Hayes doesn’t refer to relinquishing his spot (although it still could have been a factor.) 

Ulis Williams stumbles in the 4X400 relay finals_The Olympic Century - XVIII Olympiad - Volume 16
Ulis Williams stumbles handing off the baton to Henry Carr in the 4X400 relay finals_The Olympic Century – XVIII Olympiad – Volume 16

The baton hand off in relay races are critical. The slightest misplay and you lose. The US 4X100 relay team in Rome, which had the fastest time in the finals, was disqualified because of a mis-timed hand off between two runners.

So when you see a picture like the one above, you can imagine only disaster. American Ulis Williams was handing off to anchor Henry Carr in the finals of the 4X400 relay race in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. As Ulis told me, he saw his closest competition fall in behind Williams to get the inside lane. That’s when Williams put on the jets around the curve approaching the exchange lane where the anchor awaited.

“I put on the speed and got five or six yards on him,” Williams explained to me. “Henry (Carr) took off, but he didn’t take off fast enough. He was too close on my approach, and I didn’t want to spike him. I took a chance and leaned forward to give him the baton, so I took a short step, didn’t plant my lead foot. I concentrated so much on handing him the baton that I slammed hard into the ground.”

It was a scary moment for lead runner, Ollan Cassell. “I dragged Ulis off because I didn’t want him to get a DQ for interference.” Williams said he tore the skin right off his upper thigh, but all he remembers is celebrating with his teammates at the finish line.

Carr successfully

TOKYO, JAPAN - OCTOBER 17:  (CHINA OUT, SOUTH KOREA OUT) Henry Carr (2nd L) of United States crosses the finishing line to win the gold medal in the Men's 200m at the National Stadium during the Tokyo Olympic on October 17, 1964 in Tokyo, Japan.  (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)
TOKYO, JAPAN – OCTOBER 17: (CHINA OUT, SOUTH KOREA OUT) Henry Carr (2nd L) of United States crosses the finishing line to win the gold medal in the Men’s 200m at the National Stadium during the Tokyo Olympic on October 17, 1964 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)

In Rome, the US men’s team did not take its customary gold in any of the 100 or 200-meter races. Along with Bob Hayes, Henry Carr returned sprint supremacy to the United States in Tokyo in 1964. Carr won gold in the 200-meter race as well as in the 4X400 relay competition.

Carr passed away on May 29, 2015.

In Tokyo, his running mate on that world-record setting 4X400 team, Ollan Cassell, told me nobody was going to take gold from Carr in the 200. “Mike Larrabee and I were practicing our 200 meter sprints, and Henry wanted to join. I told him that the times were really fast. He was not really dressed for a serious sprint as he was wearing his sweats and fat running shoes with no spikes. The coach even told Henry that he could hurt himself running without spikes. Henry then proceeded to finish ahead of both me and Mike. An Italian 200 meter runner was watching. He realized he would be running for second.”

Carr would go on to