Bhagwan and Sheela
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh drives one of his Roll-Royces as Ma Anand Sheela walks alongside in this photo from The Oregonian archives.

He was a war hero in the Second World War, coming home to Oregon with a Silver Star and four Bronze Stars. He was one of the greatest track and field coaches of the 20th century – coaching his University of Oregon track and field teams to four NCAA titles, and over 30 Olympians. He would go on to co-found a company that would possess one of the greatest brands today – Nike.

Bill Bowerman was a giant in the world of sports.

And has been revealed in an amazing Netflix documentary series – Wild Wild Country – he was also an activist, standing tall in the face of a religious commune that tried to buy and build its way into a quiet farming and ranching community in central Oregon.

In 1981, a 64,000 acre plot of land called the Big Muddy Ranch was sold to an organization affiliated with Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the leader of a religious movement founded in Pune, India. The organizers, led by charismatic secretary to the Bhagwan, Ma Anand Sheela, informed Margaret Hill, the mayor of Antelope, the closest town to Big Muddy Ranch, that the commune would have no more than 40 people employed on the ranch.

But in just a few years, the Rajneeshee’s built a small town literally from the ground up. According to the book, Bowerman and the Men of Oregon, by Kenny Moore, a growing group of red-clad sannyasin (followers) cleared 3,000 acres of Big Muddy, grew fruit, wheat and vegetables, raised cows and chickens, built a dam, a 40-acre reservoir and an irrigation system, a power sub-station, a sewage system, a phone system, a runway for their airplanes, and a transportation system of 85 school buses.

True, they used 50 million dollars in contributions from its 200,000 worldwide followers, but their Rancho Rajneesh was a labor of love for the sannyasin, and an incredible achievement. And so proud were they about their creation, they were willing to fight to keep it.

However, the Oregonians living near and around Rancho Rajneesh were concerned about the strange religious “cult” that had invaded their quiet part of the world. Bowerman’s son, Jon, owned land bordering on Rancho Rajneesh. And over time, the Rajneeshee’s would ensure their safety by beefing up their security.

“They had armed guards watching us here constantly,” Jon would recall, “with big spotting scopes by day, searchlights by night. It was like being watched by the East German border guard in Berlin. The lights were as bright as 747 landing lights, and periodically they would shine them at our house.”

Bill Bowerman
Bill Bowerman

At first stunned at the scale of Rancho Rajneesh, and the brashness of their denizens, local citizens began to push back. Bill Bowerman, who was constantly in conversation with state and local authorities regarding the ongoings of the Rajneeshpuram, decided to form a non-profit organization, Citizens for Constitutional Cities, that raised funds to legally oppose the Rajneeshees. In his press release, he laid down the gauntlet.

My ancestors have lived in Oregon since 1845. My son Jon is a rancher in Wheeler County. Bowermans past, present, and future are deeply committed to this state. Thousands like me have become concerned about the effect this group has had on its neighbors. As an educator and coach at the University of Oregon, I have always welcomed and encouraged new ideas and diverse people to come and live in this great state, irrespective of race, creed, national origin, or religion.

Citizens for Constitutional Cities is going to monitor the activities of the Rajneeshee and challenge them in court if necessary to avoid the creation of unlawful cities in this state and protect our citizens from harassment and intimidation in violation of Oregon and United States Constitutions.

In the statement, Bowerman includes phrasing to diminish the idea that his organization was about religious discrimination, which the Rajneeshee’s claimed was the case.

As the documentary powerfully shows, the bigger issues may have been attempts by certain leaders within the Rajneeshees to win power in local municipalities in order to ensure their legal status as a city. According to the documentary, their tactics included importing people (primarily homeless people from across America) to vote on their behalf, harassment, mass poisoning, and attempted murder.

In the end, the Rajneeshees failed to convince the authorities that they were victims of religious discrimination. On the contrary, they were found to have violated the US Constitution’s directive to ensure separation of “Church and State,” as the incorporated entity of Rancho Rajneesh did not appear to clearly separate government leadership from religious leadership.

Bowerman was in the middle of this constitutional fight, and as he had done his entire life, he won.

I heavily encourage you to watch Wild, Wild Country.

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collett-and-matthews-1972-munich-olympics
Wayne Collett (left) and Vince Matthews (Associated Press/File 1972)

They stood there casually, one barefoot, hands on hips, the other in thoughtful repose, right hand stroking the chin. You would think they were waiting for the bus.

But Wayne Collett and Vince Matthews were actually standing on the winners podium at the 1972 Munich Olympics, their medals for their silver and gold medal finishes in the 400 meter sprint around their necks, and the American national anthem playing.

Avery Brundage, the president of the International Olympic Committee, viewed the behavior of Collett and Matthews as abhorrent and immediately banned them from the Olympic Games. This may have seemed like déjà vu to Brundage as he had made the same decision four years earlier in Mexico City, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos accepted their medals after the 200 meter finals, and raised their black-gloved fists into the air, reflecting their anger at the state of race relations in America.

The day after Brundage’s decision to kick Collett and Matthews out of the Munich Olympic Village, a white bed sheet was suspended from the windows of the American team’s dormitory. According to Ollan Cassell in his book Inside the Five Ring Circus, the bed sheet read, “Down with Brundage”. Cassell reveals that the person who dropped this flag of protest was Vince Matthews.

The head coach of the US track team at the 1972 Munich Olympics was Bill Bowerman, the legendary coach at the University of Oregon. With Smith injured and Collett and Matthews suspended, he knew he would not be able to field a 4X400 relay team. Clearly the men would have been a near-lock for gold if not for the suspensions. According to Kenny Moore’s book, Bowerman and the Men of Oregon, Bowerman was upset with the behavior of Collett and Matthews, but he did not believe they deserved to be suspended.

“Matthews and Collett made asses of themselves,” as Bill would put it, “jiving around and talking, giving the impression they didn’t want to be ramrod straight. That was unfortunate but no big deal. I felt they hadn’t meant to be disrespectful during the anthem. Jesse Owens talked with them afterward and felt the same. He was arranging for them to apologize, but before they could, Brundage had Matthews and Collett suspended and sent from the Village.”

“You cannot expect on an Olympic squad of sixty to have everybody act like army privates,” Bill said later. “They’re great athletes. They’re great individuals. The fact that some of them did things that the press objected to didn’t bother me too much. They’re vivid, alive, human animals. They’re keenly interested, very competitive, and all different. So why not accept that and enjoy it?”

bill-bowerman-at-heyward-field-in-oregon
Bill Bowerman at Hayward Field in Oregon

So Bowerman said he would talk to Brundage the next day and see if an apology might convince Brundage to change his mind. Bowerman did meet with Brundage, and despite the fact that Palestinian terrorists had just broken into the Olympic Village and taken Israeli athletes hostages, Bowerman and Brundage were able to manage a discussion on Collett and Matthews. And as related in Bowerman’s biography, Brundage accepted Bowerman’s apology on behalf of his athletes and accepted their reinstatement on condition that the USOC agreed.

Bowerman, and his partner in this negotiation, Jesse Owens, rushed to a gathering of USOC members to tell them the wonderful news, that Brundage had actually reversed his decision and that all they needed was USOC’s endorsement. But Bowerman was surprised to learn that more than the IOC, the USOC was even more outraged, and had already voted to support Brundage’s original decision to kick Collett and Matthews out of the Olympics. According to the Bowerman bio, the presiding officer of the USOC, Clifford Buck gave as rationale, “Well, they insulted the American flag.”

And so, Collett and Matthews were suspended and the heavily favored 4X400 relay team never made it on the track.

Years later in 1992, Collett told the Los Angeles Times the following:

“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.’’