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.

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Bob Hayes_number five_Los Angeles Trials_Pathe
Bob Hayes (5) winning the US Track Trials in_Los Angeles_Pathe

It’s simple physics. The fastest you run, the harder it is to turn suddenly. And when you’re built like a freight train, as Bob Hayes was, and the track began curving just at the end of the 100-meter finish line, you either have to turn that curve at top speed, or head straight into a brick wall.

Hayes wasn’t at Rutgers to study physics. It was June 27, 1964, and he was competing in the national championships of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) in New Jersey. Hayes was already anointed Olympic champion in the 100 meters by prognosticators, months before the start of the Games. But he still had to qualify for the US track team heading to Tokyo.

At that time, there were two trials to be held – one in Randall’s Island, NY in July, and the other a couple of months later in Los Angeles, California. But first, Hayes had to negotiate a curve in New Jersey. At the 60-meter mark, Hayes felt a twinge in his left thigh, so he eased up. He still won the race, but he was bearing hard on the brick wall, so he stumbled around the curve, slowing down to a limp.

Bob Hayes with Henry Carr at the US Olympic Trials in LA
Bob Hayes with Henry Carr at the US Olympic Trials in LA_AP_September 9, 1964

Hayes headed right to the training room, got prone face down on the table, and understood fairly quickly, as his trainer picked and probed his leg, that something was wrong. It was indeed a pulled hamstring.

Only 75 days from the Olympics, his hammie had let him down. But Hayes thought that he did not have 75 days to heal. He had only a little over a week to heal before the first Olympic track trials were held during the July 4th weekend. And heal, he did not. At the end of the two-day track trials at Randall’s Island, Hayes could only watch and grimace in pain, both physical and psychological. The flash from Florida had to wait, wondering whether the powers that be would grant him an exception so that he can participate in the second trial in Los Angeles.

The US men’s track coach, Bob Giegengack, strolled alongside Hayes, making small talk, before saying, “We voted to advance you to Los Angeles, Bob.”

So Bullet Bob, dodged a bullet, as it were.

Hayes’ hamstring improved, but he only dared to train with light jogging. And when mid-September and his date with destiny at the final track and field trials rolled around, Hayes was so nervous he could not sleep. He had gained ten pounds and he had yet to go full speed in the recuperation period since the AAU national championships.

And when he was on his way to the Coliseum, the stadium where the Olympic trials were being held, Hayes had a scare. He got in an elevator joined by discus throwers Al Oerter and Jay Silvester, as well as shot put thrower, Dallas Long. As Hayes explained in his autobiography, Run, Bullet, Run, the three of them alone weighed nearly half a ton. The elevator refused to work, and so Hayes, in a hurry to get to his sprinting trials, was waiting nervously for nearly 10 minutes. The doors were eventually clawed open, so that Hayes could pull himself up three feet to get out, and then jogged to the stadium, negotiating highway traffic to the stadium and the trials in time.

Hayes made it in time. When he lined up to race, he saw sprinters whom he had beaten multiple times, but he did not know if his hamstring could take full speed. No time like the present.

When the gun went off, Hayes started somewhat tentatively. But nearly halfway through the race, the locomotive gathered steam. Once Hayes had the lead, it continued to grow. The Bullet blazed to victory in 10.1 seconds.

Thanks to the coaches, Hayes was saved in Randall’s Island to live another day. And Hayes paid back his coaches’ faith in him by drubbing the field. Hayes was headed for Tokyo.

 

Watch Hayes victory in Los Angeles at the 11 second mark of this video.